A Small Government With Big Training Goals

By Garry Kranz

Sep. 14, 2009

John West doesn’t need much prodding to espouse the value of workplace learning. Broad-shouldered and gregarious, West in 2006 earned a promotion to the job of lead technician in the buildings and grounds department of Chesterfield County, Virginia, a regional government near Richmond. Chesterfield is home to about 311,000 people, making it the fourth-largest county in the state, according to U.S. Census figures.

    West, 53, manages a team of technicians whose job is to maintain the heating and cooling systems for about 70 county-owned facilities. He credits his advancement to intensive leadership training through the county’s Chesterfield University, which is modeled on corporate university programs.

Instruction on how to effectively motivate and lead had a huge impact on West. “It showed me different ways to lean on other people, learn from them and how to think out of the box,” West says.

Now, with evangelical zeal, West preaches the gospel of continuous learning to his six-member team of technicians. It’s important for them to keep abreast of changing industry technologies, although West also stresses interpersonal skills.

“It’s like I tell them: You’ve got the toolbox you bring to work in your truck every day. And then you’ve got the toolbox up here,” West says, tapping his temple for emphasis. “You’ve got to make sure both tool sets are sharp.”

West is one of thousands of county employees enrolled in courses through Chesterfield University. He estimates he has taken about 440 hours worth of training and says he “usually is involved in at least one class.”

The university’s format provides a uniform model to deliver training to the county’s 4,500 workers, replacing what had been a mishmash of learning programs within individual departments. Courses are segmented into six “schools of learning” that target eight areas of competence deemed essential to carrying out the county’s long-range strategy.

    The curriculum is designed to support the county’s seven strategic goals. The hallmark of the plan is to provide services to Chesterfield citizens, and much of the learning is geared “to improve the actual service delivery, or the processes and procedures that make it happen,” says Kevin Bruny, the county’s chief learning officer and Chesterfield University’s dean.

The competencies are: communication, continuous learning, leadership, planning and organizing, interpersonal skills, flexibility, reasoning and customer-focused service.

“The idea is simple: If you have these competencies, you should be well-prepared to help deliver on that strategy,” Bruny says.

Corporate universities have been on the training scene for a while, but the format remains rare in the public sector. Chesterfield’s efforts have not gone unnoticed, however. In 2008, for the third consecutive year, it was the only local government to receive a best practices award from the Corporate Learning Exchange, a training organization in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The award recognized Chesterfield County’s ability to link learning to its business strategies.

“They definitely demonstrate some exemplary practices: strong governance structure, engaging their leaders in the teaching process, demonstrating the impact the programs have on cost savings and reengineered processes,” among other things, says Sue Todd, president of Corporate University Exchange.

According to its annual report, Chesterfield County invested $3.4 million in employee training and development in 2008, a one-year jump in expenditures of nearly 10 percent. The rise in spending reflects increased hiring in recent years. Nearly 2,250 courses have been offered through Chesterfield University, with cumulative learning approaching 274,000 hours.

On average, individual employees received 61 hours of training last year, roughly twice the average for government, Bruny says. He cites data compiled by the American Society for Training & Development in Alexandria, Virginia, to buttress his point.

Chesterfield University also turned a profit in 2008, generating nearly $68,000 in new revenue by delivering custom training courses to other local governments, nonprofits and small companies. That’s nearly three times its annual revenue target of $25,000.

Still, like state and local governments across the country, slumping tax revenues have forced some difficult decisions. The budget crunch caused Chesterfield to scrap its plans to purchase and implement a learning management system in 2010. As a consequence, an LMS manager hired by Bruny last year was recently let go.

Also as part of a budget-reduction effort, county policymakers decided to merge Chesterfield University and the county’s quality assurance department, creating a new umbrella organization known as the Center for Organizational Excellence.

Despite a tumultuous 2009, Bruny wears a brave face.

“It has been a challenge to get to this point, but I think it will provide a fresh new step in the county’s quality and learning journey,” Bruny says.

Stuck in class
Chesterfield University was officially launched on an inauspicious date: September 11, 2001. It took a while for the university to get on its feet, but in March 2003 it formally became independent of the county’s human resources department. Now, HR provides support as needed. Steering the day-to-day direction of the university is a six-member council on learning, composed of three county administrators and the deans of three of the university’s schools.

