Park Service tackles employee training and development

Kathy Hanson, chief of learning and development, National Park Service

Michael O'Connell | April 17, 2015 5:56 pm

Tight budgets always seem to squeeze training and development. At the National Park Service, management faces two challenges related to its people: The workforce is aging, and the latest governmentwide employee viewpoint survey showed the agency has some work to do in keeping employees engaged.

Kathy Hanson, chief of learning and development at NPS, told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Monday the primary focus of her team is to prepare the next generation of leaders.

“In order to do that, we have to work closely with leaders that are determining what our challenges are going to be,” she said. “So, it’s a lot of work with budget, it’s a lot of work with strategic thinking, organization development work.”

Hanson said training and development are especially impacted by the current budget pinch.


“We’re fortunate, though, that our leadership believes that it’s more important than ever to focus on developing employees in such a difficult time,” she said. “Leading change is a hard thing to do in the best of circumstances. But, it’s especially difficult when employees are faced with such dire shortfalls in their budget and their staffing. Our leadership has said, ‘This is so important that we’re not going to undermine your efforts. We’re going to put as many resources as we can there.'”

With restrictions on travel and smaller budgets, the focus has also shifted to distance learning and blended learning opportunities.

“We are focusing on how can we reach a larger audience and do it more cost effectively,” Hanson said.

Building on the results of the employee viewpoint survey

Hanson said that with the Employee Viewpoint Survey, it’s not so much studying the results and figuring out a way to improve them, as much as it is identifying why NPS employees are not feeling engaged or satisfied in their workplace.

“The Park Service is in the business of preserving and protecting cultural and natural resources, but our leadership believes our employees are the most important resource,” Hanson said.

With that in mind, NPS is conducting a “grassroots movement” of meeting with employees to identify what their concerns are and what the agency can do to address those concerns.

Within NPS’ Learning and Development Program is the Organization Development Branch, which acts as a third-party facilitator between the agency’s leadership team and NPS staff.

“They’re experts in inquiry,” Hanson said. “So, they go to these parks and units and meet with employees, not with any answers, not with any solutions, but with questions.”

With 401 park units spread out across the country, NPS faces unique challenges in providing consistent, quality learning opportunities to its workforce. The key to making sure there is consistency in training such a widespread workforce is coordination.

“In the Park Service, employees move around,” Hanson said. “They’re gypsies, often. They take jobs in another region and another park, but they do remain with the Park Service largely. So, it’s important that they have some consistency in even those technical competencies.”

To promote collaboration across the Park Service’s regional, local and centralized offices, the Learning and Development Program team is working on an internal communications strategy to find out what employees in the field employees need and want while determining what information leadership needs disseminated.

Park Service learns from successes of other agencies

NPS recently began looking at how other agencies that scored well on their employee surveys handled training and development and applying those lessons.

“One of the organizations that fared very well was the Environmental Protection Agency,” Hanson said. “So, we met with some of their leaders and had access to the employees who said, ‘You know, I feel very valued and contented in the area of employee development.’ We asked them, ‘What is it that you value so much? Is there a particular training course or do you get an individual development plan that meets your needs?'”

EPA employees said they valued having a rotational or a detail assignment where they could shadow someone else. This gave them a new variety of work that challenged them and a new set of skills they could add to their repertoire.

Hanson sees these lessons as being very applicable to the Park Service.

“You can not only keep your employees engaged and learning new skills, but you can also bring that back and transfer it and apply it back in their current job,” she said.

As with other agencies, Hanson said succession planning remains a big concern at the Park Service.

“We’re fortunate because the predicted retirement tsunami has not yet occurred,” she said. “That might be affected in the future when federal agencies turn to different retirement policies that might allow people to have an early retirement option. Right now, probably 60 percent or better of our senior leaders are eligible to retire. If that were to happen, we would be very concerned. We would be in a tight spot.”

The key then is looking to “the bench,” Hanson said, training current employees so they will be prepared to fill those managerial vacancies if and when they occur.

“That’s where we’re targeting a lot of our efforts right now, so, everything from entry to mid-level managers and beyond,” she said.


OPM Survey: Oldest federal employees most satisfied, engaged workers

Pay freeze, sequestration take bite out of employee satisfaction, OPM survey reveals