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.


  • Cybersecurity

    DHS floats 'collective defense' model for cybersecurity

    Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen wants her department to have a more direct role in defending the private sector and critical infrastructure entities from cyberthreats.

  • Defense
    Defense Secretary James Mattis testifies at an April 12 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.

    Mattis: Cloud deal not tailored for Amazon

    On Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sought to quell "rumors" that the Pentagon's planned single-award cloud acquisition was designed with Amazon Web Services in mind.

  • Census
    shutterstock image

    2020 Census to include citizenship question

    The Department of Commerce is breaking with recent practice and restoring a question about respondent citizenship last used in 1950, despite being urged not to by former Census directors and outside experts.

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.