Hiring on the fast track

Like other federal agencies, NASA's personnel offices used to struggle when it came to culling resumes to determine if a candidate had the skills and qualifications described in a job announcement.

Two years ago, with the ranks of its human resources specialists thinned considerably by downsizing and hampered by a manual, decentralized process, NASA took an average of four months to fill a job vacancy.

"The bottom line was, we were losing some great candidates," said Candace Irwin, staffing program manager at NASA. "If we were competing against the private sector for a really fabulous talent, more often than not, we'd lose out because the other side could make a job offer before we could even get them in for an interview."

But in November 2001, NASA completed the implementation of its Staffing and Recruiting System (STARS), a Web-based automated hiring solution from Yahoo Inc.'s Resumix unit that enables job candidates to post their resumes and apply for jobs online. It eliminates the need for lengthy, supplemental forms, automatically rates and ranks applicants for each position and creates a list of referrals for interviews.

The result: NASA's average hiring time is down to 29 days.

"The difference is amazing," Irwin said. "We're already getting 96 percent of our applications online, and not only does it save our HR personnel an enormous amount of time, but our applicant satisfaction is amazing."

Coming Into Its Own

Recruiting management software, also known as e-recruiting or talent relationship management software, is becoming increasingly popular among federal agencies, all of which are grappling with how to effectively satisfy more hiring regulations with fewer human resources employees. The new technology promises relief.

Already, scores of agencies have bought and begun using automated software, including the Agriculture and Justice departments, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Internal Revenue Service and the Army and Air Force Exchange Service.

"Everyone is looking for a faster way to handle applications," said Tina Strickland, team leader for the Office of Personnel Management's USAJobs Web site. Although it specializes in posting job vacancy announcements, Strickland's office also uses USA Staffing, an automated solution developed at OPM to help other agencies attract online applicants, examine qualifications electronically and hire staff.

"In my opinion, agencies that want to compete in today's environment cannot afford to not automate," Strickland said.

This new breed of software offers agencies a solid jump-start. Although hundreds of programs are on the market, only a few focus on federal hiring. Among the more prevalent are Resumix, USA Staffing and solutions from QuickHire Inc. and Avue Technologies.

Using Web-based tools, artificial intelligence, data mining, collaborative filtering techniques and advanced search engines, the tools offer numerous functions.

On the applicant side, they enable users to build a resume online and search for job announcements according to specific criteria. Users can then apply to one or more jobs and track the status of their applications. They can also update their applications if necessary and receive e-mails notifying them of any open jobs that fit their criteria and qualifications.

Human resources offices, meanwhile, can take advantage of an internal set of applications, including:

* Notification services that send letters or e-mail messages to the applicant, informing them of their status.

* A rating and ranking tool that helps sort applicants, weeding out those who are not qualified and ranking the remaining candidates according to hiring rules.

* A certificate generation tool that automatically lists referrals for hiring managers and takes into account such things as veteran preference, merit promotion and delegated examining.

The tools often can be integrated with existing human resources tools, eliminating the need for further data entry and enabling recruiters to complete such strategic tasks as skills assessments and workforce planning.

"The tools should allow you to work basically the way you would work with paper," said Patrick Brown, vice president of employment solutions at WorkForce Technologies, an employment solutions firm that helped implement NASA's STARS. "It's just automated and much, much faster."

The Good and the Bad

Agencies have already seen a number of benefits, including a marked increase in candidate interest.

The U.S. Geological Survey, which uses the QuickHire solution, has increased its number of job applicants by 400 percent. Another benefit is the reduction or complete elimination of panels of subject matter experts who rank candidates. NASA officials estimate that the agency will save 40,000 hours of expert time annually and more than $1 million in associated productivity costs.

Another benefit, according to Gary Blackburn, human resources information technology specialist for USGS, is that staffing personnel finally have time for other important activities, such as advising hiring managers and developing strategies for long-term workforce planning.

What's more, they are now more willing to perform outreach services in hopes of attracting as many job applicants as possible.

"We can go and actually cast the widest net possible," he said. "If we get 500 applicants to a particular announcement, we can process those just as quickly as we can 50."

Still, the software, which can cost $50,000 to $1 million depending on the type, number of users and complexity of internal systems, is not a panacea.

There are plenty of upfront challenges, according to human resources staff, including accurately defining as many as 50 or 60 functional requirements, re-engineering existing HR systems and business processes, incorporating a solid change management plan and developing qualifications content and business rules.

Kathy Slaga, human resources information systems specialist for Agriculture — which is testing the QuickHire solution at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service — said that even on a limited basis, implementation requires a significant commitment of time and funding resources.

In this particular case, because QuickHire uses a series of questions much like the knowledge, skills and abilities assessment that many federal agencies use in their examining process, Slaga and colleagues had to develop a qualifications library for each of five occupational series and eventually will have to extend that to include 22 occupations and specialties.

"You have to go through the qualification standards for each series and come up with a list of questions that will help answer whether the candidate actually meets the hiring requirements," Slaga said. "Then we take them to our subject matter experts and get their opinions. And you want to streamline it, so the applicant is not out there answering 300 questions."

Blackburn noted that agencies too often make the mistake of not recognizing how much work will be involved. "The software is really only 10 percent of the battle," he said.

Still, the payoff can be remarkable.

"Our morale is so high right now, not just within the human resources offices but throughout the agency," Irwin said. "With the agency cut to the bone, it can be really harmful to take four months to fill a job vacancy because, in the meantime, somebody's doubling up on work or the work's not getting done. Now we're getting those jobs filled quickly and filled with better qualified people."

Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached at [email protected]


E-Recruiting benefits and challenges


* Cuts the time from job announcement to hire by as much as 75 percent.

* More applicants can apply to more jobs with less hassle — increasing the number of applicants and applicant satisfaction.

* Human resources offices can use the recruiting data with existing personnel data to determine any gaps between current skills and future needs.

* Provides easy outreach to younger candidates and gives the federal government a more modern, computer-savvy image.

* Decreases errors due to illegible handwriting.

* Posts job announcements automatically to the Office of Personnel Management's USAJobs Web site, eliminating the need to re-enter data.


* Can require a lot of costly and time-consuming upfront business processes and re-engineering to fit a system into agency operations.

* Few products are truly geared to the complex needs of government recruiting, and those that are can still require customization.

* Because the information can be so personal, security is an issue, requiring agencies to develop a privacy policy that determines, for example, whether to ask for a Social Security number online and, if so, how to protect it.


Making a buy

Although it's been around for a few years, the recruiting management software market is still nascent, according to Craig Symons, vice president of Giga Information Group Inc.

As a result, organizations need to do their homework upfront. Industry observers and federal users suggest asking the following questions when considering e-recruiting solutions:

* Is the solution geared specifically toward federal hiring regulations? If not, can the product be easily customized to meet those requirements?

* Does the vendor understand the unique functional requirements of the agency?

* How many federal clients does the vendor have, and are they available as a reference?

* How well will the product interface with existing human resources systems?

* Is the technology secure and scalable?

* Will the vendor host the solution as an application service provider?

* Does the vendor have a security policy? Also, look for a documented process, data encryption and — if the vendor is hosting the application — an offline database.


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