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Albuquerque Teaches and Promotes Public Service

The city-funded "university" prepares public workers for the jobs they want and aims to reverse the sometimes negative view of government.

Back in July, I wrote about how the city of Albuquerque, N.M., is using the ACT-developed WorkKeys assessment to find the right employees for entry-level, high-turnover positions. The city offers the assessment through its Public Service University (PSU), which isn’t really a traditional university but an employee training and development program that also promotes a positive view of public service careers to the community.

PSU offers classes to public employees on topics ranging from health and safety issues to supervisory development -- all intended to close employee skill gaps. Some of the classes can be taken by choice, while others are assigned as employee remediation, but none are meant to be viewed as punishment. City departments pay for their workers to attend the classes, and for the most part, employees can take these classes during work hours while getting paid their normal salary.

I asked Mike Smith, PSU’s director, about how the program helps the city develop current and future employees. His edited responses appear below.

Why was the Public Service University created?

When the current mayor [Richard J. Berry] came on board two-and-a-half years ago, he asked why the city’s training function was cut off back in 2007; it was based on budget. The mayor comes from the construction industry, which really believes that you have to invest in your people. He approached me about the business plan I wrote for Public Service University, which was about learning-based approaches and doing things that would involve the community and re-instill confidence in public service, attract people to work in it, and shape the people we want working in it.

So, the mayor said, confidence is down, morale is down, employees feel like they’re not being invested in. In an attempt to rebuild our image, in an attempt to build a really strong learning infrastructure, we put together this concept.

How is PSU financed?

Salaries and building/IT infrastructure are funded through the city's general fund, which is based on gross tax receipts. Other funding for program development and deployment is generated through grants and direct charge backs to the departments the participants come from. Any cost associated for employees to attend is picked up by their department.

What are some of the different training programs you offer?

Our new Supervisory Development program is focused on those employees promoted into supervisory positions for the first time in the city. It’s a blended learning approach, which includes 56 hours of classroom time over seven weeks and a year of online engagement and assessments. During this program, supervisors are assigned a real work issue for which they develop a project plan for their department from what they learn in the program.

Our Supervisory Enrichment Training is geared toward tenured supervisors. They can choose from three tracks of courses -- supervisory, management or leadership -- each having two days of classroom time and some online courses.

We offer trainer development courses, online and classroom Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) classes, other health- and safety-related classes and career development courses and testing. We’re about to launch our fourth institute of learning to add to the Management Development, Employee-Career Development and Health and Safety institutes. The new institute will be the Information Technology Institute, which will offer cybersecurity and other IT-related courses in a classroom and online format.

Since we’re managing the city’s Skills-Based Hiring deployment, we find ourselves in the position of offering skills-based training to applicants outside our regular employee base through the use of ACT’s KeyTrain modules. We find this exciting because we’re now in the business of developing a talent pool before they’re hired.

Do you offer any training specifically for employees hoping to move into leadership roles?

Another program we put together looks for individuals who are not managers, have no management experience, but yet they want to be a manager. The city requires two years management experience for frontline managers. Participants are nominated for our program, and we make a selection with the help of the City Learning Council, which is a governing-like body that’s like the board of directors of Public Service University.

Participants in this program take the WorkKeys assessment, business courses, Toastmasters to teach public speaking and leadership skills training. We bring the community in to tell us what they want public service leaders to look like. Through the course of the program, participants have two major projects -- one of which helps them learn how to build and deploy a business plan.

Participants have to score a certain level on exams and upon graduation -- after being with us every Friday for a year -- they get two years service credit added to their resume that they can claim for an entry-level supervisor position.

What we find is, in the program’s sixth year, the managers of participants come to them for advice because the program has been so rich. We’ve had 100 graduates since 2004, and they got promoted very well -- a handful are in key positions in the city.

How large is the PSU staff?

There are only four of us on staff full-time. It’s a lot for us to manage, but we’re inspired by it. We also have approximately 25 subject matter experts with the city who are adjunct faculty that teach for us. Most of these employees have a history of employment with the city. Through technology and our partnerships, we’re able to pull this out.

How do you develop the PSU curriculum?

Every service we offer is linked to a business driver or identified gap. A business driver might be supervisors and mid-level managers not demonstrating the ability to manage projects and wondering why they're off budget. If the learning needs analysis determines that a process is missing or broken, we offer the direction or services to give direction in fixing the process before developing or deploying a learning solution.

What teaching and learning methods do you commonly use?

Our delivery method approach is dependent on the analysis of the business drivers behind the issue and the change we are trying to cause to the system. When a learning system deployment is found to be a solution we approach the development and deployment with a Socratic mindset leading to a results-oriented outcome whenever possible.

What have you learned running the program so far?

One key thing we found: It takes the community to help us pull this off. One more thing that we’ve found out is that you don’t make money on anything around learning and training.

How has the community responded to PSU?

By getting the community involved, we really see their confidence in public service building. They tell us, “we never saw from this perspective that there are some really great people that choose this as a career.” That gets around and we have people that say they want to come work in public service.

For more on Public Service University from Smith, check out GOVERNING’s August 16 webinar “Recruiting and Retaining Young Talent.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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