4 Ways We Can Disrupt the Federal Hiring Process

As the Career Director for a Master of Public Policy (MPP) program, I have no shortage of students interested in government work. Despite reports to the contrary, there are young people interested in public service careers who simply cannot find the entry door. A recent brief from the Partnership for Public Service and the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that over 10% of college seniors listed government as their ideal career. That’s plenty!

The students in our MPP program have tried to get federal jobs. USAJOBS is inadequate, the Presidential Management Program has deteriorated, and new Pathways hiring has not materialized. Budget cuts have limited the number of new hires. In testimony to the Senate this week, Max Stier, President of the Partnership for Public Service, told members that “the federal hiring process has become so slow, complex, opaque and imprecise in its ability to identify the best candidates that it is more likely to impede than facilitate the government’s ability to hire well. In addition, successful private sector best practices cannot be used in the federal government because of the overly complicated rules and regulations.”

Our students realize the odds are not in their favor, so they take positions with consulting firms that serve public sector clients. Since 2008, those choosing federal jobs have declined by half, with a corresponding increase in consulting jobs. Public sector consulting firms are perfectly reasonable choices for students with loans to repay, and often they work on important public sector issues. But many of our students would prefer government jobs, and as a taxpayer, I’d really like some of our smart students to be in charge of running the programs rather than consulting about them.

Many GovLoop readers are managers in government organizations and understand the importance of bringing new energy into your offices. You’re probably just as frustrated as our students are with the federal hiring process. How can we work together to make sure you get great new staff members? Here are my ideas:

  • Push for interns in your office and treat them well. Introduce them to everyone. Give them a list of networking contacts you’d be willing to make for them. Allow them to telework. Feed them. Provide data for their capstone projects. Even unpaid internships are better than nothing. Many universities have funding for interns. We can also help you write a great job description.
  • Make sure your interns have the best possible knowledge about how to get hired into your office. If you have specific skill requirements that will make them better qualified, tell them how to get those skills. If you have contractors who regularly place workers in your office, connect them. If you know of any upcoming direct hiring authority opportunities, tune them in.
  • Encourage your agency to use the Pathways hiring authority to bring in new employees. This program is limited to recent graduates, which gives our students a fighting chance. A quick search of USAJOBS turned up only 87 Pathways Recent Graduate positions, most in DoD.
  • Lobby OPM to fix the PMF program! Maybe you are in a position to influence this program, which was once quite prestigious. I will write more about the PMF in the coming weeks.

One student expressed his feelings this way:

“I have wanted to work for the federal government since I was 12 years old, and I pursued degrees and internships to position myself for a federal job. The office where I interned wanted to hire me and encouraged me to apply to a vacancy announcement, but they ended up cancelling the position because no desirable candidates made it through to the hiring manager. In other informational interviews, I heard similar stories. It is sad that eager, qualified, public-service minded people like me, at a time when better paying jobs are available and the DC climate is not ideal, can’t have an opportunity to serve.”

Donna Dyer is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Kate Battiato

Donna, as a fellow career advisor for policy students, your comments ring so true, it’s almost painful. I’m so happy, though, to see that you offer constructive suggestions on how to improve the situation.

Terrence (Terry) Hill

It is certainly unfortunate that we have such a hard time hiring new interns, especially considering that they are under-represented in our workforce and baby boomers like me are getting ready to retire. Unpaid volunteer positions are not the solution. We need to open more opportunities for college students. Maybe eliminate the $7,000 fee agencies pay per PMF, hire more interns (who are still in school), and match up new interns with mentors. I do want to clarify that the Pathways program has 3 paths (Internship – HS/College Students, Recent Graduates, and PMFs).

When I joined the Federal service as a civilian 30 years ago, we had a robust Schedule B Intern program that allowed for non-competitive conversion to competitive service. As a veteran, I appreciated the opportunity to learn a new profession.

As we close out Public Service Recognition Week, we all need to make sure that the next generation of public servants is ready to take over the helm of our agencies.

