Fall 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA4

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Why Do Extension Agents Resign?

The differences between those who leave and those who stay.

Linda Nunes Manton
County Director, Merced County
Cooperative Extension
University of California

J. C. van Es
Professor, Rural Sociology
University of Illinois

As in many other states, employee turnover in Illinois is a serious problem in Extension. In the three-year period between March, 1979, and March, 1982, 63 Illinois field staff who had served 48 months or less in their positions resigned.

Can Extension afford the costs of hiring agents who might soon leave their employment? Would better orientation, training, and supervision, and a more attractive organizational climate decrease Extension's turnover? In Illinois, we tried to find out why recently hired agents quit. We came up with some surprising answers that should be relevant to other states as well.

The Illinois Study

The data were collected through mail questionaires from past and current Illinois Extension agents who were first employed within 36 months before April 1, 1982. The currently employed respondents returned 85 questionnaires (96%) and the past employees returned 49 questionnaires (91 %). For convenience, we'll refer to current employees as "stayers" and to former employees as "leavers."1

Among the leavers, more were found in agricultural positions than in home economics or 4-H/youth. Among stayers, job titles were almost equally divided. Community resource development (CRD) agents weren't represented in either group. On other descriptive criteria such as rank, previous education, and length of employment in Extension, the stayers and leavers were similar.


On the basis of the literature, we assumed that the leavers would have higher dissatisfaction than stayers. We set out to determine the differences in satisfaction between stayers and leavers with orientation and training, supervision, organizational climate, and job-related factors such as salary and compensatory time.

Orientation and Training

For orientation and training, we looked at such diverse items as the match between undergraduate degree and job title, usefulness of college course work to the job, previous knowledge of Extension, and the job information provided at the time of and before the interview. We also looked at satisfaction with in-service training, guidance, and subjectmatter support received from state specialists and others.

Our data show some high levels of satisfaction, more frequently high levels of dissatisfaction with the items listed above, but no major differences between stayers and leavers in satisfaction or dissatisfaction toward in-service training received, subject-matter support received, and guidance received.


Research points out that dissatisfaction with supervision favors higher job turnover.2 The data on supervision show that while the stayers and leavers are dissatisfied in different supervision areas, a high rate of dissatisfaction existed among both stayers and leavers. Therefore, dissatisfaction with supervision by itself wasn't enough to explain why people left their jobs.

Organizational Climate

Organizational climate affects work behavior and motivation to work.3 Stayers and leavers reported positive feelings about their job when they started work and, although some erosion of this positive attitude had taken place, both groups still expressed positive feelings at the time of the questionnaire or when they left their jobs. The stayers and leavers also were positive about their work with the community.

The data show that about one-third of both groups were dissatisfied with office support and management. The data also indicate that sometimes stayers and leavers showed some differences. For example, leavers were much more dissatisfied than stayers with the regional directors and more satisfied with county staff leaders. However, once again the data didn't indicate a systematic pattern of greater dissatisfaction among leavers.

Discrepancies between the job one is hired to do and the job one actually does, as well as the time actually worked, were also frequent sources of dissatisfaction and a possible reason for people leaving Extension. When comparing job assignment and time actually worked, the data showed, not surprisingly, that the job one is hired for might not be the job one will actually do. Our findings indicate that in the aggregate, the difference between stayers and leavers with regard to the program area they were hired for and the program they actually worked in is very small.

Job-Related Experiences

If orientation and training, supervision, and organizational climate weren't linked to why people leave Extension, for sure such job-related experiences as salary, compensatory time, and the routine tasks (paperwork!) should help explain why people leave their employment.

Table 1 shows that the dissatisfaction levels with salary, compensatory time, and routine tasks were very high both among leavers and stayers. However, stayers were even more dissatisfied than the leavers in all areas of job-related conditions! Thus, dissatisfaction with job-related experiences didn't characterize leavers more than stayers.

