Winter 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA2

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Stresses of Multicounty Agent Positions


Henry M. Bartholomew
County Extension Agent, Agriculture
Hocking and Perry Counties, Ohio

Keith L. Smith
Associate Director
Ohio Cooperative Extension Service
Ohio State University-Columbus

Financial concerns, early retirements, and a need for specialization have forced Ohio and other states to look at new staffing patterns. Traditionally, each county has had three agents, one each in agriculture, home economics, and 4-H, with one of the agents taking the community resource development function. This pattern changed on November 1, 1987, when the first agent was appointed to a multicounty position. Since then, until February 1989, when this study was conducted, 22 other agents have taken on this tradition-breaking responsibility.

New ways of doing things can cause frustrations and other concerns. A multicounty agent, along with the staff development office, conducted a study of these 23 agents asking how they were adjusting to their new positions. Their responses, along with a look at what others have found out about staffing patterns for local Extension program units, is the focus of this article.

Related Research

Studies of effectiveness of Extension organizational patterns from the past two decades are limited. Although many Extension groups, committees, and review teams have gathered various data and personal experiences, they have had little sound research on which to base their recommendations.

In 1970, McIntyre compared single-county agents with area agents who had responsibility in a six-county area. He found that known Extension cooperators who lived in counties with single-county agents were more satisfied, participated at higher levels, and adopted practices sooner than cooperators who lived in counties served by area agents.1

Warner, Young, and Cunningham found differences of job satisfaction among county agents in seven states, depending on staffing pattern. They reported that county-based staff with area responsibility had the highest job satisfaction, while staff in states that used a county agent/area specialist pattern were somewhat less satisfied, and county agents with only state specialist backup had the lowest job satisfaction. They also pointed out that job satisfaction is an indication of performance and can have an effect on the overall effectiveness of an organization.2 Pittman, Cunningham, and Young, in a follow-up study, found the multicounty/state pattern was rated the lowest by Extension clientele.3

What Ohio Found

All 23 of Ohio's multicounty agents were surveyed using an instrument the authors designed. This instrument was validated at the Ohio State University for content validity and was tested for reliability on agents in Ohio not a part of the test group. Responses were received by 21 agents, for a 91% response rate.

The analysis showed that 40% had conducted multicounty meetings. Agriculture agents were most likely to hold multicounty meetings, while home economics agents were the least likely. Agents found attending the same meetings in both counties to be significant additional work. They reported lengthy lists of committee and group meetings they felt obligated to attend. Mail, phone calls, and filing were most bothersome for agriculture agents, county chairs, and those with less than six months as a multicounty agent (see Table 1).

Some agents enjoyed working with new staff, but often found secretaries who didn't want to accept additional responsibilities to help multicounty agents. Having separate program assistants in each county required extra communication time for the agent (see Table 2).

All multicounty agents felt they were much less in control of their lives especially if they served as county chair. Those working the most extra hours indicated the greatest concern about control. Some agents expressed increasing strain with spouses and children.

Most agents agreed they would only recommend a multicounty position to an experienced, successful agent, not a new agent. Most agents worked in one county a day.

All 4-H agents had extra help in at least one county, while most home economics agents did, and most agriculture agents didn't. The longer agents had been multicounty, the more likely they were to have extra help.

Program assistants were likely to be part-time and work in only one county. Agents with no help or help other than a program assistant worked more extra hours. Most program assistants were paid by one county and a number of agents had extra help in one county, but not the other. A few program assistants were multicounty. Most of the extra help that wasn't program assistants consisted of executive secretaries, while a few were Extension associates (B.S. degree staff on a nontenure track).

Agents were asked what would be helpful if cost wasn't a factor. Their responses focused on the need for support staff, such as program assistants, Extension associates, and staff librarians. Most other requests were for car phones or radios, company car, and laptop computers.

