Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 11, Issue 1 - June, 2018

Challenges Perceived by West Virginia University Extension Agents

Boone, D. A, Professor, West Virginia University
Boone Jr., H. N., Professor, West Virginia University
Smith, C. N., Graduate Student, West Virginia University
Woloshuk, J. M., Extension Professor Emerita, West Virginia University Extension

ABSTRACT

To help reduce the number of extension agent turnovers, administrators need to have first-hand knowledge of challenges that agents face in their daily work. The purpose of the study was to identify challenges perceived by West Virginia extension agents. A three-stage Delphi technique was used to identify the challenges. The study identified 35 challenges of being an extension agent in West Virginia. These challenges were separated into five constructs. The top challenges in the "training and support" construct were: disconnect between needs of county and expectations of state office, prioritizing what is important, and meeting programming expectations. The top challenges in the "funding and resources" construct were: lack of funding, space for storage, and limited available resources other than funding. The third construct was "personal issues", which was the highest rated area and included: finding time for all programs, balancing family and work obligations, and overextending on commitments. Challenges in the "volunteers and community involvement" construct included: impact of policies on volunteers, identifying leaders in programs, community’s perceptions of an agent’s responsibilities, and volunteer recruitment. The challenges identified related to the last construct of "organizational factors" included: unclear guidelines and standards, inconsistent or nonexistent administrative policies, and employee pay and promotion.


Introduction

The Cooperative Extension Services employs approximately 8,000 extension agents/educators nationwide (USDA NIFA, 2010). For the ease of discussion, both extension agents and educators will be called extension agents in this article. Extension agents are faced with many challenges. The most commonly found obstacles extension agents face are related to competency, recruitment, technology, balance of family and work, and time management (Bailey and Arnold, 2014; Bradley et al., 2012; Harder et al, 2009; Lakai et al., 2012). Ensle (2005) found extension agents tended to be more independent thinkers and had a mindset of family comes before work. This value set can be directly related to the rapid turnover of young agents who burn out or are overworked, as they generally lack skills of time management to balance work and family obligations (Benge et al., 2011; Benge et al., 2015; Harder et al., 2009). Manton and vas Es (1985) determined that the top three reasons for early attrition of extension agents were: being away from family, family moving, or change in family situation.

Extension agents leave their positions for a number of reasons. Branham (2005) found employees leave their job for the following reasons: job did not meet expectations, lack of training/supervision, not recognized for work, stress of the workload, and lack of trust from leaders. In addition, Rousan and Henderson (1996) found that early attrition is also caused by: other life priorities, other job opportunities, low pay relative to work performed, family obligations, frequent night meetings, and workload. Fetsch and Kennington (1997) noted that extension agents often have non-regular work hours including nights and weekends which require agents to balance their time at work and home. Extension agents with the greatest concern of balancing home and work are those in their first five years with the Extension Service (Boltes et al., 1995). This finding instigated the renewal of organization norms in finding balance among work, family, and personal life (Extension Committee on Organization and Policy, 1995). Ellison (2011) recommended the addition of balancing time and work to an employee retention program after interviewing eight 4-H agents who had completed the program in Georgia and six of the individuals mentioned issues with balancing their time. Kroth and Peutz (2011) used a Delphi technique to identify issues in the workplace and found that balancing work and life ranked third, only behind salaries/benefits and environment that supports work. 

The most frequently noted challenge for extension agents is the ability to manage time efficiently. The key to avoiding burnout is being able to manage family, work, and personal life (Ensle, 2005). Burnout doesn’t occur all at once, it slowly builds up and is caused by overworking (Ensle, 2005). Extension is very flexible, but sometimes has abnormal hours that extend to evening and weekends (Fetsch & Kennington, 1997). Rousan and Henderson (1996), found that former agents often cited family obligations as a major reason for leaving the organization.

With many agricultural agents/educators serving as county office administrators and who work with other extension agents/educators in shared programming and as resources, this study will be useful in helping to reduce the number of extension agents leaving their positions. Administrators need to have first-hand knowledge of challenges extension agents face in day to day work (McNeely et al., 2002). This knowledge will help reduce obstacles faced by extension agents, increase the job satisfaction of that agent, and lead to the retention of high performing extension agents (Safrit & Owen, 2010).

