The hiring fix
Federal agencies seek fresh ideas for speeding the hiring of the best and brightest
- By Richard W. Walker
- Mar 27, 2008
The federal government once had a highly centralized hiring process. If you wanted to work for the government, you took a federal service entrance examination and applied to the U.S. Civil Service Commission.
Then you waited.
John Palguta, vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, said he remembers the system well. As an idealistic college senior in 1970, Palguta wanted to work for the federal government.
About three months before graduation, Palguta took the federal service exam, scored high, had an interview and, in several months, Palguta received a job offer.
“I thought, boy, the federal hiring process is pretty spiffy,” said Palguta, who spent more than three decades in government before joining the partnership in 2001. “I figured this must be the way it works, and they have their act together.”
Palguta soon learned that the one-stop hiring system could be improved. For example, only applicants with near-perfect scores on the examination were eligible for job offers, and the test put minorities at a disadvantage. Later, the government dropped the exam and delegated more hiring authority to agencies.
Eventually, agencies controlled the hiring process, and the Office of Personnel Management was left with oversight authority.
However, that shift in hiring authority didn’t fix the federal hiring process. “From an applicant’s point of view, rather than have one place to go for a job, you had to figure out which agencies were hiring people for which occupations and how to apply for a job,” Palguta said. “It made the applicant’s job [search] much tougher.”
The government recently has made some improvements in the federal hiring process, but those are not sufficient, Palguta said. Agencies must be able to attract and hire the skilled employees they will need to fill gaps left by an expected surge in retirements.
“The issue of hiring in the federal government, especially at a time when the whole world is competing for talent, is a critical one,” said Howard Weizmann, OPM’s deputy director. “A lot of the federal workforce will be retiring over the next five years. It’s time to really infuse the federal government with fresh ideas.”
Weizmann is heading a new OPM initiative with the federal Chief Human Capital Officers Council to improve recruitment, hiring and retention governmentwide. His job is to understand what government can do better, not “recreate the wheel,” he said.
“A lot of different folks in different constituencies have looked at this issue and come up with solutions that deserve to be implemented and evaluated,” Weizmann said. “A lot of good work has gone into fashioning very credible ways of fixing the system.”
OPM Director Linda Springer said the latest hiring initiative doesn’t require rule changes.
“We’re not talking about new authorities — we have plenty of authorities — but about what we can do better to move this along faster when we bring people in and things we can do to help people stay,” she said.
One OPM project under way involves standardizing vacancy announcements for certain government occupations. The agency recently released standard job announcements for three entry-level positions: accounting, accounting technician and secretarial.
“We are looking at positions that are commonly found across agencies,” such as entry-level accountants, Springer said. Rather than five agencies having five different requirements for new accountants, job seekers can submit one application that each of those agencies can use. Having standardized, easy-to-understand and streamlined vacancy templates will help the government attract a broader pool of qualified applicants, she said.
OPM has taken other steps to speed the hiring process. Its USAJobs Web site — which now provides a data feed to search engine giant Google — offers a central repository of federal job openings. In addition, OPM offers an online Hiring Toolkit that helps agencies streamline their basic hiring procedures.
OPM also established a 45-day time-to-hire model to address one of the most common criticisms of the hiring process — that it takes too long and alienates prospective employees.
“The whole idea of [creating] hiring timeframes was the criticism that I submit an application, it goes into a big hole and then I never hear from anybody,” said Solly Thomas, an associate partner for human capital management at IBM Global Business Services and a former deputy associate director at OPM.
“When I first got to OPM, many of the agencies took well over 100 days [to make an offer],”Thomas said. “These were business days, not calendar days.”
The 45-day model, which runs from the date a vacancy announcement closes to the date a job offer is extended, has worked, Weizmann said. For example, agencies used the model to hire 38,300 employees during the September 2006 quarter, which runs from September to December. Seventy-one percent, or 27,200 applicants, received their job offers in 45 days, according to OPM’s figures.
For some agencies, 45 days from closing to offer are still far too many. “How about one or two days” as a goal, asked James McDermott, chief human capital officer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He is also a member of the CHCO Council’s executive committee.
“The announcement closes, we rank [the applicants] and do our thing, and say, ‘Come in and talk,’ and we’re done.”
The ability to make such on-the-spot offers is a powerful recruitment tool that would let agencies compete with the private sector for top talent in skilled fields, McDermott said.
NRC has bolstered its recruitment efforts to meet the expected demands of an expansion in the use of nuclear power. Last year, the agency hired 441 new employees, more than doubling its historical annual hiring rate.
NRC’s human resources officials use what they call invitationals to expedite job offers.
They post an opening on USAJobs and NRC’s job line, review and rank applicants, and invite the top qualifiers for interviews. At the end of those interviews, with all of the backroom work already done, including meeting federal merit system requirements, “we have all the information we need to make an offer,” McDermott said.
The Energy Department tested a similar approach last year. At the American Nuclear So- ciety conference in Washington, that department’s human resources officials were prepared to interview and offer jobs to job seekers attending the conference. They competed with corporations such as General Electric and Westinghouse, which were also making job offers at the event.
“The government has merit-systems accountability [and other laws] that we need to abide by, and people think that there’s such an encumbrance that we can’t source people directly,” said Jeff Pon, DOE’s chief human capital officer and a member of the CHCO Council’s executive committee. After posting job openings on USAJobs several weeks before the event, officials went to the conference armed with a list of candidates, interviewed them and extended four job offers.
“We really did prove we can hire people on the spot in a fair and open way,” Pon said.
“[We] proved to ourselves, the rest of the federal government and the private sector that we can compete.” At a recent CIO Information Management conference in Atlanta, DOE made eight tentative offers using the same method.
The government has many areas in which it can improve the hiring process. Making faster hiring decisions is on ly one. “That’s really more of the middle of the process,” Weizmann said.
“It doesn’t deal with the recruiting aspect, and it doesn’t deal with the paperwork” burden on the applicant. It’s a necessary but not sufficient improvement, he said.
Palguta characterized the hiring process as a chain of events. “If you have a weak link in there somewhere, it can mess up the whole thing,” he said. “You could be good at recruiting but terrible at assessment.” Even onboarding, a term human resources officials use to describe a new hire’s initial experiences on the job, is a critical component of the hiring process.
“A good onboarding process ultimately leads to greater retention,” Weizmann said.
The government must end up with a highly qualified, well-motivated person in the workplace, Palguta said. “If that doesn’t come together, the process isn’t working.”
Many experts agree that the most effective hiring processes grow out of workforce strategies that involve the entire agency, not only the human resources department.
“Human capital is not just the responsibility of the HR director,” Thomas said. “It’s a shared responsibility across the entire organization.”
Human resources directors can set strategic directions, but executives, line managers and employees must implement the strategy, he said.
Palguta agreed. “You’ve got to have the involvement of managers,” he said. “I tell managers when I speak to groups, ‘Your HR folks are there to support you and assist you, but don’t turn it all over to them and then complain that you don’t end up with the right people.’ ” Managers represent a critical part of the hiring process, Palguta said. “When they’re interviewing [candidates], not only are they assessing them, but they have to sell the job,” he said.
“Supervisors have to be trained to identify good talent and convince that talent to come work for them.”
The government still has much work to do to become competitive in hiring the best and brightest. Pockets of hiring strategy excellence, such as the programs at NRC and DOE, will help other agencies find more effective ways to hire and retain good employees, Weizmann said.
Palguta said he is optimistic that agencies can fix the federal hiring process. “There is still a lot of stuff to work on,” he said. “But the good news is a lot of people are focused on making this process better.”