As the pandemic’s effects took hold, most organizations weren’t able to look at much of anything and think “Thank goodness we prepared for this.”  But the Office of Personnel Management’s USA Staffing platform upgrade in 2015 helped agencies across the federal government bring employees onboard with a “touchless” system – an upgrade that was so beneficial during the pandemic that it garnered that agency the Igniting Innovation award from the American Council for Technology.

While that win was a great example of hiring success, hiring remains a big problem for federal agencies.  The average age of a federal employee increased to 48 from 2010 to 2018 – six years older than the average US employee.  Only six percent of the workforce is below the age of 30.  The time required to hire a new employee crept under 100 days in 2018 but still remains more than twice as long as other industries, including state and local governments.  The shortages in cybersecurity, human resources and acquisition are especially acute.

What will 2021 bring?  A few changes this year may make some hiring easier.  An executive order reducing the focus on unnecessary educational requirements may allow more qualified candidates to qualify for positions, although there is concern that it could also make hiring more subjective.  A pilot program for IT employees early in the year reduced the resume requirements from 5-60 pages to two, and led to an increase in qualified applications.

Some of the rigidity in the federal hiring process is due to Federal Law – much of it, however, is due to OPM guidance, regulatory frameworks, and simply doing things the way they’ve always been done.  A recent report from the National Academy of Public Administration provides several recommendations for administrative changes to improve the hiring process.  Among them is to make use of more candidate assessment tools (computer-based skills tests) used by the private sector to determine qualifications.  The NAPA also recommended using Direct-Hire authority more often and providing better training for managers so they can cultivate talent and improve the work environment.

All of these would make the federal hiring process more flexible and efficient.  Some of them would also make the hiring process more subjective.  Subjectivity isn’t great, but it’s sometimes better than the alternative.  The current process takes so long that the most highly qualified candidates take private-sector jobs before they make it through the federal hiring process.  The federal government needs to find a better way to balance fairness and efficiency in their hiring process going forward.  But the most important goal remains to find and hire qualified candidates for critical unfilled positions.

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