Higher Education: Making Education Part of Your Backup Plan

Michael Charter didn’t originally decide to get an education because he loved school. As a new firefighter, fresh out of the military, he was initially motivated to pursue a degree because he wanted to make sure he had a solid back-up plan. “If...


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For example, if you are assigned to the arson unit, it is important to learn about investigations. Getting a certificate degree in criminal justice may be extremely beneficial as you will learn the techniques and terminology of law enforcement. Similarly, someone is in the hazardous materials response unit may want to pursue a certificate in environmental science, which may provide insight into the field as well as make one more marketable when transitioning to another career.

When you find something that strikes your interest, a college degree can take it to the next level.

“Formal degrees can help bridge experience and expertise,” said Anthony Mangeri, who is also an assistant professor at AMU, and has a master’s degree in public administration. Mangeri combined his 25 years of field experience and training as a volunteer firefighter and EMT with formal education to help him transition to emergency management and eventually into teaching.

“You have to realize that you are building yourself into a career where you’re expected to be dynamic,” Mangeri said. “You have to understand field operations, write and think critically, and you have to be able to interact with a variety of stakeholders so you must have those communication skills.”

 

Applying education directly to your career

James McLaughlin has learned firsthand how critical it is to develop expertise and skills beyond technical training. McLaughlin has been a firefighter for 25 years in the Warwick, RI, Fire Department, a 215-person department. He worked his way up to battalion chief and was recently promoted to assistant fire chief. Education played a very significant role in his career advancement and also gave McLaughlin the knowledge and confidence to take on such leadership roles.

He was initially inspired to go back to school soon after becoming battalion chief, when he was given emergency management responsibilities as a collateral duty.

“I realized I needed to educate myself about emergency management – it’s its own world,” he said. He started taking college courses and once he started, he realized he wanted to get a full degree. He enrolled in American Public University and graduated in 2012 with a master’s degree in emergency and disaster management.

In his current role as assistant chief, his education continues to benefit him. “I’m in a whole different career now,” he said. “I was a fireman and now I’m totally administrative. More than ever, I can see how my formal education has helped.”

For example, once a week McLaughlin attends city council meetings where he interacts with other heads of city departments and advocates for the fire department. “No matter what your specific degree, education helps your communication skills, both written and verbal,” he said.

It has also helped with his research abilities. “The last thing you want to do is go up in front of the council and ask for something that you don’t have the details about,” he said. “My degree really helped me, and this transition would have been a lot more difficult if I didn’t have an education.”

Charter had a very similar experience after getting a degree in public administration. “Education helped me professionally in that it gave me the ability to look at things critically and taught me how to support my arguments and positions whatever the issue happened to be,” he said.

Honing these skills has become more critical as municipal budgets have shrunk and resources have dwindled. “You can no longer go to an elected body and say ‘we need this equipment’ – we are now playing in the arena with everyone else and competing for the same resources,” stated Charter.

It is becoming more and more common that higher-level jobs require bachelor’s degrees and many times departments often prefer candidates with master’s degrees. Charter recommends looking outside your department and beyond your region to see what requirements are trending nationally.

Such requirements played a role in inspiring McLaughlin to pursue his master’s degree. “Many fire departments are getting more and more into minimum requirements for promotion,” he said. “If you want to go up the ladder in the department, you need to have ‘x’ amount of education.”

McLaughlin said the hardest part for many of his peers is taking that first step and enrolling in a course. He just forced himself to jump into it.