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United States Postal Service: Delivering Workforce Development

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
–Inscription on the General Post Office, New York City

The United States Postal Service has no official motto, but if it did, that oft-quoted saying would probably be it. At the very least, it’s a mission to live up to, and carries with it the weight of great responsibility. At the USPS, learning and development leaders know they have a huge workforce with a lot to live up to, and they’re providing the education to make that possible.

“One of the stated missions of employee development is to add value to the Postal Service,” said Bill Stefl, manager of employee development for the USPS. “We think the best way to do that is training and development initiatives that improve performance. In our transformation plan, which was presented to Congress three or four months ago, one of the key lines in there talks about having the right people at the right place with the right skills at the right time. Certainly we are part of having prepared them with the right skills and a lot of just-in-time training. We feel we definitely impact the bottom line of the Postal Service’s operational efficiencies by continuing to do training for every employee.”

According to Stefl, the Postal Service’s goal is to provide some training opportunity for every employee, every year. With about 770,000 employees–the second-largest workforce in the world after Wal-Mart–that’s no small mission. That workforce includes the craft employees (the clerks and letter carriers themselves), managers and about 800 executives. Craft employees are mandated to receive at least eight hours of training per year, with managers targeted for at least 20 hours per year. Since that goal was implemented several years ago, the Postal Service education team has lived up to the challenge.

But don’t expect Stefl to crow about it. The mandated hours of training came about through negotiations with USPS officers, and Stefl originally pushed for 16 hours for craft workers and 40 hours for managers. The final hours, Stefl said, may be low for some industries, but they are realistic given the size of the workforce.

While training happens at every postal branch and beyond, much comes out of two locations. Executives and managers learn at the Bolger Leadership Center in Potomac, Md., while craft employees learn at the National Center for Employee Development (NCED) in Norman, Okla.

Steve Mosier is manager of the NCED, a branch of the Postal Service charged with being the USPS technology learning center. Mosier said the USPS realized a $45 million savings by providing its own training versus outsourcing to independent vendors.

With the USPS boasting $57 billion in fixed assets, including one of the largest fleets of delivery vehicles in the world, much of the training revolves around upkeep and optimization of that equipment. For instance, automation equipment helps the Postal Service process 35,000 to 40,000 pieces of mail per hour. At the NCED, educators help train the technicians that keep those machines in working order, as well as the automotive technicians that make the wheels turn. NCED also teaches maintenance on postal vending machines, as well as computer networking, equipping humans whose work allows the postal equipment to be networked together, with the machines essentially speaking to each other.

“All the way from basic electricity up to Cisco routers and switches, Oracle database management, computer operating systems,” Mosier said. “We go from the very basic ‘this is a wrench’ up to ‘this is how the Web works.’ ”

With 770,000 workers, naturally not all education is done at a remote site. NCED and the Bolger Center also host broadcast studios for the Postal Service Training Network (PSTN), which does audio transmissions on its own satellite network. Pushing out four channels of training all day, every day, the PSTN sends training information to more than 800 downlink sites around the nation. The USPS also operates training facilities in 85 of the country’s largest cities, has 204 carrier academies and 181 academies for rural letter carriers.

PSTN, Stefl said, features a regular schedule of courses for Postal Service employees.

“It’s a huge part of how we deliver training in that we are so incredibly disbursed,” Stefl said. “And the cost savings are obvious. Trying to bring these people even to the 85 sites would be prohibitive.”

While return on investment is difficult to track given the diverse nature, Stefl said, the USPS has seen some operational criteria that justify the expense. And it is an expense. While some training is done at every local post office, paid from those budgets and not from headquarters, the overall USPS training budget is $750 million a year, which is about 1 percent of the total operating expenditures. That works out to be about $1,000 of learning and development expenditure per employee per year.

Stefl doesn’t need numbers to justify that to himself. It’s all part of an overall philosophy to create a continuum of learning and development in the Postal Service.

“We’re responsible for everything from the first day on the job: New-employee orientation, we then lead them through craft skills training, we have a very successful 16-week program that moves people from craft jobs into supervisory jobs, then we have mid-level management development programs, advanced leadership programs for senior managers, and we’re just now building a program to continue the development of executives in the company,” Stefl said. “So our mission is to provide to somebody, from the day they walk in the door until they leave, opportunities to be continually developed, move forward in their careers.”

The USPS taps many technologies to deliver the training, from the instructor-led aspects of the NCED and Bolger Center to putting training materials on CD and distributing to employees.

“We’re really trying to leverage technology as much as we can, even back to my era of rotating tapes with VCRs to the tens of thousands of offices we have out there,” Stefl said. “Not only is it more cost-effective, but we realize some things we can get through quicker if they take it on the Web.”

Managing all those training tools and a workforce only described as massive can be a logistical nightmare. But helping solve that is that a few months back, the Postal Service invested in a learning management system for enterprise-wide usage. Prior to that, NCED used its own LMS for training needs, but the expanded system gives Stefl’s team more flexibility.

“Employee development was first in line to take advantage of it,” Stefl said. “We have some pilots we’re beginning in the eastern part of the country as we speak. We’re going to be able to not only deliver but administer the registration, the tracking of completion, the data being put into a national system to create a profile for every employee. That is just under way, but we’re into that now full-time.

“What we’re doing with this first initiative–actually the office is Pittsburgh, but that accounts for about 10 percent of the country–we have as a basis for all of our development programs a competency model built internally,” he added. “As part of the LMS, the competency model is now being more clearly defined for job groupings. We will be matching available training to those competencies to help people select training for themselves or for somebody they’re developing. That’s going to be a big part of our use of the LMS.”

The quality of instruction is also a primary focus for the USPS education team. Mosier said development professionals at NCED are responsible for ensuring materials are delivered, and by qualified instructors.

“We try to ensure the quality of the instruction through the centralization of the training function for those critical programs,” Mosier said. “It’s a very big challenge because you have a lot of competing forces in the organization about what those critical programs are and you still have limited resources to do them all.”

In addition to tracking performance through testing and assessment where possible, the Postal Service compares performance against local and national indicators to monitor improvements. The initiatives have been well-received by USPS managers and employees, Stefl said.

“Training and development has become an accepted part of the postal culture, and it wasn’t always that way. We have a lot of officers, even many more executives, who participate as instructors in many of our programs,” Stefl said. “We’re truly inundated with requests from employees and managers, as to where do I get my training, what is the most appropriate training. I believe we’ve established a culture where people see the value of the training, both from the participants, the instructors, the executives and the officers of the Postal Service.”

It’s easy to understand why USPS employees at all levels embrace the opportunities. It’s available, it’s timely, and it works.

“We’re all very proud of what the employee development function has accomplished. It has become part of our culture, and people expect to be developed throughout their careers. We are providing them ever-increasing opportunities to do just that,” Stefl said.

“We’re very traditional in one regard in that we promote almost solely from within. Our current postmaster general was a clerk in New York City. The postmaster general before him started out as a letter carrier while he was in college. The opportunities are there. Because we do so much internal promotion, certainly internal development becomes even that much more critical to our success.”