Agents also had ideas for Extension administrators that wouldn't cost money, including a standard filing system, not duplicating mail to both counties, help with setting priorities, eliminating all unneeded paperwork, and recognizing their extra efforts.

Table 1. Reactions to questions about working as multicounty agents.

and agree


Disagree or

1. Multicounty meetings have been
efficient for me.




2. I am doing more group teaching
than when I was in one county.




3. I have more individual contacts
than when I worked in one county.




4. I work more hours per week as a
multicounty agent.




5. I feel more in control of my life
since becoming a multicounty agent.




6. I feel that multicounty work will be
a benefit when I next apply for




7. Multicounty work has been positive
in regard to my family personal life.




8. I would recommend a multicounty
position for new agents.




9. I would recommend a multicounty
position for experienced,
successful agents






The study shows that agents who have accepted multicounty assignments are in general working more hours and more effectively. Burnout studies4 have indicated that agents with increased stress, as is evident in this study, will be subject to a higher level of turnover than single-county agents. The minor additional stipend ($1,200) for multicounty assignments can't hope to compensate for the increased stress, feeling of loss of control, and sacrifices of leisure and family time. The review of related research also indicates that multicounty staffing is the least satisfying staffing arrangement and is perceived by clientele to be least effective. These changes over a period of time could lead to less support for Extension on the local level and perhaps reduced county funding.

Table 2. Efficiencies and inefficiencies multicounty agents found.

Efficiencies Inefficiencies
Multicounty newsletters Two sets of mail
Multicounty news releases Two sets of phone calls
Multicounty meetings Two sets of committee meetings
Use of program assistants Travel time
More diverse resources Filing
More co-workers and skills Different office procedures
Inservice training time More meetings to set up for
Good ideas from two sources Learning new clientele and power structure
Reporting Office social events
Clientele expectations


Here are some of our recommendations:

  1. Multicounty staffing should be reconsidered in favor of a system of multicounty clustering that would incorporate district specialists as well as county agents. This would allow field faculty to be responsible for organizational maintenance in only one county, while allowing for specialization within and perhaps between clusters. This has proven to be effective and the most satisfying for agents. If this recommendation isn't implemented, then the following recommendations should be considered for multicounty agents.

  2. Recent graduates shouldn't be assigned to multicounty positions without a suitable training period. Some new hires with considerable experience may be suited to multicounty roles immediately.

  3. Special training in time management techniques should be made available for multicounty agents.

  4. Multicounty agents should be encouraged to network with other agents in the same program area to share ideas on how to work more effectively and efficiently.

  5. Multicounty agents should be granted a one-time stipend ($1,000-$3,000) to be used at their discretion for communication equipment, laptop computers, or resource materials.

  6. All multicounty agents should have Extension associates or program assistants, and state and federal co-share monies should be used as an incentive for counties to fund these extra support staff.

  7. Multicounty agents should be discouraged from also serving as county chair.

  8. No agent should be assigned to work in more than two counties when he/she is responsible for an entire program area in those counties.


Ohio's multicounty agents have found the experience stimulating, frustrating, and exhausting. Agents placed in this situation need adequate support staff and time-saving equipment (laptop computers and dictating equipment). They also need to be experienced, successful agents to maintain the quality educational programs that Extension clientele expect.


1. W. J. McIntyre, "County Staff or Area Staff?" Journal of Extension, VIII (Summer 1970), 33-41.

2. P. Warner, R. Young, and C. Cunningham, "Is Area Staffing Better?" Journal of Extension, XIII (May/June 1975), 21-27.

3. J. D. Pittman, C. J. Cunningham, and R. E. Young, "Extension Staffing Patterns: Clientele Views," Journal of Extension, XIV (July/August 1976), 24-29.

4. Charles D. Clark, "The Influence of Job Satisfaction, Perceived Job Alternatives, and Central Life Interests on the Job Turnover Intentions of County Extension Agents" (Ph.D. dissertation, The Ohio State University, Columbus, 1981).