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At Small Business Administration, Generalists Are Developed, Not Hired

October 23, 2007
Related Topics: Career Development, Basic Skills Training, Training Technology, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
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Specialization is a thing of the past at the U.S. Small Business Administration, a federal agency in Washington that, among other things, helps private companies attract growth capital. Employees who once performed a narrow range of tasks now wear many hats. That means they must acquire new skills and knowledge, often beyond the scope of their original job descriptions.

    Loan officers seldom process loans directly to borrowers. That function is delegated to banks. Instead, they are more likely to serve in marketing and training capacities, advising lenders and business owners about the SBA’s products and services. Specific training in marketing, however, was not generally offered—at least until recently.

    After years of teaching its employees in an ad hoc fashion, the agency in August launched SBA University to help broaden their job skills. The content includes a slate of about 50 learning tracks covering a dozen pivotal functions.

    Two decades of federal budget cuts trimmed the SBA’s workforce to about 2,500 people, down by nearly half from the 1990s. Strong growth among the nation’s small and midsize businesses, meanwhile, is fueling increased demand for the SBA’s services.

    Downsizing made the SBA leaner and more flexible, but a dearth of training opportunities frustrated employees who were trying to carry out their expanded duties, says Gary Cook, a senior manager in charge of training. Employee discontent bubbled to the surface in 2006, following a semiannual satisfaction survey.

    "As an organization, we had not kept up with the [job] changes on an individual basis," Cook says. In surveys, employees said that they didn’t have a clear understanding of their exact job roles and didn’t feel adequately trained to carry them out, he says.

    That is changing. About 1,300 employees, or roughly half the workforce, participated in the initial phase of SBA University, which included various classes delivered during a three-week period in August. It was billed as the most comprehensive training event in the agency’s 53-year history.

    The SBA rented meeting space at the National Conference Center at Landsdowne, Maryland. Employees could choose the week they wished to attend the classes, which were delivered both by SBA trainers and external providers.

    "The curriculum was developed based on what employees identified as their greatest areas of need," Cook says. The organization used an agency-wide skills gap analysis.

    The first batch of courses was intended to solidify skills employees needed to meet their core job responsibilities. A second round of classes is being developed for 2008.

    "The second phase will offer an elective slate to help people take care of some of the collateral duties they are responsible for," Cook says.

    The SBA’s struggle to better train its workforce is not unique among federal agencies, says Glenn Sutton, a principal at Federal Management Partners Inc. in Alexandria, Virginia. Sutton’s company specializes in federal human capital strategy and management.

    "For the last several years, agencies have been required by the President’s Management Agenda to focus on the competencies of their workers, particularly in so-called mission-critical occupations. Most have done competency assessments to identify gaps, and have developed human capital plans to address those gaps," Sutton says.

    Government employers also are investing heavily in training technologies, including learning management systems, learning portals, reusable courseware and virtual universities, Sutton says.

    "I believe this level of concern for upgrading of competencies, while it varies from agency to agency, is comparable to what is being done in the private sector," Sutton says.

    Cook says a Web site specific to SBA University will be developed to integrate the varied classroom information. Also planned is an internal blog to help employees who have graduated from the program to collaborate and share knowledge.

    SBA University is part of a "transformation agenda" touted by administrator Steve Preston. The goals include improving operational reform, accountability, communication skills and customer service.

    Initial feedback from employees has been positive. Cook says 63 percent of surveyed employees rate the training as excellent, with another 35 percent evaluating it as good to very good.

    Separate training tracks will be made available in 2008 for other employees, including those at production centers and support staff, Cook says. In the meantime, a weeklong series of leadership classes is being offered through SBA University this month, targeting about 200 senior leaders.

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