Embracing online recruiting

When Veronica Crawford-Robinson applied more than 25 years ago for her first job with the federal government, she drove from her home in Silver Spring, Md., to the office of the old Civil Service Commission in downtown Washington, D.C., filled out a paper form by hand and waited weeks for a response.

"Every time I wanted to work for another agency, I had to start that process all over again. There were just pages and pages and pages" of forms to fill out, recalled Crawford-Robinson, who has had a long career in the federal government, including stints at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the White House and the former U.S. Information Agency, among others.

In contrast, when Hilary Robinson, Crawford-Robinson's college-age daughter, applied for a summer internship last year with the State Department, she simply downloaded an application from the Internet, completed it and faxed it back.

Soon, even faxing applications for federal jobs will be passe. Many agencies — such as the Army, the Forest Service, the Congressional Research Service and the Office of Personnel Management — have turned to the Web and so-called online recruiting as the method of choice to attract potential employees and counteract the government's impending workforce crisis by making the application process easier.

Online recruiting encompasses just about every step in the traditional hiring process — piquing job seekers' interest in the hiring organization; presenting available openings; taking candidates' resumes; testing candidates for applicable skills, interests and "fit" for a job; checking references; and keeping applicants apprised of their chances of being hired.

Instead of taking place with paper forms, telephone calls and personal meetings, however, some or all of these activities occur on the Internet.

The private sector dabbled in online recruiting for a decade but began to embrace it in earnest about four years ago. Today, 91 percent of the 500 largest corporations in the world use the Web for recruiting, according to studies conducted by iLogos Research, a division of Recruitsoft Inc.

Job hunters are taking to the Internet in droves as well. On Monday afternoons, the peak period for online job searches, for example, an average of 6 million people are looking for new employment on Monster.com, the largest "job board," or employment Web site, according to the University of Pennsylvania's business school, the Wharton School.

Monster.com has more than 20 million registered users, and the resumes posted in the job board's database represent more than 13 percent of the U.S. labor force, according to Peter Cappelli, director of Wharton's Center for Human Resources.

"Online recruiting is a huge industry," Cappelli said. "It's really cost-effective because it costs almost nothing to do it." He estimated that it costs about one-twentieth as much to hire an employee online as it does to hire that same person through want ads and other traditional means.

The low cost and ease of use of online recruiting are luring some federal agencies to the practice. The Army was one of the first in the federal government to adopt online recruiting technology, adding an interactive feature known as RecruiterChat to its GoArmy.com recruiting Web site in 1999. The Army is now one of online recruiting's strongest advocates (see box, Page 16). Last September, for example, Army Secretary Thomas White said at a press conference that within 10 years, the majority of Army recruiting will be Web-based.

"People will punch straight into our Web site [and] they'll sign up," White said at a press briefing last Sept. 4 on recruiting results for fiscal 2001. "The first time we'll see [new recruits] is when they show up at a reception station."

More recently, other federal organizations have begun to embrace the concept of Web-based hiring. The federal CIO Council will hold a nationwide "virtual" information technology job fair April 22-26.

OPM officials acknowledged March 21 that they plan to transform the USAJobs Web site into a fully interactive online recruitment site via a share-in-savings contract, in which the contractor puts up all or most of the funds for a system and is then "paid back" by the agency according to an agreed-on percentage of the savings realized through the use of the new technology.

Last month, the 12th Contracting Squadron at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, signaled its intent to make an award for an online recruiting service to aid in hiring civilian employees. About the same time, Avue Technologies Inc. unveiled Avue Central (www.avuecentral.com), a Web site with links to job openings throughout the government, including the 35 federal agencies and departments that are already Avue customers.

And NCS Pearson Inc. won a $103.4 million contract from the Transportation Security Administration to build an automated, Web-based system to help hire the more than 30,000 security workers the agency must bring on board by year's end.

Recently, the local chapter of Blacks in Government, which represents African-American federal employees, collaborated with Avue to create a Web site to alert minority candidates of federal job openings.

"There's a huge need to bring new people on board, given the fact that people are retiring," said Rawle King, president of Blacks in Government's Region 11 council and an economist with the Congressional Research Service. "Technology is a good way to staff the federal workforce, and we believe this is an emerging trend."

Speed is Crucial

Why the sudden interest in what are — for the tradition-bound federal government — fairly radical technologies?

The answers: Speed and efficiency, according to Ira Hobbs, co-chairman of the CIO Council's Workforce and Human Capital for IT Committee, which is developing the virtual IT job fair with OPM.

