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Public Administrators: Cross-Skilling as a Strategy to Enhance Professional Development Access and Staffing in the Sector

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Janet Thompson
February 28, 2022

Conventional models of practice may engender public administration training managers’ view of professional development as a linear construct. This perspective upholds the ideal that in order for employees to evolve professionally, skill development should follow training paths that are directly aligned with job titles and functions. Employees may then potentially advance based on their achievement levels in those capacities.

As one example, a call center staffer may be guided to take courses focused on verbal communication, listening and questioning skills to further develop those capacities within the context of their job responsibilities. In this manner, employee training may parallel the tiered job classification infrastructure that is typically found in the sector. And while this approach may provide the employee with enhanced relative skills within a role, it is also an inherently narrow focus that may directly hinder staffing efforts more broadly across organizational functions and levels.

Public administration training professionals may wish to consider ways to adapt cross-skilling as a guiding concept and practice to broaden professional development opportunities for employees and fulfill jobs that may suffer from shortages of highly skilled applicants.

Definition and Designation

Cross-skilling is also commonly referred to as cross-training. However, the terms are distinctly nuanced in terms of their intent and practice outcomes. While cross-training primarily refers to teaching employees skills that may apply at a certain level and within a respective organizational area, the intent of cross-skilling is increasingly focused on developing employees’ capacities for expanding their skill sets beyond those required in a particular function or section of the organization.

For example, with cross-training, an administrative assistant may engage in learning computer software to effectively troubleshoot a suite of applications used within their job scope. Conversely, cross-skilling would be aimed at having the administrative assistant attain a depth of skill, knowledge and practice to provide opportunities for career diversity elsewhere in the organization and potentially at a higher level. For example, an agency administrative assistant who expresses interest, would have the option to engage in computer systems training and become qualified to pursue a primary, elevated role as an information technology professional.  

Potential Benefits

Overtime, a potentially significant inhibitor of employees’ motivation, drive and initiative in the workplace is the perception that their roles are stagnant because of static (and possibly insufficient) professional development opportunities. Cross-skilling programs engender the potential for career diversity and expansion within the organization. Public sector human resource professionals that develop cross-skilling as a prominent segment of their training programs provide and empower employees with distinctive opportunities to learn and, importantly, change career paths within the organization.  

In this context, employees’ perceptions of efficacy to manage, progress and diversify their careers are affirmed through organizational policies and practice. Knowing that their opportunities for development may include paths that are not inherently linear, but instead are rather broadly diverse, may dually incentivize employees toward long-term employment within the sector and enhance its workforce.

Ultimately, cross-skilling employees may help reveal hidden talents, increase their skillsets and be a catalyst for advancing the goals and objectives of the agency and its departments. If broadly adapted, cross-skilling will certainly make the sector more agile and responsive to its current and future workforce.

With the adaptation of cross-skilling training courses and programs, public sector professional development leaders may play a direct and significant role in growing an agile training infrastructure that provides both qualitative and quantitative growth in the sector’s workforce.

Significance in the Current Context

A widely reported phenomenon of the current workplace has been termed as “The Great Resignation”. In her October 20, 2021 Harvard Gazzette article, columnist Christina Pazzanese, posited that, “…maybe the current moment reflects a permanent change in people’s values” where individuals have elected to leave the workforce. While this contemporary labor trend has been largely ascribed to the private sector, it has also reverberated within public agencies and their departments. One of the outcomes of the Great Resignation in both areas has been a contracted labor market. In this setting, the adaptation of a cross-skilling strategy as policy and practice may attract individuals to the public sector who prioritize professional development autonomy.

Potential Pathways

Relatedly, learning and development teams in public sector organizations may operationalize their adaptation of cross-skilling for recruitment, onboarding and retention purposes. The strategic application of this approach may serve to both increase the quality and quantity of public administration’s human capital. Concurrently, organizations that apply this methodology will provide employees with options to access professional development programs that evolve or substantially change their careers. Employees may then engage in training with a broader perspective based on a more expansive range of options, i.e., the agility to advance or diversify their professions.

Author: Janet Thompson, Ed. D., is an Education Program Development Specialist in the Center for Learning and Improving Performance (CLIP), at the New Jersey Civil Service Commission. She develops and edits professional training programs and varied publications for delivery to State employees. Additionally, Dr. Thompson has over 20 years of combined higher education teaching and administration experience. She is currently an adjunct professor in the English and Communication departments at SUNY Rockland Community College.

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