Problem Statement

Long hours and heavy workloads are often blamed for job dissatisfaction among extension agents/educators (Kutilek et al., 2002). Job satisfaction is the key to keeping quality employees. By studying the challenges of current West Virginia University Extension Agents, we will determine factors that Extension systems must address in order to improve job satisfaction among agents. The objective of the study is reflected in the following research question: What challenges do West Virginia University extension agents encounter as perceived by current extension agents?

 

Methods

The Delphi research method was used to establish a consensus of challenges faced by West Virginia Extension Agents. The Delphi technique is a method developed as a group communication process that aims to achieve convergence of opinion on a specific real world issue (Hsu and Sandford, 2007).

Population

The target population for this the study was 111 extension agents employed by the West Virginia University Extension Service as of October 2014. A survey of all 111 agents was conducted, and 83 surveys were returned for a response rate of 74.8%. The population of agents included in the study consisted of 43 4-H Youth Development (4-H) agents, 35 Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR) agents, 24 Families and Health (F&H) agents, and 9 Community, Economic, and Workforce Development (CEWD) agents.

Instrumentation

A Delphi Technique was used to collect research data; therefore the instrument was created by the participants’ responses to three different rounds of questions. Extension agents were contacted to participate via e-mail messages which contained an embedded link to each round of questions. The first round of the survey was designed to collect a list of perceived challenges Extension agents faced. The responses gathered from phase I of the survey were compiled and organized into a condensed list. A total of 113 responses were gathered from the initial survey. Those items were compiled and organized into a list of 67 challenges.

Using the 67 challenges from phase I, phase II was designed to identify the challenges that were the most problematic. Participants were asked to indicate whether each response was a challenge or not a challenge. The responses that were rated as a challenge by at least 50 percent of the participants were used in phase III of the research. Of the 67 items that were sent to the Extension Agents in phase II, 35 items were identified as a challenge by at least 50 percent of the population.

Phase III of the Delphi study included the 35 items identified as challenges during phase II. Those 35 items were organized into five construct areas: “training and support,” “funding and resources,” “personal issues” “volunteers and community involvement,” and “organizational factors” (Table 1). Participants were asked to rate the level of challenge for each of the challenges in the constructs. The following scale was use to represent the level of challenge in each construct: Not a Challenge = 1.00 – 1.50; Slightly Challenging = 1.51 – 2.50; Somewhat Challenging = 2.51 – 3.50; and Very Challenging = 3.51 - 4.00. Demographic questions in phase 3 included: gender, age, marital status, if they had children at home, program unit affiliation, if there was a program assistant, if they served as county program coordinator, number of agents per county, and number of counties for which agent is responsible.

 

Table 1. Components of the five construct areas developed from surveys of Extension agents: “Training and Support,” “Funding and Resources,” “Personal Issues,” “Volunteers and Community Involvement,” and “Organizational Factors.” 

 

Not a Challenge

Slightly Challenging

Somewhat Challenging

Very Challenging

NA

 

