Competition Puts New Emphasis On Adding a Degree to Your Resume

When Jim Clack decided it was time to change jobs, the former Minneapolis, MN, fire chief applied to the Baltimore City, MD, Fire Department. He brought with him 22 years of experience — including being unified incident commander in 2007 of the I-35W...


When Jim Clack decided it was time to change jobs, the former Minneapolis, MN, fire chief applied to the Baltimore City, MD, Fire Department. He brought with him 22 years of experience — including being unified incident commander in 2007 of the I-35W bridge collapse that killed 13 people — and a...


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When Jim Clack decided it was time to change jobs, the former Minneapolis, MN, fire chief applied to the Baltimore City, MD, Fire Department. He brought with him 22 years of experience — including being unified incident commander in 2007 of the I-35W bridge collapse that killed 13 people — and a bachelor's degree. The applicant pool, for the most part, had the experience, but lacked Clack's educational credentials. And for the first time in its 150-year history, Baltimore City hired a chief from outside the department.

"I'm sure I did well in the interview too," Clack says. But in the past, the city had not perceived higher education as an important criterion for selecting a chief. "It gave me the opportunity to lead this great department."

Clack sees higher education as a vehicle for providing more mobility for individuals changing departments and seeking a better career outlook. "I'm a good example of that. That didn't used to happen in the fire service," he says. Yet as the forces of supply and demand eventually even out the degreed personnel, is there any inclination in government hiring managers showing any sustained growth? The evidence is anecdotal to some extent, depending with whom one speaks.

"I think you need more education as you go up in an organization," Clack says. "It's as simple as being able to write well, a talent lacking in the fire service. Higher education, for one thing, requires you to be able to write clearly. At a minimum, officers should have at least a two-year degree and chief officers need a bachelor's degree. If a chief does not stay up with (his or her educational challenges), he risks his folks missing out."

To debunk the notion that higher education is merely a tool of mobility and as evidence that it really is a movement anchored in the Baltimore City Fire Department, Clack is clear.

"I'm promoting higher education so I will be the last chief this department will hire from outside," Clack says. "We are fully reimbursing tuition…all the way down through the ranks. I'm requiring all appointed chief officers to go to school — no matter what level of college they have. I'm telling them they have to take one course per semester. You have to be always learning, always involved in some form of education. So when I leave several years from now, there will be a number of people who will be qualified to lead this department."

The city has had the means to send its members to college, but it had largely been ignored. "The tuition reimbursement program was in place before I got here; it just wasn't being used," Clack says. "It will be a challenge to find the money as people jump in. And there will always be a resistance to change (as we move toward higher education). Changing this will take a little time and trust."

Who Benefits

"The citizens are the end beneficiaries of higher education," Clack says. "All the other department heads in the city, on the mayor's cabinet, are college educated. For me to come to the table without a degree puts me at a disadvantage among my peers — for things like budget — and being able to articulate the value of our service both verbally and in writing for decision makers. This is critical."

In contrast, Boston, MA, Fire Chief Ronald Keating says his department of 1,450 members does not have a program or incentives to enable employees to attend college, nor is one envisioned. "The city had a plan for tuition reimbursement, but its budget is in dire straits," he says.

"I would be in favor of the upper ranks going to the National Fire Academy and getting the EFO (Executive Fire Officer) designation," says Keating, who was appointed as chief in March 2009. His department does not require a degree to hold its top leadership posts. He explains that the Boston Fire Department has a history of promoting from within, and his recent appointment is no exception.

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