5 tips for quicker hires

In the old days, to get a government job, you took a civil service exam and then waited to see if you scored high enough to make the cut. But times have changed, and so has the federal government.

Although standard applications still exist and officials take 102 days on average to hire an applicant, officials at the Office of Personnel Management are working to prune the process and trim the time for hiring applicants to 45 days.

But what does it take to do that?

1. Build a bigger pool

Hiring is bound to be a slow process if agency officials start from scratch every time a position opens. That's the importance of recruitment. By developing a large pool of potential candidates, officials can more easily fill the job opening, according to human resources executives.

"You have a chance to test-drive them, and they have a chance to test-drive you," said Marcia Marsh, vice president for agency partnerships at the Partnership for Public Service.

"We are changing our recruitment process; we are reinventing it," said Sandra Smith, program leader of the Navy's workforce competency management program. Reinventing the process means more aggressively looking for the right people for the right jobs, developing internships for college students during the summers, and coordinating recruitment events across the Defense Department.

Department of Veterans Affairs officials are taking recruitment a step further, reaching out to U.S. soldiers injured in Iraq. Through the Seamless Transition Program, officials are identifying and actively recruiting candidates upon their discharge, said Edward Meagher, the VA's deputy chief information officer.

2. Cut out the middleman

Agency officials can bypass OPM if they can show a critical need for an employee. Officials can fill gaps more quickly with such direct-hire authority.

"We've done this for different security jobs," Smith said. "Some of our organizations in the Department of Navy have asked for direct hiring, and that's normally done through the HR office."

A recent Government Accountability Office report identifies the importance of direct hiring. "Direct-hire authority allows an agency to appoint individuals to positions without adherence to certain competitive examination requirements when there is a severe shortage of qualified candidates or a critical hiring need," the report states.

Officials at the Homeland Security Department and some of its agencies, including the Transportation Security Administration, have adopted this process as they look for the best and brightest workers to fill critical security positions.

VA officials also are taking advantage of direct-hire authority. "We have had some success in hiring at the entry level but much less success hiring at the GS-13 though GS-15 levels," Meagher said. "The system seems to be set up to accommodate entry-level hiring and then internal promotion to the higher-grade levels, but it is very difficult to fill positions at the highergrade levels from outside government."

But direct-hire authority is not only about speed, Marsh said. "It offers managers an ability to take a broader look at candidates," she said. "You are looking for talent and experience. But you are looking for soft skills as well: How do they communicate? How will they fit into your culture?"

3. Take up the slack

The General Schedule pay scale has traditionally kept federal agencies on a short leash when compensating employees. But these days, OPM officials are cutting them some slack. In some cases, officials can jump-start a new hire's pay as much as three or four steps above the pay scale. And they can create a fund for bonuses for workers who exceed expectations.

But don't wait for job candidates to learn all this from you. Jerry Schubert, the Federal Student Aid office's CIO, said better salaries make identifying qualified candidates easier. Paying the market rate "provides you with flexibility to go out and identify talent the same way you would in the private sector," he said.

David Zeppieri, TSA's CIO, said the agency uses pay banding, in which employees are eligible for a range of pay rather than specific GS steps. "In comparison to the GS scale, pay banding offers a greater range of salary," he said.

But agencies do not take advantage of the flexibilities they have. TSA managers are allowed to offer bonuses for recruitment, retention and relocation, but "we have not utilized these tools," Zeppieri said.

The same is true at the Navy. "We can hire people with a higher entry step," Smith said. "We can pay for education, but I have not seen too much in the way of bonuses. There's more use of bumping up as opposed to a bonus."

4. Don't fixate on exam scores

Under the old system, once officials had a pool of candidates, they were required to focus on the three who scored the highest on the federal civil service exam.

Now, managers can create a pool of best-qualified candidates, factoring in exam scores and more subjective measures. That's not to say there are no limitations. If a veteran reaches the highest quality group, for example, the veteran must be hired.

"There is increased attention being paid to the need to hire the best and brightest," said John Palguta, vice president for policy and research at the Partnership for Public Service and former director of policy and evaluation at the Merit Systems Protection Board.

The new procedure helps federal officials find the best-qualified candidates more quickly. "We've had a number of folks familiar with our business model who had demonstrated expertise on the outside, and we've been able to target those folks and bring them in," Schubert said.

This strategy worked well for TSA as officials pulled the department together, Zeppieri said. Many vacancies were open for several months, and officials at the human resources office would send managers a list of potential candidates about every 30 days.

"This process permitted us to consistently review and draw from a pool of qualified candidates without having to wait for single job postings," Zeppieri said. "This greatly shortened the hiring time."

5. Sweeten the pot

Legislation moving through Congress would enhance vacation benefits for federal workers who take government jobs midway through their careers, offer compensatory time off for workers who travel for business during nonbusiness hours and provide partial retirement credit for part-time workers. And many agency officials already approve telework deals with employees or encourage them to work closer to their homes at telework centers throughout the Washington, D.C., area. Such initiatives entice top workers to federal jobs, experts said.

Marta Brito Perez, OPM's associate director of human capital leadership and merit system accountability, said agencies have plenty of tools to recruit the best workers. But OPM officials are working to be "more strategic and identify needs way in advance of when new workers are needed," she said.

Government hiring is highly decentralized. "The tools are there," she said. "It's how they are using and not using those tools."

And the changes couldn't come a moment too soon, Marsh said. "We're getting into a tougher and tougher competitive labor market these days," she said. "The economy is picking back up. We are going to be back in the war for talent shortly. A manager needs to have at his or her fingertips the flexibilities to craft the right sales pitch."

Officials have taken a one-size-fits-all approach to the federal vacation system for as long as anyone can remember. "The notion that the government had a cradle-to-grave kind of employment," Palguta said, adding that vacation was based on seniority.

"The world isn't working that way anymore," Palguta said. "It's very hard to attract someone with 15 to 20 years of experience, and say, 'Oh, by the way, you're going to get the same leave as someone just out of school.' Now we have the ability to adjust that." n

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