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

N

%

Training and Support

Lack of guidance-supervision

23

28.4

21

25.9

19

23.5

18

22.2

0

0.0

Lack of training

14

17.5

26

32.5

21

26.3

19

23.8

0

0.0

Prioritizing what is important

16

20.0

15

18.8

31

38.8

18

22.5

0

0.0

Meeting programming expectations

12

15.6

19

24.7

31

40.3

15

19.5

0

0.0

Disconnect, county needs- state office expectations

9

11.1

22

27.2

26

32.1

23

28.4

1

1.2

Funding and Resources

 Lack of funding

8

9.9

14

17.3

23

28.4

36

44.4

0

0.0

 Limited available resources

7

8.6

23

28.4

34

42.0

17

21.0

0

0.0

 Space for storage

13

16.1

18

22.2

21

25.9

29

35.8

0

0.0

 Limited human resources

9

11.1

28

34.6

22

27.2

21

25.9

1

1.2

Personal Issues

 Time management

15

18.5

17

21.0

26

32.1

23

28.4

0

0.0

 Mental health

16

20.3

21

26.6

28

35.4

14

17.7

0

0.0

 Balancing family and work

6

7.5

14

17.5

25

31.3

35

43.8

0

0.0

 Identifying personal limits

13

16.1

15

18.5

31

38.3

22

27.2

0

0.0

 Time required for P & T file

10

12.5

16

20.0

29

36.3

23

28.8

2

2.5

 Working evenings/weekends

9

11.1

17

21.0

34

42.0

21

25.9

0

0.0

 Time spent on reports

8

9.9

28

34.6

31

38.3

13

16.1

1

1.2

 Finding time for all programs

3

3.7

14

17.3

22

27.3

41

50.6

1

1.2

 Overextending on commitments

4

4.9

14

17.3

34

42.0

29

35.8

0

0.0

Volunteers and Community Involvement

 Recruiting volunteers

5

6.1

21

25.6

32

39.0

21

25.6

3

3.7

 Training volunteers

9

11.1

24

29.6

25

30.9

19

23.5

4

4.9

 Retaining volunteers

12

14.8

27

33.3

24

29.6

15

18.5

3

3.7

 Impact policies have on volunteers

6

7.3

16

19.5

28

34.2

27

32.9

5

6.1

 Finding leadership in programs

6

7.3

14

17.1

39

47.6

22

26.8

1

1.2

 Managing expectations of clientele

5

6.1

29

35.4

35

42.7

12

14.6

1

1.2

 Communities' perception of agents' responsibilities

6

7.3

20

24.4

34

41.5

22

26.8

0

0.0

 Dealing with difficult personalities

8

9.9

30

37.0

28

34.6

15

18.5

0

0.0

 Keeping at-risk youth engaged

7

8.5

23

28.1

28

34.2

11

13.4

13

15.9

Organizational Factors

Reporting requirements-paperwork

6

7.3

30

36.6

33

40.2

13

15.9

0

0.0

Inconsistent/ nonexistent administrative policies

12

14.8

15

18.5

28

34.6

26

32.1

0

0.0

Constant system changes

10

12.4

25

30.9

24

29.6

20

24.7

2

2.5

Unclear guidelines-standards

5

6.1

24

29.3

20

24.4

33

40.2

0

0.0

Ineffective evaluation systems

10

12.2

21

25.6

29

35.4

21

25.6

1

1.2

Employee pay-promotion

5

6.2

24

29.6

30

37.0

21

25.9

1

1.2

 

The instrument was presented to a panel of faculty members in Agricultural and Extension Education and an Extension Specialist at West Virginia University to establish content and face validity. Reliability was determined using SPSS to calculate Cronbach’s alpha for each of the sections and Spearman-Brown was calculated for the overall reliability. The reliability of categories “personal issue,” “organizational factors,” and overall were exemplary at 0.892, 0.843, and 0.800 respectively; categories of “training and support,” “funding and resources,” and “volunteers and community” were extensive at 0.763, 0.718, and 0.783 respectively (Robinson et al., 1991). The instrument was determined to be a reliable measure.

Analysis of Data

The level of significance was set a priori at α ≤ .05 for all statistical tests. Frequencies, means, standard deviations, and ANOVA were run. Fifty-seven agents (68.7%) were early respondents while twenty-six (31.3%) were late respondents. An ANOVA test was run on early and late responses in each of the five constructs to determine if there was a nonresponse error. No significant differences were found in the areas of “training and support” (F = 0.00), “funding and resources” (F = 1.45), “personal issue” (F = 0.20), “volunteers and community involvement” (F = 0.039), or “organizational factors” (F = 1.26).

 

Results

A majority of the respondents were female (56.6%) and 31.3% of respondents were over 50 years of age while 24.1% were between the ages of 31 and 35. More than three quarters (79.5%) of the population were married, and slightly less than half (48.2%) have children at home. Just over a third (36.1%) of the respondents served the 4-H unit while nearly one-third (31.3%) were with the ANR unit. Nearly 35% of agents were serving their first five years when they completed this survey while 24.1% were in their six to tenth year of service and 21.7% had passed the 20-year mark of service with Extension. Exactly 50% of the respondents were County Program Coordinators. A majority of the agents worked between 37.6 and 47.5 hours per week while 48.2% worked more than 47.6 hours per week. The official work week for WVU employees was 37.5 hours. Eighty-six percent of responses reported they work in only one county and 83.2% of agents indicated they worked in a county with two or three agents. A slight majority (59%) of agents work in a county where no program assistant was employed.

