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By, Alan Rufer – MBA
There is a “Great Debate” going on regarding whether formal education or job experience should be given a greater amount of weight during the promotional process.  There is no question that the fire service is and has been moving towards a personal development model that promotes formal education.  The National Fire Academy has been presenting classes that emulate the technical college system for many years.  Higher levels of certification such as the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) – National Fire Academy, and the Chief Fire Officer (CFO) designation and most recently added, the Company Officer Designation (COD) – both promoted through the Center for Public Safety Excellence are quickly finding themselves as standards within the profession for validating one’s knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA’s).
In some cases these designations are becoming more commonly accepted than State certifications because they are applied the same across the nation as opposed to how many States have their own specific curriculum and testing criteria. Although the States are not accepting the designations in place of their own certification requirements, many human resource departments are listing them as “preferred” under their job descriptions.
It is understandable that formal education through the NFA, USFA, the technical and collegiate systems, and other certification agencies are becoming the norm because they provide a means of measurement and a sense of fairness that is so desperately sought after.  Similar to the reason civil service tests were implemented, many in the fire service want the promotional process to reflect the hard work and merits of the individual and not be a system of the “good ole boys” club.
The resistance, at least in part, appears to be generational.  The fire service is reaching a critical point in its history as our current leaders, the baby boomers, begin to retire in large numbers.  Generation X (Gen X) will be tasked with filling this impending gap.  Many Gen X’ers don’t have a formal education because there was not the same emphasis on post high school education when they were graduating as there is now.  In addition, many of the Gen X’ers entered the fire service during a time when there were still many fires.  Because they don’t have degrees but do have practical knowledge and experience, Gen X’ers have a tendency to place a higher regard on practical experience  than on formal education.  They also feel slighted when higher education is made a requirement for promotional purposes, often seen for a Chief level assignment.
Generation Y (Gen Y) has always placed a high regard on education.  Many have post high school educations and rely on their book smarts and class room simulations for much of what they know.  For their entire existence they have been at odds with Gen X and now they are going to have to work for them.  Some Gen X’ers are finding themselves being passed over for promotion by Gen Y because they do not have the educational requirements for promotion.
Gen X will argue that you cannot replace practical experience and you cannot gain it in a classroom.  Book smarts are great for learning theory but do not provide you with the conditions necessary to prepare you for the application of said theory.  Gen Y will argue that their book smarts have provided them with an opportunity to fully understand the dynamics of fire and will give them a great sense of situational awareness.  In addition, the advancement in technology and the availability of training towers has provided them with the opportunity to practice applying their knowledge in a controlled environment with the repetition needed to make sound decisions.
There is no question that the “Great Debate” is far from over.  I believe that both practical experience and book smarts have a place in the promotional process and a balance of both should be pursued as one without the other simply provides for unbalanced leadership.