October 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 5 // Research in Brief // 5RIB4

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Professional Development Needs of State Extension Specialists

A study was conducted to determine professional development needs of state Extension specialists employed by Clemson University. Three constructs, program development and evaluation, research generation and synthesis, and communication and presentation, were examined. Specialists responded to a survey that contained 35 statements relative to the three constructs, measured on a Likert scale. Demographic information was also gathered. Matrix analysis was used to determine critical professional development needs of specialists. Overall, the matrix analysis yielded 3 critical needs and 11 low level needs. Critical needs identified were: 1) communicate program impact to key decision makers, 2) communicate client problems to researchers, and 3) view problems from different perspectives.

Rama B. Radhakrishna
Associate Professor of Agricultural and Extension Education
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania
Internet Address: brr100@psu.edu


County Extension agents and program assistants depend on specialists for information and publications. Specialists have expertise in locating and interpreting complex information for agents (Kawasaki, 1994). Specialists are key individuals in providing the technical information that drives county Extension programming (Warner & Christenson, 1984; Prawl, Medlin, & Gross, 1984). According to Boyle (1996), the linkage between Extension specialists and county agents is the bridge between people's needs and the knowledge base of the university. Extension specialists have the responsibility to synthesize, evaluate, integrate, and apply research information and expertise from within the land-grant university system in support of county programming efforts (Taylor & Summerhill, 1994).

Several studies reveal that Extension specialists are one of the primary sources of information for county agents (Radhakrishna & Thompson, 1996; Shih & Evans, 1991). Gibson and Hillison (1994) suggest that effective specialists must understand 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 (Gibson & Hillison, 1994; Baker & Vallalobos, 1997).

Woeste and Stephens (1996) provide an excellent description of Extension specialists' roles and responsibilities. They identify three major responsibilities: synthesis of research, leadership, and scholarship (Figure 1). Within each of the three major responsibilities, they identified several specific roles and duties for Extension specialists. These include:

  1. Staying current with the up-to-date latest research and technologies;
  2. Providing leadership for development, implementation, and evaluation of new initiatives;
  3. Understanding concerns of clientele;
  4. Synthesizing and integrating research information and expertise into educational programming materials;
  5. Creating awareness among county faculty regarding new program initiatives;
  6. Providing technical subject matter assistance to county staff in the conduct of Extension programs;
  7. Identifying funding sources to further the effectiveness of Extension;
  8. Providing feedback to departmental faculty and program leaders on program needs;
  9. Encouraging the involvement and participation of other university faculty, community, and industry experts in the development and implementation of educational programs; and
  10. Participating in disciplinary and professional activities.

In recent years, several issues have strongly affected the roles and responsibilities of Extension specialists. These include:

  • Budget reductions,
  • Dual appointments in research and Extension,
  • Personnel turnover,
  • Increased workloads, and
  • Rapidly changing expectations of a more diverse clientele (Bartholomew & Rinehart, 1993; Gibson & Hillison, 1994; Feller, 1984; Djire & Newman, 1995).

As a result, the uncertainty surrounding the roles and responsibilities of specialists has increased. Therefore, professional development needs of specialists must be continuously assessed in order to provide meaningful staff development programs.

Figure 1
Extension Specialist's Roles and Responsibilities
Source: Woeste and Stephens (1996)

Figure One: Depiction of roles influencing responsibilities

Purpose and Objectives

The overall purpose of the study reported here was to identify and prioritize the professional development needs of Extension specialists in the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service. Specific objectives of the study were to:

  1. Describe the demographic profile of Extension specialists.

  2. Identify and prioritize the professional development needs of Extension specialists in the areas of program development and evaluation, research generation and synthesis, and communication and presentation.

Methods and Procedures

The population for the study consisted of all 78 Extension specialists employed by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service. The frame was obtained from the personnel office.

An instrument was developed based on a study conducted by Baker and Villalobos (1997). The instrument had four sections. Section one contained 15 statements relative to program development and evaluation. Section two contained five statements on research generation and synthesis, while Section three contained 10 statements on communications and presentation.