Perceptions of Challenges by Construct Area: Overall and by Program Units. When examining the perception of challenges by construct areas, for the construct “training and support,” agents overall rated the construct as somewhat challenging (M = 2.6) (Table 2). F&H agents (M = 2.2) rated this construct below the average, as slightly challenging and significantly lower than both the 4-H (M = 2.7) and CEWD units (M = 3.0). As a whole, agents reported the disconnect between the needs of county and expectations of the state office to be the most challenging aspect of “training and support”, followed by prioritizing what is important and meeting programming expectations. This finding supports the research of Lakai et al. (2012), Harder et al. (2009), Safrit and Owen (2010), Branham (2005), and Benge et al. (2011).

“Funding and resources” received a composite rating of somewhat challenging (M = 2.8) by all agents. The construct of “funding and resources” recorded the highest composite ratings for F&H and 4-H, and registered the second highest scores in ANR and CEWD (Table 2). The leading concern for “funding and resources” was lack of funding followed by space for storage and limited available resources other than funding. The findings in this construct agree with the findings of Harder et al. (2009).

The most challenging construct for all agents was “personal issues” (M = 2.9) which was rated somewhat challenging (Table 2). ANR agents rated “personal issues” as the most challenging category (M = 2.9). F&H agents rated it as their second most challenging construct (M = 2.58). The most challenging concern of “personal issues” according to agents was finding time for all programs, balancing family and work obligations, and overextending on commitments. The major challenges that were identified in the construct of “personal issues” were all related to time management. Effective time management can be a great challenge for agents. Bradley et al. (2012) created a plan that supports the findings in this survey. Bailey et al. (2014), Rousan and Henderson (1996), Mowbray (2001), Ensle (2005), Boltes et al. (1995), Kutilek et al. (2002), and Kroth and Peutz (2011) reported the importance of balance of family and work and managing time to reduce rapid employee burnout.

Agents overall rated the construct of “Volunteers and Community Involvement” as somewhat challenging (M = 2.74) (Table 2). ANR agents (M = 2.7) reported volunteers and community involvement to be significantly less challenging than CEWD agents (M = 3.2). F&H agents (M = 2.3) found the construct to be less challenging than both CEWD agents (M = 3.2) and 4-H agents (M = 2.9). This finding is consistent with the number of volunteers each agent and unit was asked to interact with on the job. All units work with volunteers at one point or another, but 4-H and CEWD agents are typically asked to work more with the community and volunteers than F&H and ANR. CEWD agents found the construct of “volunteers and community involvement” to be the most challenging. Agents in all areas found the impact policies have on volunteers as the most challenging aspect, followed closely by finding leadership in programs, community’s perceptions of an agent’s responsibilities, and recruiting volunteers. McNeely et al. (2002) reported the use of the screening programs that are in place for agents to recruit adequate volunteers for their programs. This can be a timely process but is a very valuable tool for volunteer management. The use of trained, experienced volunteers to assist with implementation will take some of the burden off the agents. Those trained volunteers could also end up being leaders in Extension programs. Warner et al. (1996) and Harder et al. (2013) reported the necessity of public knowledge of Extension and what an agents’ responsibilities are.

“Organizational factors” were found to be somewhat challenging (M = 2.8) by all Extension Agents. The F&H unit found organization factors to be less challenging (M = 2.4) than the average mean and significantly less challenging than the 4-H unit (M = 2.9) (see Table 2). Unclear guidelines and standards was the most challenging factor, while inconsistent/nonexistent administrative policies and employee pay and promotion followed. Much like “training and support,” an analysis of “organizational factors” identified a disconnect between the agents and what was being asked of them through guidelines and policies. A closer relationship with the state administration would help reduce the confusion for agents. Benge et al. (2015) reported the need for state staff to provide clear leadership and take an interest.

 

Table 2. Perception of challenges by construct: overall and within program units with means (M) and standard deviations (SD). Program units are Agriculture and Natural Resouces (ANR), Families and Health (F&H), Community, Economic and Workforce Development (CEWD), and 4-H. Ratings were defined as mean value of: 1.00 – 1.50 = not a challenge; 1.51 – 2.50 = slightly challenging; 2.51 – 3.50 = somewhat challenging; and 3.51 – 4.00 = very challenging. 

