Multiple factors are at work in Nebraska Extension’s current vacancies — not the least of which is the “Great Resignation” of 2021 — and the solutions must be equally nuanced.
“Some of this is just a natural evolution of the organization. We saw this happen over a decade ago, knowing that many of our professionals would retire after long careers with extension,” said Dave Varner, Associate Dean and Director of Nebraska Extension. noted. “…We knew we would hire or replace many of these extension professionals and of course COVID only complicated that.”
Varner also noted a generational difference in employee mindset.
“I see employees – not just in extension, but everywhere – as being more transient. My own children, they don’t necessarily think of a lifelong career in an organization like mine. … They are considering working for multiple employers throughout their careers,” Varner said.
Varner said today that it is normal for around 15 to 20 of the approximately 150 educator and extension assistant positions to be vacant at any given time.
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More than that has been opened recently, though. Of more than 60 extension openings listed on Feb. 8, about 20 were for “hands-on” positions, meaning employees who regularly interact with local residents such as local educators and assistants. As of February 8, four of the vacancies listed as “boots in the field” were in the Columbus area; two in Platte County and one each in Colfax and Butler counties.
However, the concentration of vacancies cannot be the only consideration when deciding how to fill vacancies.
“How long the positions have been open, how … the statewide (program) team is able to support the vacancy – if they are stretched, we need to be strategic about to those who have priority,” Extension Carrie Gottschalk, Engagement Zone 7 Coordinator, said.
There are many different extension program areas, such as 4-H Youth Development, Rural Prosperity, Early Childhood, and Cattle Husbandry Systems. Each program is assigned a statewide team, whose members include extension educators who are positioned throughout Nebraska based on where the need is greatest. For example, Gottschalk said, there may be more cattle program educators in places where there are more cattle farms.
Other extension educators in a program are one of three streams that support a vacancy. For example, other nearby beef educators can fill a beef extension educator vacancy listed in Webster County.
Gottschalk said the extension also relies on the support of other staff in a county’s extension office, which may include nearby educators in other programs.
Extension specialists are the third leg of the stool.
“Specialists are hosted at Lincoln – they are PhDs with faculty appointments. They have some level of extension…of appointment, but local stakeholders don’t see them as much. (Specialists) work directly with educators, primarily,” Gottschalk said.
Gottschalk said it takes a lot of thought to delegate responsibilities for a vacant position.
“We do decision trees, we divide and conquer,” Gottschalk said with a laugh. “We always want to make sure customers and local stakeholders get what they need, despite vacancies. … We also recognize the pressure on our existing staff. This does not go unnoticed and is not recognized. … It’s hard for someone to do the work of two or three people.”
Over the past two years, Gottschalk said the extension has introduced a statewide employee wellness program, overseen by an advisory committee that meets monthly.
The committee’s job is to highlight the importance of wellness and to meet the needs of Nebraska Extension employees.
“Wellness involves everything from exercise and nutrition to sleep patterns and your pace,” Varner said. “And then the recognition between all of us, equal to equal, colleague to colleague, that you need to take care of each other…and embrace those in need and support them.”
Filling vacancies is, of course, also an important part of relieving pressure. To that end, Gottschalk said there has certainly been a push — both in the extension and at the University of Nebraska as a whole — to keep Nebraska students in the state after graduation. their degree.
“In every area of programming, at every level … there are so many initiatives … (focused on) how we really leverage our talents, develop our own talents, and keep our own talents,” Gottschalk said.
Varner talked about “talent pipelines,” including internships and graduate student programs.
Besides the rising workforce, Gottschalk said the set tries to tap into as many sources as possible, both within the set and beyond.
“People have the ability to transfer and change positions within the extension or within the university, so there’s internal movement,” Gottschalk said. “…On the other hand, we have just integrated a new agricultural educator…from Brazil.”
Indeed, Varner said many job searches in the Nebraska Extension are national and even international in scope.
“In extension, we are looking for specific talent in our program areas – individuals with a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree (who are) well trained in the area of the discipline program in which they work, but also engaging people with amazing interpersonal skills are needed for these roles,” Varner said.
Throughout, Varner said, extension professionals and local Nebraska stakeholders have done and continue to do a great job of being flexible and adapting as needed.
“This is just a testament to the people we try to attract and hire in the Nebraska Extension – very resilient, very innovative people and people who excel at working with the people and valued members of their local community,” Varner said.
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