Hiring managers look to outsiders

Trends show federal government looks to industry for new upper-level hires

IT managers lead new hires

Information technology management was the most commonly filled type of occupation for upper-level hires from outside government, the Merit Systems Protection Board found in its study. IT managers represented 12 percent of outside hires in fiscal 2005. Those figures are based on civilian and defense hires.

In 2005, the Social Security Administration hired 19 percent of outside IT workers, followed by the Army at 13 percent.

Other prominent occupations represented were:

  • General management and administration.

  • Medical officer.

  • Program and management analysis.

  • Attorney.

  • Intelligence.

  • Security administration.

  • Logistics management.

  • General engineering.

— Richard W. Walker

A new study reports that agencies are hiring more new, upper-level employees from outside government. It’s a trend that will likely continue as more workers in General Schedule grades 12 through 15 retire and must be replaced, according to a report by the Merit Systems Protection Board.

In fiscal 2005, the government hired more than 12,000 new upper-level workers — 39 percent more than the 8,600 employees of the same rank hired in fiscal 1990. That year preceded a decrease in the size of the federal workforce during the next decade, MSPB researchers said.

John Crum, acting director of policy and evaluation at MSPB, estimated that about 15 percent to 18 percent of the government’s recent upper-level hires come from outside government.

The study also found that a substantial number of the new hires brought some government-related experience to the job, mostly gained as federal contractors or as military service members. In 2005, for example, 32 percent of new hires had worked for a federal contractor, while 16 percent had served in the military. Nearly a quarter came from other private-sector firms. The average age of all outside hires was just older than 43 years old.

Concerning that trend, federal labor union leaders say agencies must take a careful and conscientious approach to hiring outsiders and pay greater attention to promotional opportunities for their own employees.

“Along with fair and adequate pay, the potential for career advancement is one of the most important aspects of a workplace people want to be part of,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

The trend is not leaving qualified federal workers behind, Crum said. “Remember, we’re talking 15 to 18 percent of new hires from outside. That means over 80 percent of jobs are filled internally, which certainly suggests that agencies are giving a lot of consideration to internal candidates,” he said.

The study found that many employees hired from outside government were brought on board because they had special skills that agency employees didn’t have.

“Managers have told us that they want the best quality person for the job,” Crum said. “All things being equal, they will give preference to the internal candidates, but if the internal candidates don’t match up to what they really think they need, they would rather take somebody from the outside.”

In the study, 68 percent of supervisors said they hired external candidates because those candidates were clearly better qualified than others, including internal applicants.

Supervisors gave additional reasons: They needed to fill a skill gap (64 percent), they wanted to improve the quality of their workforce (47 percent), they had previous experience with the candidate as a contractor or military employee (34 percent) or there were few well-qualified internal applicants (32 percent).

One major shortcoming researchers found was that USAJobs, the government’s job-search portal, has limited reach and cannot be relied on to attract a diverse applicant pool. More new hires found their jobs through friends, relatives and federal managers, the study found. Only about a quarter of new hires heard about their federal position through USAJobs, the researchers reported.

USAJobs is a passive rather than pro-active approach to hiring, Crum said. “It attracts the people who know they’re in the market” for a government job, not those who might be attracted to government work but who don’t know where to look for it, he said.

The MSPB researchers concluded that agencies must have an aggressive, multifaceted approach to attracting a top-flight workforce. They recommended that recruitment efforts include a variety of publicity tools to attract new employees, in addition to USAJobs.

In the report, MSPB esearchers said the Office of Person nel Management has attempted to widen the reach of USAJobs through a recent TV recruitment campaign in a variety of markets around the country.  Although the ad campaign “appears to be a move in the right direction,” it also could be a double-edged sword because such approaches “create false expectations among people who are not strong candidates or whose skills don’t match what agencies are seeking,” researchers concluded.

Asked to comment on the report, an OPM spokesperson told Federal Computer Week the agency has taken numerous steps to increase awareness of federal job openings.  “Through its Career Patterns initiative, OPM has encouraged use of a multimedia approach — magazines, newspapers, job fairs, agency Web sites — to make sure the broadest applicant pool possible is being reached,” an OPM spokesperson said in an e-mail message.

The agency has also expanded its reach by making USAJobs postings available through Google and other major search engines. Google brings in about 300,000 referrals a month, according to the OPM  statement.

The MSPB report suggests that public service has strengths that government can use to attract new employees and compete for highly skilled workers.

For example, new hires found government work more challenging than nongovernment work, and they liked their agencies’ flexible work arrangements, including telework and alternative work schedules. In addition, they viewed their agencies as more ethical than their previous employers.

The report, “In Search of Highly Skilled Workers: A Study of the Hiring of Upper Level Employees from Outside the Federal Government,” is the second in a series of studies from MSPB on attracting and hiring new employees. The first report, on recruiting entry-level hires, was released in February. The third, on agencies’ use of hiring authorities, will be issued in several months. 

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