Respondents were asked to rate, using a five-point Likert scale (one being low, two being below average, three being average, four being above average, and five being high), the importance they place on each statement and the degree to which they possessed the ability. Section four contained demographic information such as gender, educational level, major area of study, primary area of responsibility, and years of service in Extension.

The instrument was validated for content and face validity by a panel of four experts. A cover letter and a copy of the instrument were mailed to all the specialists in April of 1999. After the initial mailing and two follow-ups (sending another copy of the survey and electronic messages), a total of 47 specialists responded, for a return rate of 60 percent.

Early and late respondents were compared on variables identified in sections one through three as per procedures suggested by Miller and Smith (1983). No significant differences were found between early and late respondents. A post-hoc reliability analysis indicated that the instrument had "excellent" reliability. Alpha coefficients ranged from a low of 0.74 to a high of 0.87 with an overall of 0.93.

Data were analyzed using descriptive statistics such as frequencies, percentages, means, and standard deviations. Matrix analysis recommended by Hershkowitz (1973) and Witkin (1984) were used to determine critical professional development needs of Extension specialists. The following procedures were used.

First, composite means for importance and current ability were calculated for each of the three areas--program development and evaluation, research synthesis and generation, and communications and presentations.

Second, the composite means were plotted on an "X" and "Y" axis of a graph, resulting in the creation of four quadrants.

Third, mean importance and current abilities for each statement within each area were plotted on the graph.

As a result of this procedure, the four quadrants were labeled as:

  1. High level successful abilities--HLSA (high levels of importance and ability),
  2. Low level success abilities--LLSA (low levels of importance and high levels of ability),
  3. Low level needs--LLN (low levels of importance and ability), and
  4. Critical needs--CN (high levels of importance and low levels of ability).


Objective 1: Demographic Profile

A majority of the specialists were male (74%). Sixty-eight percent of the specialists reported doctorate degree as their highest education level, followed by master's degree (28%), and bachelor's (4%).

Agronomy/horticulture was the primary area of program responsibility for 18 specialists (38%). 4-H youth development was the primary area for six specialists (13%). Family and consumer science was the primary area for six specialists (13%). Forestry/natural resources was the primary area for five specialists (11%). Dairy and animal science was the primary area for four specialists (8%). Community development/leadership was the primary area for 1 specialist (2%). And other (food science, community development, leadership and administration) was the primary area for seven specialists (15%).

Specialists averaged 14.07 years of Extension experience, with a low of 1 year to a high of 28 years.

Objective 2: Professional Development Needs

Table 1 shows the perceived level of importance and current ability placed by Extension specialists toward statements relative to program development and evaluation, research generation and synthesis, and communications and presentation.

The matrix analysis in the program development and evaluation area resulted in categorization of one statement as a critical need (CN), seven statements as low level needs (LLN), and seven statements as high level success abilities (HLSA). The statement "ability to communicate program impact to decision makers" was identified as a critical need.

The seven low level needs identified were:

  • Conducting needs assessments,
  • Evaluating major initiatives,
  • Interacting with national industry groups,
  • Interacting with international industry groups,
  • Identifying funding sources for program development,
  • Assisting county faculty to obtain funds, and
  • Developing collaborative relationships with agencies at the county level.

Two critical needs emerged in the research generation and synthesis area: the ability to communicate client problems to researchers and the ability to view problems from different perspectives. In addition, the following low level need was also identified: ability to collaborate with county staff in conducting demonstrations.

Regarding communication and presentation, the matrix analysis did not reveal any critical needs. However, there were three statements in the low level need (LLN) category and seven statements in the high level successful abilities category (HLSA). Overall, the matrix analysis yielded three critical needs (CN) and 11 low level needs (LLN).

