Helping people with no food, clothing or shelter, assessing abused children, placing children in foster care, dealing with child support issues, determining eligibility for Medicaid or food stamps – those are just some of the issues faced daily by employees in the Broome County Department of Social Services (DSS).
It’s a high stress environment that can quickly lead to employee turnover and burnout.
However, through a program developed by the School of Education and Human Development, DSS employees are getting help through a series of courses that focus on such skills as conflict resolution, working with diversity in the workplace, stress reduction and decision-making.
The DSS training initiative started in 1993 with 15 people with help from the SEHD and the sociology and political science departments. Today, all 400 DSS employees regularly participate in programs coordinated by SEHD’s Division of Professional Development and Research, the Dean’s Office and the Division of Human Development.
“The purpose of the program is to improve employee performance and provide higher quality service to clients,” said Allison Alden, director of the professional development division.
“This is much more complicated than would appear,” she said. “New York State Social Services regulations, directives and structures change regularly and often contradict previous practices and other directives.”
After decades of operating in a regulation-driven environment, Alden said the agency is striving to become more responsive and client-focused, a change that requires reorientation and development of new skills.
Initial training targeted developing the administrative skills of supervisors, but the effort has expanded to look at broader issues for particular units such as communications, conflict management and effective team development. The program today is a true collaborative effort between the University and the DSS, said Nancy LeBlanc, who oversees the DSS training effort. “The University and the DSS are full partners in this effort,” she said. “It’s the only way it can work.”
Programs are often a result of the DSS making a request for certain training or services.
“We sit down and do a training needs assessment,” LeBlanc said. “We identify training needs across broad areas that have an impact on the entire organization.”
The University then designs and offers programs to meet those needs and expectations.
“It’s not like a computer training course,” LeBlanc said. “It’s hard to directly measure the effect of the training. We’re teaching soft skills that over time have an impact and shape behavior.”
Adjunct lecturer Gary Smith, one of the program instructors, said the DSS has made tremendous strides toward their overall goals through the integrated effort.
“The contract has helped the Department of Social Services to focus and move into the new world of requirements for employment,” Smith said. “This process is very useful. People are telling us what they need, what their priorities are and where they need to do some changing and we’re helping them.”
The program seeks to balance theory and practice with applied exercises and opportunities for participants to learn about their own strengths and grow as agents of change. Using an interactive teaching and facilitating strategy, students work in small groups, solve problems, and recommendations and present materials to the group.
“Adult learning theory stresses the importance of being involved with the planning of class material.” Smith said. “If they experience and work with it while they’re in training sessions, it’s more transferable when they are back at their desks.”
Smith said the unique training is important especially now with tighter state budgets. “This program helps train a better workforce to deal with the upcoming environment and the constant changes they face,” he said. “Besides being a strengthening factor for the DSS, it’s a wonderful professional development activity.”
Certificate courses in conflict resolution, working with diversity in the workplace, stress reduction, decision-making, leadership development and team building are among those taught. Employees can work towards certification which aids their promotion prospects. Many go on to pursue degrees, helping the University.