Emergency management degree programs have been popping up at universities throughout the U.S. over the last decade. But are the degrees actually helping students get jobs? The answer is still unclear, but signs point to academic expertise having a more significant impact in the emergency management workplace moving forward.
For years, career public safety officers have filled the role of emergency manager. But as emergency management continues to establish itself as a profession, the different skill sets being introduced in college programs have created a stark dividing line between the old guard and the new.
As regions look to expand their emergency programs, experts believe many counties and municipalities will need the project management and collaborative abilities that students are developing in the classroom.
Sarah Miller, emergency preparedness manager of Auburn, Wash., said she’s seeing more degree-holders score entry-level emergency management positions and would hire a candidate with an emergency management degree over a police officer or firefighter. She reasoned that while each situation and set of experiences is unique, all things being equal, there is a different mindset to emergency management versus law enforcement.
Miller — who is also an adjunct instructor for Jacksonville State University’s online emergency management degree program — believes candidates with emergency management degrees are more attractive because they tend to know a little bit about a variety of topics, instead of being an expert in one area. She said that from physical and social sciences to public administration, an emergency manager’s role is broader than what most people realize.
“Police chiefs without emergency management experience do not understand what emergency management is,” Miller said. “Cops have a command and control overview of things, and emergency management is not about command and control. It is about coordination and collaboration.”
Miller added that while the mindset generalization she described doesn’t apply to everyone, it could be a difficult transition for law enforcement lifers who are used to being in control, as opposed to career project managers and college students familiar with multiple disciplines.
Scott Preston, business, academic and research continuity manager with the University of Washington’s Emergency Management Department, said more preference is now being given to job candidates with targeted emergency management degrees. He said employers are becoming more aware of what the degree provides a student, which has ratcheted up competition for positions.
“If I can find someone who maybe is not a career firefighter, police officer or military, but they have a strong project management understanding, that is absolutely a strong candidate for emergency management,” Preston said.
Experience and Networking
Similar to other professions, an emergency management degree by itself typically won’t result in immediate employment after graduation. Experts agree that while a college education is important, balancing academia with some practical experience is the key to securing an entry-level position.
North Dakota State University’s (NDSU) Emergency Management Department requires its students to have an internship before they’re eligible to graduate. Carol Cwiak, undergraduate coordinator for the department and a graduate of the department’s Ph.D. program, said it’s made a difference for students’ hiring prospects.
On average, NDSU has about 30 graduates from its undergraduate and graduate emergency management programs each year. According to Cwiak, approximately 75 percent are landing emergency management jobs, and that number has grown steadily over the past few years.
Cwiak admitted, however, that NDSU may not be a good representation of those attaining emergency management degrees. Many degree holders come from online universities. NDSU is a brick-and-mortar school, which may be weighted higher by an employer looking to hire for an entry-level position.
Lucien Canton, a private consultant, believes that while education has become increasingly important, for employers there’s still no substitute for practical experience. He recalled that a few years ago, San Francisco was looking to recruit a director of emergency services. The first requirement was that an individual have 10 years of police, fire or emergency medical experience.
“Part of the problem is that young kids that are looking for a job aren’t being recognized for bringing in new skills,” Canton said. “I always suggest to them that while they are doing their thing in college that they look at internships and volunteer work to get some experience and make them a little more competitive.”