GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Computers meet training neets
Although most local governments encourage continuing education for their employees, training costs and scheduling often interfere with the follow-through. As an alternative, some cities and counties are developing computer-based training that allows their employees to update their skills without conflict.
With online training, employees can take classes whenever they want and work at their own pace. If they have computer access at home, they also can complete their training there. Training-related travel costs are eliminated, and business interruption is minimized. Austin, Texas, is one of many cities that has adopted computer-based training. Prior to 1998, it employed three instructors to provide technology training to each of its 12,000 employees. (Austin requires its employees to complete 16 hours of job-related training each year.)
The classes were always full and booked months in advance, says Jennie Roehm, system support technician and trainer for Austin. The packed schedule made it difficult for employees to complete the required training at a convenient time.
In late 1997, the city partnered with the University of Texas and CBT Systems, Redwood City, Calif., to offer 400 computer-based classes in programs such as Microsoft Word and Excel. Employees now can log onto the Internet and the city’s Intranet from work or home to take classes whenever they have time. Since the online courses were added, employees have registered for nearly 1,000 classes.
Once employees register for a class, they have two months to complete the coursework and take the final test. They must score a 70 on the exam to pass the course. Some employees have completed a course in two weeks, and employees can do their coursework during working hours if their supervisors approve, Roehm says.
The Information Systems Department pays for the classes, which typically cost between $30 and $70. Employees also can register for a full suite of Microsoft classes for $275. The department is not charged until an employee actually registers online, saving the city lost fees previously encountered when an employee paid for an instructor-led class but failed to attend.
Usually agencies sign a contract to “lease” the courses for a set period of time, locking into the original price. If a new version of the software comes out during the contracted period, the training curriculum is updated.
“People have a lot more opportunities to enhance their skills,” Roehm says. “[Computer-based training] is just a different avenue for training. And it’s free to the departments and free to employees.”
In addition, employees can get extra help they might not get in an instructor-led class. For example, some systems e-mail test preparation questions to students during the sessions preceding the final exam.
Austin has averaged in the 90s for final test scores, Roehm says. Because of its success in online training, the city received a Technology Achievement Award from Public Technology, Inc., Washington, D.C., in the 1998 Solutions competition.
Despite the popularity of online training, Austin still has a demand for traditional instructor-led classes. “We thought [computer-based training] would lighten our load a little bit but it hasn’t,” Roehm says. In fact, the department plans to hire a fourth trainer this year to be able to provide both options for employees.
By offering different training classes, agencies can ensure that all of their employees are completing their training requirements each year. Computer-based training provides a convenient way for employees to take courses, and it saves employers and trainers money and time.