Donna Dyer

Terry, I definitely feel your pain and I don’t think we are the only two people who feel this way, but I’m not sure how to get our voices heard in the right offices. Any suggestions? (And thank you for your service.)

Jarrod Breuer

Here’s what I’ve seen working in Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana, and Denver, Colorado Federal offices.

  1. The last 2 years have been really rough! Hiring freezes have affected everybody.
  2. Few people apply to rural areas. They are a great place to get your foot in the door.
  3. It takes months to advertise a job, interview, and finally hire. 3 months is not uncommon. 6, more common. When I graduated, I wanted to start work within a few weeks of graduating. That left most federal jobs out of the question. I had to wait to apply for most jobs until I had my degree in hand, then wait to be hired. That’s money out the door for me.
  4. There is a great disparity in pay and work load between Area offices, Regional offices, and DC. The more remote you are, the less you make and the more you do.

My important lesson: be patient, do work no one else wants, work with people others do not like, and do a good job.

Donna Dyer

Jarrod, I appreciate your perspective, and that’s a good idea to look at the non-DC/NY/SF offices, too. Unfortunately, most of my students are like you–not willing to wait for a federal position when other jobs are out there. It’s tough. Thanks for your post from Mile High!

Peter Sperry

They may consider it a step backward, but have your students considered joining the Peace Corps, Vista or the military? The commitment is not all that long and they gain status as government employees which opens up a much wider range of opportunities. They also gain resume enhancing experience and the time counts toward federal retirement. A 3 year hitch may seem like a lifetime now but in 10 years they will be much farther along in their career and able to swap tall tales about their youthful adventure.

Donna Dyer

Thanks for the comment! You’re right, Peter, but many of my students come to grad school AFTER Peace Corps, Americorps, Teach for America and other 2-3 year programs. Those who are veterans benefit from veterans preference, but PC and AC don’t give you any extra credit, they just allow you to apply for status positions. They just can’t get through the process to the hiring manager!

Amanda Parker

Thank you for this important post and I can’t wait to hear more about PMF. I set out to earn my MPP with my eyes on a federal career and the PMF. the process was competitive and I didn’t make it though, but the worst part was myself and all my classmates graduated during the height of budget battles and in the void before Pathways was off the ground. I finally made it but I know there is so much untapped talent out there. Also, these are great tips for all who will have interns this summer so thank you for sharing what we can do to help interns make the most out of a small time with our agencies.