Table 1. Dissatisfaction with job-related conditions.
Dissatisfaction with Stayers Leavers

  N % N %

Salary 40 48% 23 48%
Comprensation time 56 69 28 58
Routine tasks 40 48 20 42

The general importance of job-related experiences is also reflected in what the respondents found "most unsatisfactory" about their jobs. Both groups reported job-related experiences (hours worked, paperwork, lack of time, pay) much more frequently than such items as supervision or training. When asked what they found "most satisfactory" about their Extension jobs, both stayers and leavers most often mentioned community, organizing programs, and program success. Again, both stayers and leavers didn't differ very much in their reported job "satisfiers" or "dissatisfiers."

Reasons Agents Gave for Leaving

To understand better why people leave Extension, we asked the leavers to give us their most significant reasons for leaving. During the analysis of the data, it became clear that agents whose main responsibility was agriculture were giving reasons for leaving different from those in home economics and youth.

The data in Table 2 indicate that most of the factors expressing dissatisfaction with the job are less likely to be listed as reasons for leaving than the factors that reflect conditions and opportunities outside Extension (pull factors). Home economists oryouth agents indicated that the three most important reasons for resigning related to the family. Changes in the family situation and moves of the family were most often listed as reasons for leaving, followed closely by too much time away from family.

Table 2. Most significant reasons for leaving Extension, by job title.a
  Job title
  Agriculture (N = 22) Home economics
and youth (N = 25)

  N % N %

Pull factors:  
  Family changes 4 17% 9 36%
  Moved with family 1 4 10 40
  Opportunity advancement; professional growth 10 43 2 8
  Better salary/benefits 9 39 1 4
Organizational climate:  
  dissatisfaction with administration 5 22 5 20
  too much time away from family 3 13 7 28
aThese tabulations are based on "the two most important reasons for leaving you job" given by those who left their job. Only those responses are listed that were mentioned by at least five respondents.

While the home economics and youth agents rarely listed alternative career opportunities as reasons for terminating Extension employment, the agricultural agents did. There are probably many reasons for these differences. People whose values are more home- and children-oriented maybe more likely to select careers in home economics and youth work. In addition, the choices also reflect the realities of the marketplace where alternative career opportunities in agriculture may be more lucrative and diverse than the opportunities available in home economics and youth work, especially in rural areas.


Among leavers, dissatisfaction with aspects of their Extension employment was often high and it would have been easy to attribute resignations to these dissatisfactions. However, because we compared leavers with stayers, we know that dissatisfaction among those who didn't leave is about equally high. Therefore, dissatisfaction with the job doesn't by itself explain why people leave. Our data also provide no evidence that the leaving of personnel leads to a decline in the level of dissatisfaction in the organization and thus serves as a safety value to let off frustrations.

Furthermore, the frequently high level of dissatisfaction within the organization is cause for concern. Dissatisfied employees make dispirited employees who don't perform optimally for the organization and who suffer personally through high levels of stress and frustration. Even though we found that few employees "quit out of sheer frustration," we nevertheless felt it important to recommend that Extension in Illinois try to eliminate sources of frustration for its employees. Some of the recommendations we made are already being implemented. Several issues were already being considered by administration even before we undertook our study.

Here are some recommendations we made, especially about new employees:

  1. Individuals who are appointed to a supervisory role should have formal or informal training in the area of supervisory strategy.
  2. The Extension agent's job description should be more closely tied to the actual work performed.
  3. Efforts should be made to match the expectations of the individual with the reality of the Extension position. Prospective employees need to be made aware at the initial interview that the work week isn't rigidly defined and that night work is a factor of the Extension agent's job.
  4. The concern about "too much time away from family" should be reviewed by the administration and action should be taken to resolve the situation. Efforts need to be made to strengthen the county staff's use of volunteers and to develop a clearly defined "compensatory time" program.


  1. Linda Nunes Manton, "Factors Contributing to Job Turnover in the Illinois Cooperative Extension Service" (Master's thesis, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, 1983).
  2. W. H. Mobley and others, "Review and Conceptual Analysis of the Employee Turnover Process," Psychological Bulletin, LXXXVI (No. 3, 1969), 493-522.
  3. George H. Litwin and Robert A. Stringer, Jr., Motivation and Organizational Climate (Boston: Harvard University, 1968).