When Hobbs' committee did its first study of the federal workforce in 1998, a key problem it identified was how long the government took to inform job applicants about their progress in the hiring process, he said.

"In some instances, it could be six months, nine months — even a year — down the road from when these people applied," Hobbs said. "People were getting lost in our system, which in turn applied [negatively] to the perception of whether the federal government was an employer of choice."

In large part, the virtual IT job fair is aimed at moving the resumes of qualified applicants into the hands of hiring managers faster than ever, Hobbs said. "If we are able to shave days and weeks off what has been the standardized process, even if we end up hiring only one person, I would still consider [the job fair] a major success," he said.

That's not only a laudable goal — it's an attainable one, according to experts in the field. Companies slashed an average of four days from their hiring cycles by posting jobs on a Web site rather than in a newspaper, iLogos found in a 1999 study of 50 Fortune 500 companies.

If a company also allowed applicants to submit an online application, the company cut an additional five or more days from the hiring cycle. If the company electronically screened and processed those online applications, hiring managers saved another three to four days.

Achieving those savings of time and money, however, requires that the hiring organization have an integrated system of sorting and filtering technologies to handle the applicant resumes in a timely fashion, said Alice Snell, iLogos vice president.

"I applaud the government's efforts [in embracing online recruiting], because ultimately the government is competing head-to-head with the private sector for job candidates," said Snell, who has been studying Internet-based human resources issues for more than a decade.

But "there's got to be a streamlined process to handle the information collected," she added. "To get applications from several thousand people and then not be able to process that information quickly would be a waste of resources."

Although sorting can be as simple as asking applicants if they are willing to move, a number of commercial software packages offer sophisticated, standardized tests to certify the applicant's skills, perform background checks, apply psychometric tools to help hiring managers assess the applicant's suitability for the job and gather information about applicant's personal interests and attitudes.

The virtual IT job fair that the CIO Council and OPM will host later this month will do so-called back-end sorting and filtering via a mix of online technology and old-fashioned face-to-face interviews, according to Pat Popovich, deputy CIO for the State Department, who is helping organize the event.

For the five days of the actual job fair, applicants will complete a screening questionnaire, a technology aptitude test and a skills inventory — all online — and OPM will compile the results, Popovich said. Managers with job openings can then call OPM and ask for a list of the online applicants who have met the criteria for federal employment.

"People are so technology literate now, much more than they were even five years ago," Popovich said. "What this [online job fair] does is put the federal government in line with 'today' and the future of hiring."

The revamping of OPM's USAJobs site constitutes the other major effort to bring the federal government in line with "today" in terms of hiring.

First developed and launched on the Internet in 1996, USAJobs (www.usajobs.opm.gov) has attracted a growing number of job seekers since Sept. 11. During last October, for example, the site recorded 1.5 million "unique visitors," or separate searches. By February of this year, that number had risen to 2.4 million searches for the month.

In late March, OPM officials said that they plan to transform USAJobs into the Recruitment One Stop, one of the Bush administration's 24 e-government initiatives, through a share-in-savings contract. The administration asked agencies to expand the use of share-in-savings in the fiscal 2002 budget.

Several cutting-edge technologies may be added to USAJobs, including online application status tracking, which enables applicants to monitor their progress through the hiring process.

Applicants Demand Sophistication

Some observers of the revamping effort, however, say it's a matter of too little, too late.

Currently, USAJobs is simply a public notice-posting site, where all the information posted and collected remains in the public domain, open to anyone to read. Most true online recruiting sites, conversely, monitor who accesses their site, how information is released and how applicants' rights to the privacy of personal information is protected, said Linda Rix, Avue's co-chief executive officer.

"OPM is trying to transition from a public posting site to an active recruiting portal," Rix said. "I think one of the reasons they're sensitive about that effort is that USAJobs has had a significant amount of criticism directed at it.... All of our customers are federal agencies, and we hear that one of the issues is that USAJobs does not portray the federal government in the best light."

Job applicants, particularly those in the scientific and engineering fields, are technology-savvy and expect a recruiting site to be sophisticated and state-of-the-art, said Rix, who worked at OPM before founding Avue.

Also, the online recruiting field is growing and changing so rapidly that being able to update a recruiting site is critical to its success. "OPM's process of how they're going about the one-stop recruitment initiative follows a very traditional software development process," she said. "They're writing requirements, then doing some development, then having more meetings and writing more requirements. That process itself is just not conducive to innovation on a very high scale."

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