Targeting top talent

Agencies focus on streamlining the arcane federal hiring process

Agency officials and lawmakers agree that federal hiring practices must focus on recruiting and retaining talented new workers as they graduate from colleges and universities.

But that's a tall order, officials say, because it takes a daunting 102 days to fill an agency position — a time frame that discourages many students from applying for government jobs. Many talented workers accept jobs in the private sector because they are unwilling to wait for federal officials to make up their minds.

The rapidly approaching retirement of the baby boomers makes "persuading Americans, especially young Americans — the next generation of talent — that they should consider a federal post" especially important, said David Chu, undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness.

But the federal government may be its own worst enemy in making that happen. "Across the board, some agencies reply almost immediately, [but] some never get back to applicants," said Dan Blair, the Office of Personnel Management's deputy director, at a July 13 hearing of the House Government Reform Committee's Civil Service and Agency Organization Subcommittee. "At OPM, we encourage agencies to get back and let them know."

A clear understanding of how to use hiring flexibilities is essential to ensuring that agencies fill positions faster, Blair said.

Plenty of tools can make that happen, he added. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 gave federal officials latitude that allows them to select job candidates ranked as best qualified rather than being limited to three candidates. Officials also gained direct-hire authority, which allows them to shorten the hiring process on a case-by-case basis.

In a move to bring federal human resource officers up to speed on these and other hiring flexibilities, OPM Director Kay Coles James announced a new Web-based initiative July 12. The new educational materials and job aids will be available through OPM's GoLearn Web site (www.golearn. gov).

"This is OPM's latest approach to make hiring flexibility training easily available to human resources specialists governmentwide," James said. "To make real, measured progress, agencies must begin to take the knowledge and the tools we are offering and put them to use."

In addition to adopting hiring flexibilities, agency officials must make it possible for recent college grads to move to the front of the hiring line ahead of people with experience. The current hiring process favors government experience, not fresh talent, said Ed Sontag, chief human capital officer at the Department of Health and Human Services. To reap the benefits of an "infusion of recent college graduates," he said, officials need to change the assessment instruments.

For example, HHS' two-year Emerging Leader's Program has successfully employed 250 recent college graduates out of more than 12,000 applicants. The program demonstrates that large numbers of young people are eager to break into the federal workforce, Sontag said.

"The program has generated incredible numbers of highly talented young people competing for the opportunity to come work for HHS," he said, adding that it benefits the agency and the students far more than many in the agency had anticipated.

"Managers and supervisors throughout the department are continually amazed that employees right out of school are able to come in and make such an immediate impact," Sontag said.

***

AUTOMATED HIRING

The Department of Health and Human Services, like most agencies, has turned to an automated system to evaluate résumés. Agency officials use HHS Careers, designed by QuickHire Inc., to fill many positions. How it works:

The software allows applicants to find vacancy announcements online and then create, edit and archive an electronic résumés.

It rates and ranks applicants based on pre-established criteria.

It passes the most qualified applications on to selecting officials within five days of the announcement's closing, according to the agency's Web site.

The software tool has allowed HHS officials to dramatically cut the time it takes to fill a vacancy from 102 days to 35 days.

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