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Overhauling Hunter Education To Recruit The Next Generation

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Overhauling Hunter Education
To Recruit The Next Generation

Most things can be improved, except for the perfect day afield when you feel that daybreak flight of ducks churn the air just above your head. Since NRA spearheaded the creation of hunter education programs in 1949, the content and formats have changed at a glacial pace. Efforts to simplify and improve these programs are critical as we try to recruit the next generation of hunters and preserve the future of America`s outdoor heritage. Hunting is safe by any statistical measure and hunter education programs have played an instrumental role in that safety.

First impressions are everything.

Hunter education programs should enhance recruitment, not discourage it.

For many, a hunter education program is the first introduction to the world of hunting. The focus unfortunately seems to have shifted away from the students` experience. How can the process be changed so that students who complete a course will advocate hunter education programs to their friends? Many program administrators have resisted any format change and, as with most government programs, added unnecessary complications. Nevertheless, most hunter education instructors are volunteers and should be commended; displaying altruism for something they are very passionate about.

In the business world, dissatisfaction and an unpleasant customer experience have natural corrections built into the system and the effects are immediate. In a government-mandated system, one cannot shop around; would-be hunters must take the specific, approved course material in order to lawfully take part in the activity. The only choice in the government-mandated system is to avoid the desired activity altogether instead of finding another source to give them what they need and want. As a result, when state game and fish departments lose hunter education "customers," there is little immediate effect.

Hunter recruitment and retention are widely touted as essential to the long-term survival of hunting and conservation. Just look at the numbers.

We have seen a troubling decline over the past decade, but what is often overlooked is the fact that the U.S. population continues to dramatically increase. Even if hunter numbers continue to hover around 15 million as the population continues to expand, the hunters` voice becomes a faint echo in the halls of our republic.

The solution is to bring a new generation to the sport, but that is proving difficult. Young people face ever more demanding organized sports schedules, including most weekends. The amount of time kids spend playing video games shocks the conscience. Homework and competition in schools are increasing.

All of these factors combine to allow little time for the outdoors and hunting.

Once a kid experiences those first few hunts, the heritage of hunting is likely to have a lifelong devotee, but it`s tough for a young person to cross the starting line of hunter education when 12 or more hours of classroom time are mandated. The bottom line is that kids are saying "no" to hunting or avoiding going through the hurdles to try their hand at it.

NRA -backed mentored hunter programs provide a catalyst for hunter education participation, but the course material and format should be more appealing. Kids today are exposed to different stimuli than they were 20 years ago. Digital excitement comes at them from every direction. Do we want the already small number of youngsters who choose to take hunter education speak of having to go through a "boring" and time-consuming program, or do we want them to have a great first experience in the world of hunting that they`ll want to tell their friends about? Bestowing a positive introduction to hunting will help new recruits become recruiters themselves.

Hunter education programs need to reflect what youth must learn paired with the most attractive way to learn it. Sitting through a snoozer for 10 hours on a Saturday is not how kids want to learn. Average attention spans run closer to 30 minutes with very little chance of digesting information in classes that are hours long. Young people need to learn safety first and foremost.

Hunter education programs should concentrate on that.

Some might claim a rite of passage and say, "I had to go through it, so should those who follow." Others might think 12 or so hours are reasonable and that students should learn the history of muzzleloaders and detailed hunting strategy that are inked into many state programs. However, we feel strongly that parents and children should be taught the essentials of safety, and should then be trusted to take the initiative to further their education as their interest in hunting progresses.

Once kids receive baseline safety skills and knowledge through a hunter education program, they have the opportunity to participate in advanced programs such as NRA `s Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC). YHEC provides a fun and competitive atmosphere that attracts 50,000 kids per year who participate on a voluntary basis. In addition to an organized program, kids can choose to advance their knowledge in a variety of ways. The key is to give them options and let them choose. The mandatory hunter education programs should instill a basic foundation, such as the principal gun safety rules and how to safely climb tree stands and cross fences. Then let them experience the joys and freedoms of hunting. Those who are enabled to enter the woods will likely choose to advance their budding hunting knowledge, whether it is through a mentor, a book, the internet or "graduate studies" programs such as YHEC.

As in business, quality improvements should be constantly evaluated; what works should be kept and what does not work should be eliminated. For example, some states require a live fire component to the hunter education program. This adds another unnecessary hurdle. Experiencing a gun going "bang" serves little purpose when the fundamental rules of gun safety can be taught effectively in the classroom.

Range availability is a factor in many jurisdictions, especially those in more urban settings where recruitment is declining most dramatically. Live fire requirements create significant costs and liability exposure, but one would be hard-pressed to provide evidence that live fire increases safety.

One bright spot is that online courses are becoming more available and adding an element of fun to the mix with interactive learning akin to video games.

Online courses allow students to choose when to learn the material in their busy schedules. Whether it is 30 minutes while driving to soccer practice or 15 minutes in their room, online courses provide ample opportunity for kids to learn at their leisure while keeping their attention spans fresh. Two of the most popular online courses, HunterExam.com and Hunter-ed.com, provide many interactive learning experiences that attract kids. HunterExam.com, for example, offers an interactive shooting range that teaches gun safety and even allows a student to learn scope adjustment. This digital range is offered for free to anyone and kids who complete a hunter education course will likely continue to use it. Entertainment that incorporates a subconscious learning experience is invaluable and hunter education courses should embrace this method with open arms.

Just look at the U.S. Army, which launched a wildly successful video game in 2002 that continues to enhance recruitment.

Its creator, Col. Casey Wardynski, wanted an interactive soldier experience that was "engaging, informative and entertaining." Hunter education programs would do well to follow that example as graphics and interactivity still have a long way to go.

Online courses often follow up with a "field day" requirement. Indiana is the only state in the country where there is no hands-on requirement and one can simply pass an online course to become certified. Amazingly, some states are threatening not to honor the Hoosier state`s certification. This simply highlights the inefficiencies of the entrenched bureaucracy that hunter education has become and its unwillingness to adapt.

No state in the country has a handson boating safety requirement and most states offer an online-only option to get a boating license. Statistically, boating is far more dangerous in terms of fatalities than hunting because of the nature of the activity. Hunter education needs to take a page from boating because failing to adapt to technology and make the educational process fun and convenient are proving to be a disturbingly weak link in the hunting recruitment chain.

The future of hunting depends on attracting new hunters to continue the great American heritage. Conservation and wild places, made possible because of the financial contribution of hunters, also hang in the balance. Your NRA will continue to push for efficiency and effectiveness in hunter education programs because increasing our numbers will be essential as we move into the future. We invite instructors, state officials and industry partners to join us in advancing this vital cause.

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