o law enforcement agency faces greater recruiting challenges than the Federal Bureau of Investigation. With stringent application requirements and a public image of "men in black," the agency has several obstacles to overcome in attracting and hiring qualified candidates. Those difficulties are multiplied exponentially when faced with the additional challenge of increasing the diversity of its workforce.
To address this issue, the FBI has turned traditional recruiting methods on their head, choosing to embrace a grassroots campaign targeted at the next generation of leaders: college students. Linking forces with a Berkeley, California, company called EdVenture Partners, the FBI has created a learning-based, peer-driven marketing and recruiting program to build awareness of and interest in FBI careers among intelligent, motivated students, particularly minorities. Although this demographic has traditionally been difficult to reach, the partnership has bridged the gap, triggering a wave of applications and igniting a buzz around an agency that was once considered out of touch. The success of this program is a signpost for other law enforcement agencies looking to reach out to the next generation of workers and to increase diversity among their employees.
The FBI's Most Wanted Employee List
In order to be maximally effective, the FBI needs to have operational diversity; an employee base that reflects the U.S. population and can respond to diverse international and domestic concerns is the cornerstone of its success. While the demographics of the American population have morphed considerably in the past few decades, the face of the FBI has remained largely the same: white males. Out of 11,777 special agents, 620 are African American and 20 percent of the employees are female. Overall, minorities make up 16.6 percent of the FBI's agents, most of whom fill support roles rather than field duties.
The mandate for diversity has become even more critical as national security threats have evolved. For example, there is now a need for agents who (1) possess exceptional Arabic, Korean, or Vietnamese language skills; (2) can push the bounds of knowledge in computing and information technology; (3) have unmatched electrical engineering or physical science expertise; or (4) have a knack for counterintelligence. In order to fill this wide range of skills, the agency needs to tap into a larger pool of candidates and embed the idea of an agency career in students early on.
In order to increase intellectual and cultural diversity, the FBI is looking to boost the number of applicants from the nation's minority groups. "The FBI brand has different meanings in different communities," noted Kevin B. Kendrick, deputy assistant director of the FBI's Administrative Services Division. "We have learned, both anecdotally and through research, that our brand does not resonate with our target communities; in particular, African Americans from inner cities do not have a positive view of the agency."
Increasing agency career awareness among young people-in particular Generation Y, or Millenials-also furthers the goal of increasing minority outreach; minorities compose 34 percent of this generation (compared to 27 percent of the total U.S. population). Consequently, the goal of the FBI is threefold: to connect with young people, particularly underrepresented ethnic groups; to improve student and minority perceptions of the agency; and to communicate the value of an agency career to these groups.
An Agent of Change
As the FBI set out on a quest to change its image among young people and minority groups, it became readily apparent that traditional advertising and recruiting tactics would be inadequate to address the issue. "Our past efforts focused primarily on print and radio ads and career fairs, but we noticed that their effectiveness was waning," observed Supervisory Special Agent Jericka Robinson of the FBI's Personnel Resources Unit. "They just weren't creating a positive environment with this demographic."
The agency knew that the key to success would be to connect with students. However, initial attempts by recruiters to build relationships with collegiate communities failed. Recruiting agents were spread too thin as they targeted second-career job seekers in the community as well as students.
FBI Teams with EdVenture Partners
EdVenture Partners is an organization that builds bridges between industry and academia, creating hands-on, in-class marketing courses that hinge on real-world business challenges. In this case, EdVenture worked with the FBI to build a program for college students at schools with high minority populations. The program offers students the unique opportunity to create a soup-to-nuts marketing plan for the FBI to help spread the word about career opportunities. Students work hand-in-hand with FBI recruiters to raise the agency's profile; in return, they gain invaluable experience building a real marketing strategy, working directly with an actual client and targeting and evaluating the success of a marketing campaign.
During the first year of the project, which kicked off in the fall of 2002, the FBI launched EdVenture programs at three colleges, two of which were historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and one of which had a high Native American population. In 2003 the FBI grew the number of schools to 10 based on successful results from earlier programs. "We have been very involved in the selection of the schools," noted Robinson. "We want to ensure that we are reaching out to bright, hard-working individuals in our target audience. EdVenture helped to accomplish this by developing programs with top-notch four-year schools with significant minority populations."
EdVenture and the FBI team up with a professor at each school to create a unique class syllabus tailored to the school's academic program. Depending on the school, the class is part of the business school curriculum or makes up part of a marketing degree program. Because of the rigor of the course and the commitment it demands, often students at these schools are selected by faculty and represent the top tier of their class. The course draws on the skills and knowledge students have cultivated during their college career but deepens their understanding by allowing them to test their own ideas in a real integrated marketing communications plan.
Students form fully functioning marketing agencies with the FBI as a real client. The FBI gives each class of students a $2,500 budget and a set of concrete objectives that the campaign should achieve: (1) increase the number of competitive candidates to fill special agent and professional support positions, (2) increase awareness within the target market of FBI career opportunities, (3) increase consideration of FBI positions within the target market, (4) increase awareness of and participation in the FBI's internship programs, and (5) generate creative marketing strategies for future FBI recruiting campaigns. The students are then asked to do the following:
- Perform market research
- Generate a marketing strategy to drive campaign development
- Create a formal marketing proposal to be presented to FBI recruiters at a marketing strategy meeting
- Implement their campaign
- Assess campaign effectiveness
- Review all of the above in a final report
The FBI is looped in on every step of the process to ensure that the students' initiatives are aligned with agency goals and guidelines.
