October 1994 // Volume 32 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA3

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Training Needs of Area Specialized Extension Agents

The purpose of this study was to determine the training competencies needed by area specialized agents in the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Eighteen competency areas were rated on importance and training need. A total of eight competencies were rated 3.0 (important) or above on a Likert-type scale by area specialists, administrators, and subject matter specialists. Program planning received the highest grand mean of 3.37. It was concluded that all three groups generally agreed on the competencies. It was recommended that six specific elements within the program planning competency be included in area specialist's training.

Jerry D. Gibson
Swain County Extension Director
North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, North Carolina
Internet address: jgibson@swain.ces.ncsu.edu

John Hillison
Agricultural and Extension Education
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg, Virginia

Cooperative Extension Service agricultural agents have traditionally been nonspecialists; that is, they have broad knowledge of all aspects of their general program area-- agriculture, natural resources, community development, home economics, or youth development. Today, the problems faced by our society are becoming so specialized and complex that generalist Extension agents have great difficulty keeping abreast of technological developments on all fronts. To address this problem, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service has added area specialized Extension agents (ASEA) to their field staff. These agents serve several counties and specialize in a single subject area--for example, swine production, family resource management, or integrated pest management. These specialized agents are highly proficient in their subject area, better serving the needs of Extension clientele and reducing work load and frustration for nonspecialized agents. Currently, North Carolina has 66 ASEAs working in 18 different subject areas.

The creation of the ASEA position has presented a new challenge to the North Carolina Extension Service: the planning and development of training programs suitable for these specialized agents. However, virtually all existing training programs are designed for nonspecialist agents.

Specialized agents commonly are employed after completing advanced formal training in their area of specialization. To be effective, however, they also need competencies in the Extension education process. In addition, they must understand the human development, learning, and social interaction processes, and they must become knowledgeable about the organization within which they work. Unfortunately, time, personnel, and other resources for inservice training are very limited. Therefore, it is crucial to devote training opportunities to those topics on which training is most important and most needed.

As an aid in developing effective inservice training programs for North Carolina ASEAs, their training needs and interests were studied through a survey of North Carolina Extension Service administrators, state-level subject-matter specialists, and the ASEAs themselves. Although the results of the study are unique to North Carolina, the methods and instruments used can be readily adapted to assess training needs for specialized agents in other Extension Systems across the country.


The questionnaire used in this study was based on an instrument developed by McCormick (1959) and later adapted by Price (1960) and Hubbard (1971) for assessing the training needs of nonspecialized Extension agents. The questionnaire focused on eight general competency areas identified by the Extension Committee on Policy as necessary for the effectiveness of Extension agents (National Policy Statement, 1968):

  • Extension organization and administration
  • Program planning and development
  • Communication
  • Research
  • Human development
  • Educational processes
  • Social systems
  • Effective thinking

Respondents were asked to rate the importance of each competency area and specific elements of knowledge and ability within each of those competency areas to the effectiveness of ASEAs. Importance was rated on a four-point scale, with 1 representing little or none; 2, moderately important; 3, important; and 4, very important. In analyzing the results, competencies and elements rated 3.0 or more were considered to be important and included in the study.

Respondents were also asked to rate the ASEA's need for training in each competency area and in specific elements of knowledge and ability within each competency area on a four-point scale, with 1 indicating little or none; 2, moderate need; 3, need; and 4, great need. Competencies and elements rated 3.0 or more were considered to be needed and included in the study.

The questionnaire was pilot tested with 16 ASEAs in Virginia. Using the split-half method, the reliability was determined to be .93 for importance ratings and .96 for need ratings. The study population was comprised of 66 ASEAs, 49 administrators (district and county directors), and 18 subject- matter specialists employed by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Response rates were 91% for ASEAs, 96% for administrators, and 100% for subject-matter specialists.


Selected demographic data were collected for ASEAs responding to the survey. Eighty-two percent of the ASEA respondents were males, with the majority being Caucasian, and only 5% being members of other races or ethnic groups. They had received college training ranging from bachelor's degrees through doctorates, but the majority held master's degrees. They had served from one to 23 years in their present positions, with over 50% having held the position for five years or less, and 33% for three years or less. The substantial proportion of respondent ASEAs with relatively limited experience suggests that inservice training on the principles and practices of Extension education could be especially useful.

