This week we learned that the longest recession since the end of the Second World War ended last December. I for one am glad somebody shared this fact, because it’s not so obvious from where I sit at the moment. Judging from the fiscal effects on the homeland security and emergency management employment markets, the housing market is not the only part of the economy underwater.
My personal employment situation is far from secure, as I have held a limited-term appointment for the last two years while a colleague served a three-year active duty assignment with the National Guard. With his separation from active service, he will resume his former position at the beginning of October, which leaves me about a month to find new employment while we work together on the transition.
As I have surveyed the homeland security and emergency management employment landscape, a couple of things have become all too readily apparent to me. First, the vast majority of positions on offer at any given time are with federal agencies or contractors. Second, most of these are located in the Washington, DC metro area or at least in the eastern half of the United States. And third, the pay afforded federal employees and many of their contractors is vastly superior to anything on offer at the state or local level, unless of course you work in a unionized police or fire department with tenure-based compensation.
Put simply, emergency management and emergency preparedness pays squat all and you will be hard-pressed to find employment in a federal agency without veterans preference credits, highly specialized skills, a top secret security clearance, a willingness to relocate and good connections. Professional homeland security and emergency management practitioners, especially those at the state and local level, are generally over-educated and under-compensated. Those without educational credentials are often far better paid than those with them, even when work experience is taken into consideration.
This is not the first time these observations have occurred to me. I married a city planner. We met while working for the same city back in the mid-1980s. She quickly made me aware of just how lucky I was to be working for the fire department, where my position afforded me a salary superior to hers despite no educational prerequisites and only comparable experience.
My wife was laid off 15 months ago despite 25 years of experience and a graduate education. She has had one interview for a position since then. Prospects for her re-employment as a city planner are bleak to non-existant. And no one seems willing to look beyond her previous job titles or the duration of her unemployment to see the skills she offers in terms of strategic thinking, public engagement, business process development and project management.
In light of current economic conditions, I am, of course, concerned that I may soon join my wife among the ranks of the long-term unemployed. But I am also concerned that the situation, if indeed we are in some sort of a long, slow recovery, has not been accompanied by the sort of strategic realignment necessary to improve efficiencies and accountability for outcomes in the future that should have become evident to all as a result of the collapse that precipitated it. And this should be a very real concern to anyone committed to the homeland security enterprise for many reasons.
Chief among these is the evidence that our so-called recovery will exacerbate social and economic tensions that pit the haves against the have-nots. Income inequality remains at unprecedented levels and is increasing even as the ranks of those in poverty increase. This creates ideal conditions for radicalization, which is already far too apparent in our domestic political discourse as well as our international relations and security situation.
The second problem this poses is the tendency to centralize expertise and capability for generating and implementing solutions far away from the sources of the problems. Failing to engage and develop local capability remains a significant vulnerability, especially since so many of the investments made in recent years have gone to already “fat” agencies and the production of paper plans that largely sit on shelves collecting dust. Efforts to slim these agencies down as the fiscal crisis dragged on have led to cuts of brain and muscle leaving the fat largely intact.
The strong tendency to preserve the status quo ante leaves many pressing problems unaddressed. Not the least of these is the need to diversify the ranks of our public safety forces so they can more effectively engage the communities they serve. (Why is it such a large percentage of the adverse impact employment discrimination cases reaching the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years originated in fire service agencies?)
I interviewed with a fire department just last week that serves a community where the Hispanic/Latino population is approaching 20 percent. Of their 400 or so uniformed staff, four are women and only one is Hispanic. In the city where I live and work, the vast majority of rank and file public safety staff in the police and fire departments live far outside the city they protect despite making a median salary more than twice the median wage. In other words, we are exporting our wealth and importing skills required to supply essential services.
These signs suggest that homeland security and emergency management are in retreat rather than advancing. Police and fire service agencies and their unions are setting the agenda at state and local levels while the federal agenda remains focused inside the Beltway and on staying off of the front pages of the few remaining national newspapers.
If making our country safe is about the decisions we make today to produce a better future for ourselves and others, we should think very seriously about the strategies informing this situation. Judging by the investments we are making (or not) in local expertise, capabilities and evaluation we may well have things back-to-front.