Earl Rice

A normal Merit Promotion Announcement (which former PC, AC, Vets, Schedule A can apply for) shouldn’t take more than 60 days from the start of the announcement until the candidate is notified they are selected. If it takes longer than that, it’s because the hiring manager can’t make up their mind or the HR Specialist is a substandard performer. The on-boarding (finger printing, NACI, and Security Clearance) shouldn’t take more than 30days (usually 3 weeks), unless there are issues that slow things down (and in these cases, usually it really slows things down). Depending on the Agency and the Union agreements, there may be requirements to fully consider internal bargaining unit applicants first, which can slow down the process or result in their selection. Another issue is the economy itself. When my facility announces entry level positions we can get from 200 to as many as 400 applicants, for 1 position. So for 399 it seems like they just can’t get their foot inside the door. One of the biggest issues I have observed is applicants think they can just click apply, answer the questions, throw a resume at the announcement, and they are done. Also, few applicants realize that a short one page civilian style resume will just not provide enough information to qualify them for a position. By law, HR people are restricted from reading anything into the resume. If it isn’t there, there just isn’t enough there. Half of the applicants don’t read the entire announcement and make sure they submit all the required documentation for their application. HR people call it IFM (the USA Staffing code for Ineligible Forms Missing). This is the typical scenario that most HR people will see. You do an announcement for entry level. Let’s be conservative and say only 200 applicants apply. Right off you will lose half of them because they didn’t turn in all the forms needed [because they didn’t read the announcement to see what was needed, they just clicked apply on line, which brings back the question if they are really the best and brightest if they can’t follow instructions?]. With the 100 left, you will lose another 20 to 25 because they didn’t complete the forms that were required and turned in. So now we are down to 75 or 80 applicants. For all intents and purposes you have lost 120 to 125 applicants because they couldn’t read instructions, and you don’t need a PhD to follow the instructions. If a HS grad can follow them, then a Masters graduate should be able to, or so one would think. From here, it will depend on the announcement type (Merit Promotion or open to all US Citizens). If it is merit promotion, you determine the top candidates based upon resume and how they answered the assessment questionnaire and forward a certificate. Usually the certificate will not have more than 5 to 10 names max. Anyone on the list can be selected. And interviews will ensue. So, of the 200 applicants 10 (5%) will get interviews. The odds are a long shot that you will get hired. If the announcement is open to all US Citizens, then 30% or more disabled veterans will automatically go to the top and you cannot bypass them without OPM approval, which basically isn’t going to happen. Then you have the rest of the Vets, which by law, you cannot bypass a preference eligible (Veteran) to select a non-preference applicant. If there are 4 or 5 Veterans, non-veterans will usually not even be referred for consideration. Now with regards to the Pathways programs…. You will not see many announcements for the Pathways program. This is because of all the issues with Agencies abusing the predecessor, the Federal Career Intern Program. Some Agencies were filling over 50% of the positions with the FCIP. FCIP was only intended to be a small supplement to the hiring programs. So, when FCIP was shot down for violation of Veterans Preference (the actual case involved nepotism and cronyism also, which only added fuel to the fire when it hit the MSPB), and Pathways was created, there were huge safeguards put in place to stop the abuses and violations of Veterans Preference. An Agency must identify up front for the year, how many and in what career fields (this is to try and guard against spur of the moment attempts at nepotism and cronyism). The number is restricted tremendously. It was proposed that an Agency cannot have more than 5% of the entry level position be allocated to Pathways. But, the Agency has to prove to OPM why they need the Pathways positions they are asking for. And, as already noted by others, budgets are shrinking. I read some articles last year about Congress asking why some Agencies were furloughing employees, yet hiring all the Pathways people. The jest was take care of what you have now rather than hiring more and making it worse. And, we have not seen the last of the budgets cuts, not for a long time. So, for right now, unless these “students” are in a medical field, things are going to be very competitive trying to get into the government service for the obvious reasons. Also, DC is going to start drying up for positions (at least from the heyday of 4 and 5 years ago). Congress is really looking at the Agency Headquarters and asking if they are bloated way beyond what is required to run the Agencies. The joke going around was why does the Assistant Executive Assistant to the Deputy Assistant , to the Deputy Executive Assistant, to the Deputy Assistant to the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary to the Under Secretary for some small function to the Secretary need a personnel staff of 18 GS 15s, 20 GS 14’s, and 30 GS 6 through GS 13’s, and 25 contractors. This is their personal staff, not in the functional area staff of the organization.

David B. Grinberg

Awesome post, Donna. It’s refreshing to know that at least some college grads are interested in public service. Unfortunately, national polling continues to show that Millennials are distrustful of government.

Therefore, another important point is for gov agencies to offer work-life incentives to attract a new generation of young people to public service. These incentives include, but are not limited to increased telework and flexible work schedules, as well as greater adoption of mobile/digital/virtual technologies to keep pace with new and evolving IT advancements.

Moreover, gov needs to build a high-tech culture of innovation rather than clinging to antiquated bureaucratic ways of doing business — which, unfortunately, is the case with “old school” managers who are traditionally change resistant and intransigent to adopting 21st century work methods.

Finally, in addition to internships, some agencies offer their own fellowships and attorney honors programs to facilitate recruitment. This is another great way for college grads to get their foot in the door.

Again, thanks for sharing your exemplary insights on this important issue.