Degrees of Separation – Why are Policing and the Private Sector Charting Opposite Courses in Recruit

Mapping the future of police career development

One of the fundamental elements of the work we do at Mightify is translating a policing skillset into terminology, features and benefits that demonstrate clear value to a corporate audience – an audience that may well not understand the jargon-heavy way in which we express our “job” credentials. The need is clear on both sides – and I would liken it to a river with the two parties on opposing banks. Both know there is something in sight that they want – a hitherto largely untapped talent pool and a new environment of career progression, financial reward and work/life balance, to simplify the picture – but there is no real means of crossing. Stretching this metaphor to breaking point, what we see at the moment is a kind of awkward semaphore.

Personal attributes - transferable skills, if you like - are the pillars a lasting bridge could be built upon. However, only one side seems to be recognising and investing in them – and unfortunately it isn’t policing. I have to say that I’m slightly baffled as to why, but I want to examine some of the relevant trends in an attempt to understand what seem to be diametrically opposite approaches to recruitment, selection and professional development.

On the one hand, we increasingly see huge multinational companies running recruitment campaigns that make no mention of sector-specific knowledge until their latter stages. Instead, the initial sifts focus on personal attributes and “fit” – the right people in the right place. Resilience, problem-solving, decision-making, building trust-based relationships… these skills are in short supply in business and that is why the big players are willing to invest in them and proactively search for them. Funnily enough, they are all key weapons in a police officer’s arsenal – if you don’t know how to talk to people (who probably don’t want to talk to you) then you won’t get far in the police. If you’re reading this from inside the police, though, how likely would you be to describe yourself in those terms? Or search for a new role with them? Or read a job advert written thus and tell yourself that it might actually be you they’re looking for? Probably unlikely, because in policing “skills” are usually defined as the courses you’ve been on, and frameworks that don’t ask about you in selection processes.

What’s interesting is the extent to which the way organisations identify and manage talent is changing throughout every career stage. We often used to see “graduate schemes” where companies visited Russell Group universities to cherry-pick talent with a common background and then mould them into their own industry and ethos.

Meanwhile, entry into policing was a broad church – any intake arriving for their first parade would span ex-cadets, graduates, older career-changers, military leavers and so on. Selected on criteria that were aligned to their ability to do the job, in the opinion of serving officers and staff on selection panels. Then in-house training delivered the subject matter expertise.

Fast forward to 2019, and we have almost a reversal of approach. Policing is moving to a system where everyone will join under a degree-based system – either you bring a related qualification prior to applying, or you gain one on an apprenticeship basis. This shift, allied to its remuneration packages, will lead to a predominantly young(er) intake. Meanwhile, the private sector is casting a much wider net, using “the right people for our business” as their overriding criterion.

Some questions jump out at me here:

Are the “degrees in policing” transferable to any other sector? What is their value? Were we not attracting graduates to policing before? Who are we now excluding from policing? What is the impact on the existing policing workforce? Does the cost/benefit model for this shift really add up?

I don’t have all the answers – and this isn’t intended to be a trashing of the whole model by any means, a commitment to CPD is a great thing – but it seems a slightly strange move and one at odds with almost any societal trend you care to mention. If I attempt to answer my own questions… Given my observations about trends in recruitment/selection - other than being able to tick the box on a paper sift that says “degree” - I don’t believe such a qualification does equip an officer to make a career change later in life (should they wish) – which doesn’t fit with the College of Policing’s stated aim of a “healthy churn”.

I joined the police as a graduate of a Russell Group university, despite most of my peers joining the aforementioned commercial juggernauts on graduate schemes. In the current climate, I suppose I would be in the sights of Police:Now – but I never felt any kind of “odd one out” in my Hendon intake for being a graduate, in fact despite the well-known alternative explanation for its initials, my TSG unit featured many “intellectuals”. Was there ever a clearly defined problem to solve in the academic diversity of police recruits?

The issue of diversity is one I find confusing in all this. We know that in any walk of life, a diverse team is a successful one – diverse in ethnicity, language, socioeconomic background, skill, interest, personality and any other measure. Does applying a blunt, standardised entry requirement help or hinder that success? Again, we’re back to the comparison against the private sector – it’s a competitive market, so each applicant will be making their own cost/benefit calculations, with plenty simply unable to afford the investment. Who do we stand to lose from policing as a result? Of course, great people join policing for reasons far beyond money, but why make that an even harder battle for talent to win than it already is?

The impact on those we ask more and more from is stark. We know that rates of “voluntarily” leaving the police before completing the traditional 30/35-year career are higher than ever and growing exponentially. I placed the word “voluntarily” in inverted commas because often it’s entirely involuntary – people tell me every day that they feel trapped, have no options and therefore have no value. A big part of this comes from being unable to see and understand their own skills, as well as having the confidence to express them. How often have you heard someone say that in the police they are “just a number”? That can lead to a very dark place – which is why we must see these issues as fundamentally personal and health-focused as much as they are about professional development. We know that alongside an ageing population, jobs/careers are not for life now. Career change, especially later in life, is the new normal. On the wellbeing side we should ask ourselves if a 35-year term is healthy; from a societal point of view people simply aren’t looking for 35-year single-industry careers any more. How can we harness these trends to capture all that experience and ability?

The stakes are incredibly high to get this right. Right now, we’re in a perfect storm of damaging factors. Experience lost, capability lost, lack of finance, a fractured model – it’s easy to be pessimistic.

However, there are solutions. What keeps policing (and most public services) running today is the goodwill of incredibly talented and dedicated people. We have to start to recognise both their endeavour and their skill – I can assure you that the external employers I speak to recognise it. That goodwill has been eroded to its lowest ever level. Financial reward is an obvious step – and standardised reward at that – many UK forces are in collaborations with neighbours but pay differing amounts, leading to the merry-go-round of poaching specialist transferees. We know that money isn’t the motivator for most police officers and staff, though. Reward needs to reflect that too. Investment in personal and professional development are essential – and we are talking about relatively small amounts compared to the cost of continuous recruitment and training to fill the gaps left by those who depart.

In my opinion, this all stems from organisational culture. Policing simply hasn’t been an environment where self-development and the resulting self-worth are encouraged. To keep pace with society, that has to change. Partly that comes from leadership with the courage to accept that good people might well leave, but if you create the right environment, they might well come back too – not to mention leaving as advocates. In the time they spend with your organisation, they will be more engaged, more productive – and remembering they are people – happier. Do professional sports teams underinvest in their players, hoping they won’t leave? Almost the opposite – developing what you have to the best of your ability makes absolute sense on every level.

© Tom Wheelhouse / Mightify 2019

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