 

 

Program Unit

Overall

ANR

F&H

CEWD

4-H

M

SD

M

SD

M

SD

M

SD

M

SD

Training and support

2.6

.75

2.5

.65

2.2

.67

3.0

.64

2.7

.79

Funding and resources

2.8

.73

2.8

.73

2.7

.70

3.1

.74

2.9

.76

Personal issues

2.9

.71

2.9

.63

2.6

.75

3.0

.81

2.9

.75

Volunteers and community involvement

2.7

.59

2.7

.60

2.3

.57

3.2

.52

2.9

.52

Organizational factors

2.8

.67

2.8

.62

2.4

.63

2.9

.58

2.9

.72

 

Analysis of variance (ANOVA) was run on program units and constructs; significant differences were found in the constructs of “training and support,” “volunteers and community involvement,” and “organizational factors.” F&H found “training and support” to be significantly less challenging than CEWD and 4-H. ANR found “volunteers and community involvement” to be significantly less challenging than CEWD. F&H also found “volunteers and community involvement” to be significantly less challenging than CEWD and 4-H. The only significant difference within the area of “organizational factors” was between 4-H and F&H, in which F$H found “organizational factors” to be significantly less challenging than 4-H.

In the area of “funding and resources,” agents reported a significant difference between agents that were single (single, widowed, divorced) and married. Agents that were single reported “funding and resources” to be a greater challenge.

The number of agents per county showed significant differences in the areas of “personal issue,” “volunteers and community involvement,” and “organizational factors.” Agents who worked along two or more agents in their county reported “personal issue” to be significantly less challenging than agents who were the only agent in their county. Both agents with one additional agent and agents with two or more agents in their county ranked “volunteers and community involvement” to be significantly less challenging than agents who were the only agent in their county. Organization factors were reported to be significantly more challenging for single agents than agents who had additional agents in their county.

Areas of gender, children at home, county program coordinators, number of counties an agent serves, and having a program assistant did not reveal a significant relationship to the agents’ perceptions of challenges.

 

Conclusions and Recommendations

Based on the results of this study, the following conclusions were made:

  • Agents who were married found “funding and resources” to be less challenging than agents who were single. Further research is needed to determine why.
  • 4-H and CEWD both reported “funding and resources” and “volunteers and community involvement” to be more difficult than any other unit.
  • Veteran agents reported each construct to be less challenging than other groups.
  • Counties with multiple agents reported less difficulty with challenges related to working with the community and volunteers than counties with only one agent.
  • A disconnect exists between county needs and the expectations of the state office.
  • Time management, planning, and programming are major concerns among agents.
  • Funding and facilities are continuing challenges for Extension
  • Community involvement and working with volunteers are a necessity for Extension, but arevery challenging at the same time.
  • There are no relationships between construct challenges and gender, age, children at home, being a county coordinator, number of counties agent is responsible for, years of Extension experience, or whether the county has a program assistant.

 

Administrators should do a better job of providing clear and consistent guidelines with concise administrative policies to eliminate the disconnect between the agents and administration. Administrators who are looking to increase their employee’s satisfaction of their job should first take note of what trainings and in-service learning programs are currently in place, how and where they are administered. Bridging the gap between the county office and the university would eliminate one of the highest rated constructs found in this study.

Burnout is one of the big issues in Extension, and the authors recommend providing time management programs to help agents reduce the amount of time they are working in the evenings and weekends, to learn to set their limits, and to say “no.” The key to being a successful agent is knowing what the audience wants to learn and being able to provide  programing that will benefit them. Agents must meet the needs of their population to the best of their abilities, but must also set boundaries for themselves to not exceed their limitations. Burnout does not happen all at once. Continuous overworking can lead to dissatisfaction, not the work itself. Extension should explore and encourage new and creative ways to deliver programs to decrease the number of evening and week-end activities in an effort to reduce some of the identified personal issues of balancing family and work obligations and overextending on commitments.

Since veteran agents found many of the challenges to be less difficult than other agents, it is recommended that studies be conducted with agents who have worked more than twenty years to determine why those challenges are not as problematic for them. Veteran agents may have useful advice for younger agents in dealing with perceived challenges. Mentoring of new agents by veteran agents should be used as a means to assist in training agents/educators who are in their first five years with Extension, particularly those who are the sole agent in a county. Administration should be willing to explore ways to share workloads; this could include encouraging partnering agents from single agent counties to work collaboratively to share programming.

 

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the USDA National Institue of Food and Agriculture, Hatch project WVA00657, and the West Virginia Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.