High on the list of problems confronting government agencies is lack of training—training that ensures all employees have an equal opportunity and are qualified to perform all the tasks of their job. Most of the training that does take place is on the job and undocumented. Employees are passed over for promotion because training was either not documented or was skipped completely.

In Shelby County, Tenn., mayor A.C. Wharton and his chief administrative officer John Fowlkes believe promoting from within is crucial for morale, and it can be accomplished only through efficient, effective, documented training. Public works director Ted Fox agrees, which is why he selected Carolyn Benson to head the Roads and Bridges Department. The first black person to head the department, she has a civil engineering degree and more than 20 years of experience.

With top management leading the way, we went to work on creating an effective training program. We decided that the complexities of our work and legal ramifications due to poor performance or misunderstanding of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) necessitated developing a comprehensive program. We administer four open-book exams on the MUTCD. This book has all the regulations mandated by the federal government that legally specify the exact type of sign, placement, and use of all traffic control devices. Because of its importance and potential for liability, we want to make sure everyone knows how to use the book and look up specific information about our job requirements.

Cost is a significant obstacle. We couldn't afford expensive mockup, hands-on exams, or aids typical to most training. We opted for a training method that, once developed, would virtually run itself. The only real cost was the initial expense to development skills tests-about 20 hours'time. Then, we developed a simple Excel spreadsheet to track skills testing.

To begin, we listed all major tasks: proper sign selection and installation, traffic detour procedures, striping and pavement marking, etc. Those tasks were then divided into smaller tasks, and we determined the amount of hours training required in each subtask for an employee to be proficient. Based upon that, we crafted an exam that measures whether an employee has satisfactorily completed the training. If unsatisfactory, he works more hours at the task and retakes the performance exam; the process is repeated until it is determined whether the employee can perform the job.

The employee documents his own hours of training, and the exam is administered by a senior sign technician, who is required to make objective comments about the work performed. Hours are reviewed and documented in the employee's training file, which helps managers assign work and ensures the employee gets appropriate exposure in all required tasks.

The tasks are also a big part of the employee's annual evaluation. The employee is counseled quarterly on job performance; any problems hampering his training are addressed then. If we need to adjust departmental scheduling to accommodate the employee, we make sure he works in the jobs he needs to master. When the employee's annual evaluation is due, completing the form becomes a mere formality, because the employee and supervisor already know how well he is performing.

Our staff likes the training because each employee knows exactly what's expected of him. All his requirements are located in his file, as are the written exams, tasks, and performance exams, so he knows exactly what he will be tested on and what he needs to do to complete the training. We also require employees to watch training videos on rain days and send them to specialized training as needed.

— Don May is manager of the Roads and Bridges Department for Shelby County, Tenn.