A Cross-Training Rundown

A look at the most prevalent uses of cross training in today's public workforce.

Creating a flexible workforce is becoming increasingly necessary as states, cities and counties continue to face budget troubles, lose older employees to retirement and wrestle with the need to retain the best and brightest. Across the country, cross-training is helping governments maintain a high level of service delivery with fewer staff and resources. But cross-training isn't always easy, especially when a department runs into the "that's not my job" mentality.

In this month's newsletter, I'm taking a look at the most prevalent uses of cross-training and how governments are using it to ensure that citizens receive valued services efficiently and effectively.

Maintaining Public Safety

Cross-training in the area of public safety is nothing new, but a recent uptick in programs illustrates how important cross-training has become to cash-strapped police and fire departments, as well as corrections departments.

Emergency responders.
In the late 1980s, the small town of Bristol, Wis., began cross-training its public works employees to act as emergency responders. Because the majority of fire and rescue volunteers left town during the day for full-time jobs, the fire department was understaffed. To encourage existing public works employees to receive fire and EMS certification, city officials offered a 75-cent per hour pay raise. In 1995, the town began requiring all new hires have both certifications. While the cross-training program caused minimal delays to some public works projects, Bristol residents and the town's bottom line saw an overall benefit: Daytime rescue calls were answered faster than evening calls at a fraction of what it would have cost to hire new full-time emergency employees or outside contractors.

In Woodbury, Minn., a long-running program aimed at cross-training police officers to act as paramedics was so successful that it was expanded in 2005 to include firefighter training as well. By embracing cross-training, the city saved costs when it avoided moving to a full-time, fully staffed, 24-hour fire department. Rather than relying on officers to get on board with the program, Woodbury's Public Safety Department decided to bring together everyone from police, fire and EMS to collaborate on the best possible way to bring the cross-training plan to fruition, which was called the 1,000 Day Plan. Today, the city continues to modify its cross-training plans as new issues emerge, but having its police officers trained as firefighters has dramatically reduced fire response time.

But similar programs in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and Monroe, Mich., weren't received with as much enthusiasm. In Cedar Falls, a two-year pilot program to train public works employees, parks department workers and police officers as firefighters was met by heavy resistance from the city's full-time, unionized firefighters. They argued that the program was costly and would result in a decreased level of service. In Monroe, an almost identical plan led to a failed injunction filed by the firefighter's union.

Jail employees.
In Porter County, Ind., an 8-year-old jail that has never fully opened due to staffing shortages is set to receive relief from cross-trained court employees. The county Sheriff's Department was given funds in May to cross-train court security to perform jail duties. The county expects the six-week cross-training program, which includes a small salary raise for court security officers, to alleviate the overtime burden on jail employees at times when the court is closed or overstaffed.

Emergency preparedness. The highly criticized response to New York City's post-Christmas blizzard forced the city to rethink some of its emergency preparedness plans. For one, when the blizzard hit, tow truck drivers were stranded at home, unable to clear the street of abandoned cars. Now, a group of traffic task force police officers has been trained to open locked cars, and prepare and tow vehicles so snow plows can get to work faster.

Retaining the Best and Brightest

Back in 2001, then-Phoenix City Manager Frank Fairbanks told an audience at a Governing conference that one way the city recruited and retained high-quality employees was by emphasizing cross-training to help employees feel like they were an integral part of the larger organization. This cross-training even gave front-line employees decision-making abilities that had typically been reserved for supervisors. Viewing government as a team effort keeps employees engaged, active and interested, Fairbanks argued.

Today, Daly City, Calif., is taking that advice and putting it into practice. Understanding that in the next three to five years a growing percentage of city employees will be eligible for retirement, the city began implementing a succession plan in 2006. The third phase of this program, which began in June 2010, is focused on cross-training employees, sharing talent, developing leadership and improving the relationship between departments. To avoid the "that's not my job" mentality, the program, known as I-MTEP (or "internal management talent exchange program"), allows employees to self-select for cross-training. The city manager and human resources director interview city employees interested in cross-training to determine which positions most closely align with the current and future staffing needs of the city. Then, during the three-month program, these participants take part in a specific project as a member of another department.

Throughout the program, participants, department heads and leadership coaches meet regularly to discuss expectations, assignments and areas of growth specific to each participant. During the cross-training exercise, the participant is encouraged to develop in a number of skill areas, which can include public speaking, leadership, problem solving and project management. As participants are exposed to the workings of other departments and positions within city government, department heads are responsible for coaching and mentoring to ensure the program achieves its desired outcomes, which include energizing the next generation of government leaders, creatively solving upcoming staffing shortages while under budgetary constraints and maintaining a high level of service delivery.

We want to hear from you! E-mail Heather at Kerrigan.h@gmail.com to let her know about your cross-training experience. Is cross-training being used in your agency or department? What purpose is it set out to serve? Has the cross-training program achieved its intended purpose?