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.
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.”
In addition to his position with the University of Washington’s Emergency Management Department, Preston helps teach a graduate emergency management course. He’s found that the students who usually get jobs are the ones who have taken the time to pursue some practical experience in addition to their degree.
Getting that experience can be difficult for some students, particularly the ones who work full time in another career field.
Even if it’s just volunteering once a week in something that can loosely translate over to the field, experts said it could help bolster job prospects for emergency management students. Positions in public health, project management and cybersecurity are a few of the experiences that can help set a college graduate apart from his or her competitors and help develop practical skills related to an emergency management degree.
Michael Martinet, a recently retired emergency planning manager for San Francisco, said networking is just as vital to a student’s job prospects. He recalled seeing a number of retired police and fire personnel getting emergency management jobs because of the contacts they have in certain jurisdictions.
Martinet urged college students to make an effort to build relationships in municipalities through internships and volunteer work. He said a lot of jobs are not going to young people with emergency management degrees because they are getting swallowed up by other professionals before they even get posted.
Preston added that University of Washington emergency management students are told straight up that a degree is great, but won’t be sufficient to land a job.
“If you don’t know how to network and you’re only looking for posted job openings, then you are cutting yourself out of about 80 percent of what is actually available,” Preston said. “That is why we encourage people to get some practical experience, pursue the degree and develop your networking skills.”
For the most part, experts think the future is bright for emergency management degree holders. Miller believes that at a minimum, getting a degree in emergency management will give job seekers a competitive edge when combined with volunteer or internship experience. She also encouraged students to research the degree they intend to pursue.
Degree programs can vary with some tailored toward specific situations. Miller expects that to continue, particularly as the emergency management field has radically changed since 2001. In addition, people who already have degrees in another field may find it more useful to pursue a graduate certificate in emergency management, or a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) credential, as opposed to working toward an additional degree.
Preston supports the CEM process, but said emergency managers needed some kind of legally supported and mandated licensing program to practice, similar to doctors and lawyers. He believes the lack of standards and a clear track from high school to emergency manager has a negative impact on the profession.
“We see these unfortunately at times awful examples of incident management where the person means well, but they have simply never gone through the training or they don’t have the right kind of experience and yet they still call themselves an emergency manager,” Preston said.
The usefulness of emergency management degrees will vary depending on how jurisdictions view their emergency management programs. Traditionally someone with field experience was adequate to draft an emergency plan. But as programs expand to include risk mitigation and community outreach, broader skill sets are required, which opens the doors for college graduates.
Cwiak agreed. She said one thing the emergency management profession needs to work on is figuring out how to classify positions and control entry into the field. But higher education emergency management programs are still relatively young, so it’s likely just a matter of time before college degrees make a significant impact on the industry.
“I think that we are seeing better students that are more highly valued by those in the field and we are getting there; it is just a matter of everybody growing into themselves,” Cwiak said. “I have a positive outlook toward jobs. It’s just a matter of building better relationships between our students and those who are out in the field.”