"It was not until the first groups of students reported back to us with their market research that we grasped the full magnitude of our image problem," observed Robinson. "We were really stunned by the students' impressions. They saw the FBI as unwelcoming to minorities and, overall, had an extremely unfavorable view of us."
After assessing the target audience, students create unique marketing and recruiting strategies designed to resonate with this group. This includes developing a big picture idea, with a theme or slogan, as well as an integrated plan that can include on- and off-campus promotional events, recruiting fairs, advertisements in campus and community media, public relations campaigns, career seminars, a guest speaker series, direct marketing, interactive Web-based outreach, and other creative peer-developed approaches to achieve the FBI's recruiting objectives.
Students have demonstrated creativity with these programs, which have reached outside the bounds of their campuses. For example, one group partnered with radio stations to both raise visibility and add cache to their events. "From themes and slogans to actual tactics, the students have looked beyond the traditional horizons of recruiting programs and created a new paradigm for successful outreach," said Robinson. "We have been very impressed. The students are exceptionally imaginative and resourceful, working within strict budget guidelines while devising ingenious approaches."
Indeed, the programs created by students have been so compelling and exciting that, in some cases, the FBI has adopted them. For example, students at Northeastern State University coined the slogan "Freedom Matters. Be the Difference. Join the FBI," which the agency is now using on a billboard in the Oklahoma market.
In addition, the students' activities often create such an impression on the community that they trigger interest from the media. FBI Special Agent Recruiter Lamar Pruitt spoke highly of an EdVenture class at the University of Texas at San Antonio, noting that because of its campaign, the FBI's recruiting program was covered by a Latino newspaper in D.C., giving the agency additional visibility in a target market.
The results have been phenomenal: as a direct result of these programs, the FBI has received 446 applications from qualified candidates for the Special Agent position and other critical Professional Support positions. The classes have also offered the FBI tremendous market research. In addition to the results from the focus groups that students conduct, the FBI has garnered anecdotal impressions from the participating students before and after the program. They have been able to see firsthand how Generation Y students and minorities perceive the agency and what programs are most successful in moving the needle on interest.
"The insights we have gained into the minds of Generation Y are unbelievable. They have absolutely changed the way we think about marketing to this demographic," noted Robinson. "Whereas previous generations were more impressionable through the media, this group's information exchange is peer-driven. The Internet has completely revolutionized personal communication and in doing so has transformed marketing strategies."
Because the new recruiting strategy is peer-based, the FBI is finding that it is very effective in making its programs more accessible. It provides students the opportunity to understand the FBI's goals and then translate them so they appeal to their peers and community members. Students have done great job of making the FBI approachable, user-friendly, and unthreatening, all of which in turn increases the traction of other marketing programs that the agency has under way.
The agency has been surprised to find that because of Generation Y's peer connectivity, they have received applications not only from areas where the programs are executed but from across the nation as well. Moreover, the applications do not stop when the semester is over; the FBI has found that they continue to pour in even after the campaigns end.
Everyone involved is raving about the FBI-EdVenture programs: students are excited about their personal and collective success in creating valuable marketing programs for a high-profile government agency; faculty members praise the tremendous impact of immersion in a real-world situation for students; and FBI recruiters have hailed the partnership as a breakthrough idea. "My class at the University of Texas in San Antonio did an amazing job reaching out to the military intelligence community," said Pruitt. "As a result, I now have so many applicants that I don't know how to pick."
In addition to the FBI, EdVenture has partnered successfully with other government agencies, such as the U.S. Navy and the former Immigration and Naturalization Services. As a result of continued strong feedback, the U.S. State Department, U.S. Army, and ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) are now exploring the program as well.
Investigate the Possibilities
As diversity becomes a pressing concern across all law enforcement agencies, they must find ways to connect with the diverse Generation Y. In addition, the aging workforce demands that law enforcement agencies actively think about marketing to America's youth. Beyond being multicultural, Generation Y is projected to be the largest our country has ever seen; it is currently 71 million strong and may reach as high as 84 million. They represent the next big wave of employees. Accordingly, it is very important for law enforcement agencies to understand their mindset.
The exciting news is that Generation Y behaviors and career choices are driven first and foremost by their quest for opportunities to play important roles in meaningful work that helps others. This is perhaps the most socially conscious generation since the 1960s and they are exhibiting strong signs of altruism already. Law enforcement agencies have an opportunity to reintroduce themselves to this market by leveraging their strong tradition of service both to communities and to our nation. However, solid and innovative marketing strategies will be needed to successfully communicate and build long-term relationships with the next generation of law enforcers.
"We would recommend this type of program to any law enforcement agency looking to raise awareness and forge a diverse workforce," concluded Kendrick. "The grassroots student outreach approach strategically targets not only immediate prospective applicants, but the next generation as well." ■