Wanted: Feds who can write

Hiring experts say feds need to write job vacancy notices that entice people to apply

Some federal job announcements still run as long as 30 pages and include unfriendly commands such as “DO NOT contact our office asking if your application has been received.” But agencies are trying to create better help-wanted ads, and their efforts show.

The National Weather Service recently posted an announcement for an information technology specialist that began with this appeal: “The National Weather Service, the world’s pre-eminent weather and atmospheric sciences organization, offers you an opportunity to help protect American lives and property.… Contribute your talents to this tradition.”

“We still see the same problems, but overall there have been improvements,” said Ligaya Fernandez, a senior research analyst at the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). She was a principal author of a 2003 study that found few federal agencies were using vacancy announcements effectively as a recruiting tool.

Fernandez said the MSPB plans to keep agencies’ attention focused on the quality of federal job announcements.

The Office of Personnel Management, which oversees USAJobs, is also helping agencies create more effective vacancy notices. OPM is working with the Partnership for Public Service to develop a hiring toolkit that agencies can download. The kit will be helpful in improving hiring practices and job announcements governmentwide, said John Palguta, the nonprofit group’s vice president for policy and research.

Examples of good vacancy notices are not concentrated in particular agencies. Instead, they are the work of individual human resource specialists who are conscientious and skilled in developing effective announcements, Fernandez said.

All federal agencies can create effective vacancy notices by adhering to a few simple rules, Fernandez and Palguta said. The best job ads the MSPB noticed in a recent spot-check were written in short, easy-to-read segments. USAJobs’ five-tab feature makes that possible. Agencies can use separate tabs to present an overview of the agency, the job’s duties, qualifications for the job, benefits and instructions for applying.

The best vacancy notices have a conversational tone and use friendly words such as “you” and “please,” Fernandez said. Agencies must get away from using “the incumbent” to describe job applicants. Good job ads also include an active phone number, not a number that plays a recorded message, she added.

Palguta said creating an effective vacancy announcement starts with a meeting in which the human resource specialist gathers essential information about the job from the hiring manager by asking questions such as: What kind of person excels in the job, and why would someone want to work at the agency?

A good specialist can then turn that information into a concise and readable announcement, Palguta said. “There’s no job that’s so terribly complicated that it can’t be conveyed in understandable language,” he added.

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