The New Municipal Employee: Adaptability Versus Specialty

Employee who can adapt to rapid change and quickly learn new skills will become more important than a specialist for municipal governments.

ARTICLE | Sep 3, 2019
by Matthew Vanderhorst, Community and Information Services Director, City of Montgomery, Ohio.

In the June 2019 issue of The Atlantic, Jerry Seem wrote an article titled, At Work, Expertise Is Falling Out of Favor. The article was about the innovative approach used to develop a crew for the Littoral Combat Ship, USS Gabrielle Gifford. The challenge of rapid technological changes, combined with the high cost of personnel, forced leaders to rethink the ship's crew. Instead of several highly specialized crew members, they chose to have fewer sailors with the ability to quickly learn new skills. As the author states, the USS Gabrielle Gifford “was designed to operate with a mere 40 souls on board—one-fifth the number aboard comparably sized “legacy” ships and a far cry from the 350 aboard a World War II destroyer. The small size of the crew means that each sailor must be like the ship itself: a jack of many trades and not, as 240 years of tradition have prescribed, a master of just one.”

Hiring employees who can adapt to change is not new. However, the increasing pace of automation has highlighted the need for these types of employees. The days of hiring a specialist who will perform the same function until retirement are no longer with us. Local governments are not immune to this trend. Soon, artificial intelligence will reduce the need for customer support staff. More efficient equipment and building technology changes will reduce the need for large cadres of firefighters. Autonomous vehicles will replace the need for mass transit drivers. These are just a few examples. Many of these changes are upon us now.

In the book, Building High-Performance Local Governments written by John Pickering, Gerald Brokaw, Philip Herndon, and Anton Gardner, the authors state that the nature of work has changed over the past several decades. Before 1800, workers needed to think holistically about their work and the success of their operation. They had to consider the technical aspect of their job and management and leadership tasks. Large groups of specialized employees did not exist. The authors use the example of a shoemaker. It wasn’t enough that the worker knew how to cobble a shoe, they also needed to understand how to stock supplies, market their product, and predict trends that may change their product in the future.

Following the start of the 20th century, work started to become automated, and labor was very inexpensive and plentiful. This phase led to the rise of mass manufacturing and the division of labor. Tasks became more specialized and repetitive, separating workers, management, and leadership. An employee was expected to do one thing, over and over, regardless of other skills or knowledge that they may possess.

Now that the 21st century is upon us; we are faced with the increasing pace of automation and its effects on how we work. The authors of Building High-Performance Local Governments also wrote about a third phase of how work has changed. This phase started with the rise of technology and automation. Organizations can no longer function efficiently with silos of specialized employees. Work is becoming holistic again with an emphasis on working in teams.

Thinking about my organization, City of Montgomery, Ohio, our leadership philosophy states that we hire for values and flexibility first, and technical expertise second, sometimes a distant second. While a base-level of technical skill is helpful, personal values and the ability to change with the needs of the organization and the community is critical.

At first glance, a local government may appear to be an organization of specialized silos, Police, Fire, Public Works, Tax, Administration, etc. However, encouraging employees to work outside of their perceived silo helps instill holistic thinking and decision-making beyond their primary expertise.

The City of Montgomery continues to run with a relatively small number of full-time employees. Within departments, employees are expected to work across specialties to ensure seamless service delivery. For example, in the past, the Public Works Department operated two crews, one for parks and one for streets. It was rare to see an employee from one crew help the other. This division has changed over the years. Now, they are organized and operate as one crew with the same goal. On any given day, you may see them repairing vehicles, maintaining parks, or working on a street repair or sidewalk.

There are many examples of cross-departmental teamwork that further builds on the expectation that employees have a full breadth of knowledge and skill. The best example is the Healthcare Benefits Team. This team consists of front-line, mid-level, and senior-level employees representing every department. The team educates itself about the state of healthcare at the national and local level and recommends the best solution for the City of Montgomery. The team has been so successful that over the past six years, the average annual premium increase is only 0.46%. The low premium increase is coupled with consistent or higher levels of coverage.

An organization with employees who have good values and can rapidly change and learn new skills is the future of organizations, especially local governments.

References:

Uses, Jerry. “At Work, Expertise Is Falling Out of Favor.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 21 June 2019, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/07/future-of-work-expertise-navy/590647/.

Pickering, J., Brokaw, G., Harnden, P., Gardner, A. (2014). Building High-Performance Local Governments, River Grove Books.

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