Importance of Training

Ratings of the importance of training by the three respondent groups are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1. Competency areas in which respondents regarded training as important.
Competency Area ASEAs Administrators Specialists
Extension organization X
Program planning X X X
Communication X X X
Research X X
Human development X X X
Educational processes X X X
Social systems X
Effective thinking X
Note: x denotes competency areas given mean ratings of
important (3.0 or greater) by each category of respondent.

Not surprisingly, Extension administrators considered all eight competency areas important to the effectiveness of an area specialized agent. The specialized agents themselves and the subject-matter specialists were more conservative in their ratings; they agreed that program planning and development, communication, human development, and educational processes were important, but subject-matter specialists also included research. All three respondent groups rated program planning highest among the eight competency areas with a grand mean of 3.37. Other grand means were as follows: educational processes (3.23), communication (3.2), research (3.07), human development (3.03), Extension organization (2.96), social systems (2.96), and effective thinking (2.93).

Considering the large number of elements subsumed under the eight competency areas, these data indicate rather solid agreement among the three groups of respondents. The mean ratings for the importance of each general competency area as a whole did not in any case differ among the three groups by as much as 1.0, the level chosen to represent a meaningful difference. The greatest difference (0.4) was observed in the area of Extension organization and administration. Furthermore, mean ratings of the importance of training in specific elements within each competency area did not in any case differ by as much as 1.0. Thus, while there were some minor variations in opinion about the importance of the various competencies and their constituent knowledge and abilities, the data showed general agreement among the groups.

Need for Training

All three respondent groups also rated the need for training in each of the eight competency areas. Neither the ASEAs nor subject-matter specialist groups highly rated training in any of the eight general competency areas as needed (3.0 or greater). The responses of the administrators, however, indicated training needs in the areas of program planning and development and educational processes (greater than 3.0).

As with the ratings of importance, the mean ratings of the need for training within each competency area as a whole did not differ among the three groups by as much as 1.0, the level considered to represent a meaningful difference. The greatest difference observed (0.8) was in the area of program planning and development. Need for training in this competency area was rated much higher by administrators (3.3) and somewhat higher by specialists (2.9) than by ASEAs (2.5).

Mean ratings of the importance of training in specific elements of knowledge or ability within the various competency areas did reveal some meaningful differences. In the Extension organization and administration competency area, the three groups exhibited important differences in their ratings of the need for training in understanding the history of Extension (1.0), the philosophy of Extension (1.1), the university-USDA partnership (1.0), and county responsibilities (1.2). Administrators generally gave considerably higher ratings to these elements than did the ASEAs and somewhat higher than the specialists. In the area of program planning and development, the need for training in program planning was rated much higher by administrators (3.3) and subject-matter specialists (2.9) than by ASEAs (2.3). There were no important differences in ratings of the need for training in specific elements within the other general competency areas.

The results of this study showed general agreement on the most important competencies and most critical training needs of ASEAs employed by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Administrators and subject-matter specialists agreed more closely with each other on the training needs of ASEAs than they did with the ASEAs themselves. Administrators rated the importance of and need for training of ASEAs in all competency areas higher than subject-matter specialists and ASEAs.


Based on the results of the study, training recommendations were developed for North Carolina ASEAs. Content topics recommended for inclusion in the training program were those for which all three groups of respondents rated training needs at least 2.5. Of the eight competency areas, only program planning and development met this criterion. Within that competency area, six specific elements received ratings of at least 2.5 from all three groups of respondents: understanding the role of area agents, involving lay people, developing a long-term Extension program, building an area Extension program, developing programs, and implementing evaluation procedures. An Area Specialized Agent Development Institute has been proposed to address these ASEA training needs.


Hubbard, R. C. (1971). Training needs of county Extension agents in South Carolina. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, North Carolina State University, Raleigh.

McCormick, R. W. (1959). An analysis of training needs of county Extension agents in Ohio. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

National Policy Statement on Staff Training and Development. (1968). Staff training and development subcommittee, national Extension committee on policy. Madison: University of Wisconsin, University Extension.

Price, R. K. (1960). An analysis of education needs of Arkansas Extension agents. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison.