Fall 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 3 // Forum // 3FUT1
Tomorrow's Extension Professionals
The life and work of tomorrow's Extension professional will be dramatically different. About that prediction I'm quite confident, but a greater challenge is to predict how the work will change. This article presents predictions based on clearly identifiable trends already evident today.
I urge readers to consider these scenarios with an open mind. It's the function of futurists to probe the possible. Some of the predicted changes may not be pleasant to ponder, but that may be all the more reason to do so. As General Robert E. Lee is reputed to have said, "I am often surprised, but I am never taken by surprise."
One methodological point: before settling on the predictions below, I confirmed them as distinct possibilities with at least two other professionals highly knowledgeable about Extension and deliberative about Extension's future. Any prediction that I wasn't able to confirm with others as reasonably possible, Iomitted.
Extension Professionals as Independent Contractors
Most Extension staff in the future will be independent professionals who work for the university on a contract basis. The contract will be for a six-month to three-year period to work on a specific issue, problem, or initiative. There will be few permanent positions at any level in Extension. Hiring will be based on the ability to make a specific contribution to an effort for a specific period of time.
This is in keeping with the national trend toward professionals working independently. For organizations in general, and universities in particular, such a contract approach solves several problems. These are related to Extension's heavy investment in and dependence on human capital. At a March 1987 National ECOP Conference on Evaluation, Maryland CES Director Craig Oliver observed that "Extension has become too heavily committed in human capital, with 92% of our state resources allocated in human resources and only 8% in operating funds." The future will include reductions in long-term human capital commitments.
By hiring independent contractors, universities can either avoid paying fringe benefits, or at least avoid long-term commitments. Given the diversity of needs and wants, the process of providing adequate fringe benefits has become increasingly complex. Independent contractors are paid at a higher rate, but they must frequently provide for their own health and retirement needs.
Hiring independent contractors also eliminates performance evaluation and staff development. At the end of a specific task, it may be easier and more effective to hire new professionals for new tasks rather than to keep the same people. Because specific professionals are hired who already have the skills needed, the staff development function is minimized. Rather than retraining people over the course of a career to take on new assignments, the independent contractor approach simply changes personnel to meet changing needs.
Finally, this mode of contracting for professionals will fit the way Extension Services in the future will receive most of their funds. Most activity will be in the form of grants and contracts to carry out specific assignments and programs, with proportionately little on-going, permanent program funding. Thus, as Extension's funding becomes softer and more contract - and grant-based, the arrangements for professionals who work for Extension will correspond.
The Home Office
Over the next 15 years, county offices will largely disappear. Extension professionals, hired on an independent contractor basis, will work out of their homes. The need for a county office will be eliminated as the functions of the county office are eliminated. The local county Extension telephone number will feed into a regional office where questions can be answered and out of which materials will be sent.
Secretaries will no longer be needed for typing, because voice-activated dictating equipment will feed information directly into computers and word processors for typing. Regional word processing and data centers will replace the county offices. All professionals will have telephones in their cars as standard equipment. There will be no need for a secretary to take messages, with mobile telephones and answering machines ubiquitous.
Issues and Initiatives
As indicated earlier, the Extension organization of the future will focus on issues and initiatives for which specific funding in grants and contracts is allocated. The program areas will become anachronisms. 4-H will be spun off into a private, nonprofit foundation or program, with some linkages to Centers for Youth Development in universities. Programs for the elderly will be more important than programs for youth. Extension's role will be to develop needed programs, demonstrate their effectiveness, then set them in place for private agencies to continue.
The other traditional program areas will, at best, be centers to support issue areas and staff needs. Future programs will be delivered through interdisciplinary teams working on specific problems and focused initiatives. In many cases, these teams will be assembled by independent contracting organizations working on a subcontract basis for Extension and the university.
Administrators and program directors, then, will essentially become grant and contract administrators. They'll have major responsibilities for writing funding proposals to a variety of sources. They'll negotiate contracts, assemble teams, monitor performance on relevant issues, and maintain contact with a network or pool of professionals who can offer specific services for limited time periods.
Changed Funding Resources
The cooperative partnership will also disappear as we have known it. The federal role will be reduced to a minimum. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has clearly targeted Extension programs for elimination. This execution goes much deeper than the Reagan administration. The case will be made (and is already being made) by OMB that the federal government has accomplished its goals in establishing strong land-grant universities in each state - it's now up to the states to continue that work if they choose. The only federal dollars will come in the form of specific grants and contracts. In the early days, those grants and contracts will be set aside specifically for Extension, but over time other competitors will enter the scene.
County funding will become even more variable than it is now. Some counties will try to maintain traditional efforts, but most won't. The action will shift from counties to states and regions within states. The number of efforts for which the county is a reasonable and fundable unit will decline. Regions within a state will be designated as target areas for specific issues, and regional offices will have major administrative, coordinating, and program delivery responsibilities.
Most Extension field staff in the future will have a professional Ph.D. This is in contrast to the current doctorate, which is a research degree. The research Ph.D. serves primarily to prepare people for a life of scholarship. There are, however, a limited number of lifelong scholarship positions available.
Yet, professionals have high educational aspirations. Increasingly, then, universities will respond to this market demand by developing a professional Ph.D., equivalent to the Ed.D. in education. The professional doctorate will require an applied research contribution; it will be oriented generally to prepare professionals to make lifelong problem-solving and applied research contributions rather than preparing for a life of scholarship.
Extension's outreach capabilities to engage in initiatives and problem solving will extend well beyond traditional target populations and program areas. Extension will be able to use its expertise to assemble teams to tackle virtually any issue that needs or can benefit from the university knowledge base. Extension will be able to (indeed required to) draw to a greater extent from the entire university faculty, who will take on temporary specialist appointments to work on specific projects.
There will be very few permanent specialists. The temporary specialist appointments will be attractive to faculty because they'll be required to respond to public research universities' strategic plans. They also must deliver on promises to engage in genuinely applied research relevant to real state needs.
Future Professionalism Issues
Without a permanent Extension career or organizational allegiance, future professionals will be much more dependent on networks and associations for growth and support. A major problem will be salary and work insecurity. Job insecurity will be a constant fact of life when programs, and therefore professionals, depend primarily on contract and grant monies ("soft" monies). Performance expectations, therefore, will be very high. To continue to find work, a professional will have to continue to deliver.
From a professionalism perspective, these changes will reinforce the importance of individual professional identity - staff of the future won't take their identity from the organization, but rather from their function. A future professional wouldn't say, "I am a staff member of the university Cooperative Extension Service," but rather, "I am a professional Extension educator, working on a project for the university." That nuance of difference in identity captures a world of difference for tomorrow's Extension professional.
These are predictions of drastic change. They forecast a very different world of work for Extension professionals. Moving in these directions will undoubtedly be painful for many. For others, these changes will be opportunities to make a major contribution to important issues of the day. For professionals dedicated to high impact, visible accountability, programmatic relevance, and educational effectiveness, the future holds multiple opportunities and challenges.