Following an overall budget reduction strategy that began in the early 1990s, Prince William County (PWC), Va., had to rebuild its training program almost from scratch. “Everybody across the country, at least in local government, dumped their training programs because they saw that was a place where they could save money,” said Sarah Ray, training and development manager, Prince William County. “Most organizations were not tracking return on investment. They couldn’t prove that they were having an impact on the organization.”
In the decade since training was affected, only a few departments have held onto their training programs, specifically those affiliated with public safety and those that have mandated training or require certification for social work and counseling, etc. But in the summer of 2000, Craig Gerhart, Prince William County executive, conducted an assessment to decide how the county could reinstitute a viable training program. The result was a five-year employee training and development plan that has completely overhauled course offerings and training initiatives. As the five-year training plan rolls into its fourth year, Prince William County has received a 2004 Achievement Award from The National Association of Counties for its program, “E-Learning: The PWC Way!”
“We provide a 24×7 service to a large population spread out over 300 miles,” said Ray. “We knew that just instructor-led training wasn’t going to work. PWC wanted technology-oriented training, but we didn’t want an e-learning program that just met technology needs—we also wanted to tie in professional development and soft skills.”
Prince William County had instructor-led training for employees who could get away from the job for technology-oriented classes or take advantage of a limited selection of soft skills classes. However, there was no centralized person, office or department held accountable for ensuring that employees were getting the training they needed, said Ray. “Before it was just job-specific training. That’s what we had,” she said. “Now, I can write a book. We have a growing, thriving blended approach to cross-functional soft skills, adult learning for a local government service provider. That’s quite a feat in three years.”
While acknowledgement of Prince William County’s training achievements is flattering, Ray said that the award they received was not just for training and development. “We won that award because of our partnerships internally, across different departments and with the business community,” said Ray. “We had a great plan from which to work.”
Prince William County partnered with Thomson NETg to develop a seamless blended e-learning program. Along with instructor-led and self-study materials from Crisp Publications, which creates books on quality customer service, the new supervisor and basic facilitation skills to provide continuous learning and opportunities for knowledge sharing, plans have been developed for a new employee orientation series and other training specific to jobs for front-line service employees in public safety, such as firefighters, police and dispatchers, as well as others in sanitation and human services.
“The real challenge is growing our leaders and executive management from the management skills of yesterday to the leadership skills of today,” said Ray. “We had supervisors across the organization who were pretty good at managing, controlling, organizing, directing people to do things, but because there had been such a long gap between the early ’90s when they eliminated the training program to Fall/Spring 2001 and 2002, we had huge gaps in what our expectations were of supervisors. We didn’t want them to manage, control, direct and all of those typical things you learn in business school. We wanted them to be able to coach and mentor and effectively give feedback and hold people accountable. We’re doing it through e-learning.”
Ray added, “Before e-learning, I don’t know how our staff was able to keep up with technology changes. You had to learn by trial and error, and that is time-consuming, with constant interruptions all day long. In efficient government, that can’t happen. Adding technology e-learning courses and professional development, or soft skills e-learning courses, by rolling those out with NETg’s help, we were able to get information to our employees immediately. I believe that immediately makes them more productive. Even if they didn’t take the full e-learning class, they had it at their fingertips.”
Implementation of NETg’s Open Learning Solutions package with its modularized content also makes it easy to build e-learning courses. Prince William County is piloting its own job-specific e-learning training and has put performance metrics in place. “In local government where we have a limited budget from which to work, e-learning gave our employees an edge right away,” said Ray. Employees were able to stay on the job and take e-learning courses or download CDs to take home for self-study, eliminating a lot of the need for travel, which led to time and expense cuts and productivity gains. Ray said that user feedback has been positive. “That proves to me as a training manager, they get it,” she said.
In its final stages, the county’s five-year plan should see operations start for the Prince William County corporate university, where 3,000-plus full-time, part-time and volunteer employees can get continuing education and take advantage of a variety of offerings designed to accelerate completion of training goals, said Ray. This month, the county plans to roll out its School of Continuous Quality Improvement with the first Prince William County curriculum that is a totally blended approach with pre- and post-requisite e-learning courses to instructor-led training. “That we can do that in such a short amount of time goes to the fast-paced nature of local service providing, learning in adults and the need for our community to keep getting better, and for our government to keep getting better,” said Ray. “We think we’re on the right track.”