The deans include the county sheriff and the chiefs of its police and fire departments. In addition, a volunteer advisory board of about 100 employees helps with governance, instruction and creation of the lessons. Employees are permitted to suggest learning content, but only ideas that advance strategic goals are considered.

“If we can’t find a connection, we’re not going to waste time on it,” Bruny says.

Classroom instruction remains the preference for Chesterfield’s workforce, which has a median age of 42. Getting people to use online and technology-based learning tools will take some time.

“We see it as turning a large ship: It happens very slowly,” Bruny says.

Online instruction increased, albeit slightly, for the second straight year in 2008, in part thanks to its incorporation into several certificate programs. Among the bright spots is the Chesterfield Police Department, which is trying to recruit younger police officers. It has begun creating its own online courses and using podcasts and other technologies to deliver professional coursework.

“They’re really getting on the online bandwagon by creating their own courses and doing lots of podcasting. I would like to see more of that” at other departments, Bruny says.

The inspiration for Chesterfield University comes from a similar effort by the Santa Barbara County in Southern California. Known as Employees’ University, it arose several years ago out of the county’s quest to develop a performance-based budgeting process.

That meant ensuring the county’s 4,000 employees possess certain ethical behaviors and attitudes, says Mike Brown, Santa Barbara County’s executive officer.

“Governments exercise power within society, so it’s very important that people who work in government understand their special responsibility. We’re not selling fizzy water or used cars or insurance. We’re doing things that people really don’t have much choice about,” Brown says.

Practical application
In corporations, the line of authority between executives and employees is usually clear. But it’s not quite so easy to connect the dots in the public sector. Case in point: Santa Barbara County, working with union representatives, winnowed the number of classifications for clerical jobs from 28 to three. That makes it easier for top decision-makers to pinpoint clerical workers who show the potential for rapid advancement, Brown says, and enables those employees to better “control their destiny.”

Chesterfield County’s employees have more than 650 job classifications, so it faces a task as daunting as that of Santa Barbara County. The classifications encompass a broad scope of professionals, as well as the support staff. Included among Chesterfield’s job classifications are engineers, accountants, psychologists, social workers, police officers, firefighters and financial analysts.

The trick is to design learning that is at once narrowly targeted and comprehensive. Certification programs are being developed by the county’s various schools of learning to steer people toward a career path. More than 140 employees graduated from certification programs in 2008, Bruny says.

To earn the certificate, employees often are required to complete a “capstone project,” which they choose with input from their supervisors. It gives them the chance to apply their learning to a specific issue within their departments.

In addition, some departments, with help from HR, are developing apprenticeships for mechanical and technical positions.

“We can’t compete with the private sector for our technicians, so we needed to start developing our own people,” Bruny says.

West, who is the lead technician, tries to blend technical and leadership training. To keep his crew up to date with changing technologies, West rotates his technicians through required training classes. Rather than sending every technician, though, only one is selected to attend each class.

Upon completing the class, the technician is required to give a formal presentation to the others. The trained techs also get involved in creating training booklets, videos and other materials that become a reference archive for use by future technicians. The presentations are part of each technician’s professional development plan.

It saves departmental time to have one person share class content with peers. Although initially wary about making the presentations, West’s technicians seem to have warmed up to the idea.

“Now they come up [afterward] and say. ‘I learned from that experience,’ ” West says.

Chesterfield University also plays a role in succession planning. Three separate needs assessments conducted during the past five years have helped to identify about 120 potential leaders across the upper echelon of the organization, Bruny says.

The process helps individual departments create their own depth charts and target high-potential employees for special training, even though “they don’t necessarily know why they’re being invited to participate” in classes, Bruny says.

Despite budgetary issues, Bruny harbors some ambitious goals for 2010. New courses are planned to help the county’s 500 middle- and upper-level managers improve their skills. Expanded efforts at blended learning are on the drawing board, as are plans to improve measurement and reporting of employee learning.

Additionally, Bruny says the county is trying to hammer out an agreement with an undisclosed college. If approved, it would enable employees to gain college credits for courses pursued through Chesterfield University.

If successful, Chesterfield’s credit courses would be similar to what Santa Barbara County achieved. The California county’s Employees University enables workers to pursue degrees in public administration under a partnership agreement with California State University, Northridge, Brown says.

Garry Kranz is a Workforce contributing editor.

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