5 problems with federal hiring — and 5 reality checks

If federal officials know they need to hire tens of thousands of new employees in the coming years, why do they make it so hard to land a job?

If federal officials know they need to hire tens of thousands of new employees in the coming years, why do they make it so hard for highly qualified individuals to land — or even apply for — a job?

The federal hiring process has been lambasted and lampooned for many years, but President Barack Obama upped the ante earlier this year by saying he planned to cut back spending on government contractors and rebuild the federal workforce.

According to a recent study by the Partnership for Public Service, federal agencies will need to hire more than 270,000 new employees for mission-critical jobs in the next three years, including more than 11,500 information technology professionals.

However, readers who responded to a recent FCW.com article on federal hiring shared Kafka-esque tales of spending months or even years applying for jobs to no avail.

The column, by Government Computer News’s Bill Jackson (“Do federal hiring processes discourage qualified applicants?”), told the story of a reader who has had no luck landing a government job despite being a certified security professional with 20 years of experience and security clearances from the Defense and Homeland Security departments.

Based on the other comments we received, it is safe to say that reader is not alone. So we followed up with an article that summarized the problems job applicants often run into, which triggered another flurry of comments.

But one in particular got our attention. The reader, who did not provide a name or contact information, addressed the problems one by one — not necessarily rebutting what other readers said but providing an insider’s perspective.

Here is a recap of reader complaints, followed by the response from HR Insider.

1. Open positions are often a ruse.

Numerous readers said open positions in government aren’t open at all because agencies already have someone on staff they want to promote.

“I've seen this at the directorate where I work for years,” one reader wrote. “Our government lead tried to shoehorn a contractor with no experience into a senior government slot, and when the person couldn't make the finalist list, they just didn't hire anybody, and the slot was lost.”

Another reader said those positions often include requirements for experience that only government employees would have, such as doing capital planning and investment control and writing Office of Management and Budget Exhibit 300 business cases.

A federal employee wrote to say that the problem is not necessarily the hiring manager but the system. In an office where that reader worked, the human resources staff would put together two lists of candidates for interviews — one of feds and one of public applicants.

“The feds list has an unlimited number of people on it,” the employee wrote. “The public list only has the top three highest-scoring applications. The scores are computer generated based on how many buzzwords you use. So you can be a fantastic candidate yet have no shot because your application was never seen by a human being.”

HR Insider replied:

“Unfortunately, public announcements are often required to meet negotiated bargaining agreements or federal law. These requirements force sham announcements that give external applicants false hope — or worse, force a selecting official to hire someone less qualified.”

2. Human resources employees are making hiring decisions.

Other readers said human resources employees — not the hiring manager — are choosing candidates.

“In the domain of IT, HR professionals are not informed enough about the technology to be in a position to make the right decision,” one reader wrote. “The frontline manager should always be involved when the selection has to be made from the best-qualified list.”

The apparent use of buzzwords also annoyed people because it turns the job competition into a résumé-writing contest.

“Applicants need to understand what the buzzwords are in the job description and make sure to use them in their application and/or résumé,” one reader advised. “It doesn't seem to matter if you are well qualified: The exact words in the application are important.”

HR Insider replied:

“HR rarely makes hiring decisions. HR is generally tasked with reducing large candidate pools to a manageable list of ‘highly qualified’ individuals. Much of this is done through automation based on input provided from the selecting official. The automated systems are not perfect; however, in most cases, if a candidate’s résumé addresses the requirements listed in the announcement, [he or she] will be referred.”

3. Hiring preferences stymie qualified applicants.

Hiring criteria represent an especially tricky issue. As a public institution, the federal government makes a point of giving special consideration to veterans in certain cases. Some readers took issue with that preference.

One reader wrote: “I’ve worked 12 years as a contractor in the IT field for DOD. I enjoy my job. I would do it in an instant as a civilian, even at lower pay. But because I’m not a vet, I’d be unqualified to do my same job if it were to be posted. The system doesn’t work.”

“IT specialist or janitor, if you are not a veteran, you will not have a chance no matter how qualified,” another reader wrote.

However, we also heard from someone who is both a veteran and a seasoned tech professional and is getting nowhere in his quest for a government job.

HR Insider replied:

“Like it or not, veteran’s preference is the law. It is doubtful that any congressperson would sponsor a bill removing this entitlement from those who defend our freedoms.”

4. Applicants aren't prepared for the bureaucracy.

This perspective came to us from oracle2world: “A lot of folks are just not suited for federal employment. If you can't navigate the hiring process, you won't be able to navigate the bureaucracy and have the patience needed over the long haul.”

Patience is certainly necessary, based on many comments. We heard from a reader who began applying for jobs after his second enlistment back in 1998. “Thousands of applications and multiple degrees and certifications later, I decided to give up in mid-2008. After 10 years of applying and three interviews, I figured it just wasn't going to happen.”

Some frustrating situations play out much more quickly but are frustrating just the same.

One reader told of being selected for a position only to have the job put on hold because of budget problems. “When the money was finally allocated, I was told that my certification had expired and that the hiring process would have to begin all over again! I turned down several other offers during this time period, waiting for the hiring process to run its course.”

HR Insider replied:

“If a candidate has not been preidentified, most private organizations follow a process similar to the government. The position is announced, candidates are screened and interviews conducted. Combined, this process normally takes a while (e.g., two weeks for the announcement plus two weeks for review plus two weeks for interviews). The time frames can be longer if any of the players/candidates are not available.”

5. NSPS doesn’t help the process.

Of course, any discussion of government hiring and management practices eventually has to come around to the National Security Personnel System, which everyone loves to hate. So we close with this reader comment.

“NSPS was supposed to ‘fix’ the broken hiring process, right? You know, make it easier for the government to attract, hire and keep skilled workers? How's that working out at your organization? It sure hasn't happened at mine. We just lost a very talented IT professional to the public market because in over three months, he could not get into any of the five advertised jobs in IT security that he desired.”

HR Insider replied:

“While union officials don’t like NSPS because it holds employees accountable for performance, the system has been a boon for recruitment. Private-sector employees embrace the concept of pay for performance. Under NSPS, the Defense Department has been able to offer more competitive compensation packages, and fill rates have skyrocketed for most hard-to-fill occupations. The problem with NSPS is that under legacy performance systems, average employees were rated outstanding. NSPS corrects this; however, many of the average employees are now dissatisfied with their new ratings, even though most are earning larger increases than their [General Schedule] peers.”

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