Table 1
Means and Standard Deviations for Perceived Importance and Current Ability for Program Development and Evaluation, Research Generation and Synthesis, and Communications and Presentation (Only CN and LLN Statements)

Table One: Statements and their means ratings for importance and current ability

Conclusions and Recommendations

The following conclusions and recommendations were made based on the findings of the study:

Extension specialists perceive themselves as possessing a high level of competence in nearly half of the professional development needs examined in this study. This finding confirms a high degree of importance and ability of specialists in developing and implementing Extension programs. This conclusion supports previous research conducted by Baker and Villalobos (1997).

Based on the results of the quadrant analysis, three critical needs (CN) were identified. Two of the critical needs, communicating client problems to researchers and viewing problems from different perspectives, were in the research generation and synthesis area, while the other, communicating program impact to key decision makers, was in the program development and evaluation area.

Extension specialists need to step up their efforts to communicate client problems to researchers so that appropriate Extension programs and/or solutions can be offered. Two aspects need emphasis in light of this finding. First, good communication among agents, specialists, and research faculty should be emphasized. Second, a communication network and/or information resource group should be developed.

The recent requirement of integrating research and Extension plans of work under the AREERA Act (Agricultural Research Education Extension Reforms Act, 1998) may further strengthen the linkage between research and Extension programs and activities. Both Extension and research directors at Clemson University should work together to facilitate constant and improved communication between Extension and research faculty.

Communicating the impact of Extension programs to key decision makers has become increasingly important because of the emphasis placed by federal and state governments on documenting impact. Specialists need to develop skills in documenting program impact and also in communicating that impact to their stakeholders. In future, the need for showing and communicating program impact will increase tremendously because of linking program success to funding (performance-based budgeting).

Extension Staff Development at Clemson University should consider the topic of communicating impact of Extension programs to key decision makers a top priority in meeting the professional development needs of specialists. Inservice training and/or workshops should be offered relative to assessing and communicating program impact to stakeholders. Such inservice training should be based on the five Public Service and Agriculture (PSA) goals of Clemson University and key program areas of specialists.

Extension specialists also perceived a low level need in 11 professional development topics. Many specialists have been involved in Extension programming both at county and state levels. For example, specialists in this study reported an average work experience of 14 years, and thus they may have perceived a low level (LLN) need for training in these topics.

However, a closer examination of these 11 topics reveals a need for professional development training in:

  • Planning and conducting program evaluations;
  • Conducting needs assessments;
  • Developing educational materials suitable for electronic databases;
  • Interacting with regional, national, and international industry groups; and
  • Identifying funding sources for county staff.

As indicated by Witkin (1984), low level needs should be given importance and reinforced on a regular basis. It is recommended that these topics be given priority in offering future training programs for specialists.

Finally, two things should be addressed as a result of this study. First, need for professional development training in the areas identified as critical should be given top priority. Extension Staff Development should review the findings of this study to plan and deliver professional development programs for Clemson Extension professionals.

Second, the findings may also suggest justification for a closer look at re-prioritization of specialists' roles and responsibilities. A profile of roles and responsibilities of specialists should be developed to identify professional development training needs. The profile may then be used to develop a comprehensive training program for specialists. The following recommendations are offered for further study and/or administrative actions.

  1. Further research should be conducted involving county faculty (county Extension directors and county agents) relative to the professional development needs of specialists. Findings of such research should help develop a comprehensive professional development program for all Extension personnel.

  2. Clemson Extension Service should appoint a Professional Development Task Force to address issues relative to professional development activities. The Task Force should take into account factors such as hiring practices, staff turnover, professional experience, and academic preparation of new and current employees. The establishment of such a Task Force is essential for effective development, delivery, and evaluation of Extension programs.

  3. A summary of findings should be shared with Clemson Extension Service specialists, county staff, and administrators to provide insight and direction to future inservice offerings and professional development activities.


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Djire, I., & Newman, M. E. (1995). Self-perceived motivation of Mississippi county extension agents as compared to their performance. Proceedings of the 42nd Annual Southern Agricultural Education Research Meeting, 101-110.

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This article is online at http://joe.org/joe/2001october/rb4.html.