Jeff Neal, Chief Human Capital Officer for the Department of Homeland Security, said he wants DHS to follow in the footsteps of his old agency, the Defense Logistics Agency, where he put a single automated hiring process in place. (Sheila Vemmer / Staff)
Jeffrey Neal, the personnel chief for the Homeland Security Department, faces the most daunting hiring challenge in the federal government: The department must hire more than 65,700 employees by the end of fiscal 2012 — the most of any federal agency, according to estimates from the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
Bringing that many people onboard will require a hiring overhaul at the department, where component agencies now use multi-varied hiring systems that don't share information. They also don't collect data needed to find and break up logjams in the notoriously slow hiring process.
To do this, the department has started rolling out a new end-to-end hiring system called TalentLink, provided by San Francisco's Taleo Corp. The department started this year using the system at its headquarters offices, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Office of the Inspector General. It more recently started deploying the system to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Other agencies will follow suit over the next three years.
Neal said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wants to create "one DHS," and said adopting a unified hiring system will be an important step toward that goal.
The system will provide department-wide statistics on how long it takes to complete each portion of the hiring process. It will allow Homeland Security managers to more easily create job vacancy announcements, post them online, and market vacancies to targeted populations. The system will make it easier for job candidates to submit applications online; help human resources offices review, rate and track applicants; and help hiring managers organize interviews and make job offers.
Once department managers are able to pinpoint where the hiring process runs into bottlenecks, Neal expects improvements to happen quickly.
"Most people don't want to be identified as the long pole in the hiring tent," Neal said. "Hiring managers who are told, ‘You're the problem and here's the data that shows it,' start making decisions quicker. It's amazing how that works."
The broken hiring process is a problem plaguing the entire government. Last year the Office of Personnel Management said it takes the government five months on average to hire a new employee and called on agencies to take no more than 80 days to bring new employees on board. OPM Director John Berry and other experts have said the government's sluggish hiring process means they miss out on talented candidates who get fed up and take jobs at faster-acting companies.
DHS doesn't know how its hiring times measure up with other agencies because it doesn't have metrics, but Neal acknowledges the department's hiring process "is very messy."
Neal said he wants Homeland Security to follow in the footsteps of his old agency, the Defense Logistics Agency, where he put a single automated hiring process in place. DLA used to take an average of 115 days to fill a job vacancy, but once it could accurately measure how long its steps took, it brought that time down to about 60 days on average in 2004.
"I'm not a numbers guy, but what I learned over the last 10 years or so is I've got to be able to measure something," Neal said. "If I can't measure something, I'm just taking shots in the dark."
Moving away from KSAs
In addition, Neal said he's adopting smaller-scale reforms, including moving the department away from using the unpopular knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) tests — lengthy, repetitive essays that are criticized for being a poor measure of a candidates' skills and driving them away. He wants to see the department rely almost entirely on resumes.
"KSAs, I think, are evil," Neal said. "It turns people off. The federal hiring process is a test of how desperately you want to be a federal employee. If you want to go through the process, you're really serious about it."
This week, Homeland Security will start an online job fair to hire about 500 cybersecurity employees where candidates will submit a resume and answer a handful of yes-or-no questions on cybersecurity. Those questions will be evaluated automatically to help weed out the less-qualified candidates, Neal said. OPM has called for agencies to adopt alternative assessments, such as questionnaires, to replace KSAs.
And in February, Homeland Security will start hiring people to fill 90 new Senior Executive Service positions, relying solely on resumes and interviews instead of essays. Neal said the changes are intended to bring Homeland Security's hiring process closer to that of the private sector.
"Most people aren't used to having to write 10, 15, 20 pages to apply for a job," Neal said. "As a matter of fact, they're taught over and over again to keep resumes to a couple of pages."
Faster scheduling of interviews
Another issue — which OPM has identified as a problem at many agencies — is that many Homeland Security managers are slow to schedule interviews once they receive a list of qualified candidates.
Neal said human resource offices sometimes surprise a manager with a candidate list, and by that point the manager's schedule is booked solid. Neal said he is ordering HR offices to increase communication with hiring managers and tell them a few weeks beforehand that a candidate list is on its way.
"If I get a list on Monday that I didn't expect to get, I'm not going to be blocking out four hours of my time on Tuesday to do the interviews," Neal said. "But if I'm told two weeks earlier I'm going to get a list, I know I can block out time to do the interviews."
And sometimes the fault lies with the job candidates themselves. Neal said some candidates "dawdle" after receiving job offers and don't submit their security clearance information promptly. So Homeland Security has started requiring some prospective hires to submit their information within 15 days of the job offer, and withdrawing offers for those who miss the deadline.
"We need to keep the process moving along," Neal said. "Most positions require a security clearance of some sort, and the process requires extensive background investigations and adjudication of clearances based on those investigations. All those things together conspire against us moving quickly."