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OPM expands role in hiring: Efforts could speed process by 5 weeks

Apr. 18, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry says the new hiring process will speed the time it takes to start some new employees by 20 percent.
Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry says the new hiring process will speed the time it takes to start some new employees by 20 percent. (ROB CURTIS / STAFF)

New centralized hiring registers promise to slash by 20 percent the time it takes to fill the most common jobs throughout government.

The Office of Personnel Management's centralized hiring registers, in action since September, has compiled a list of more than 106,000 candidates qualified to fill 13 jobs categories, ranging from accountants and secretaries to specialists in security, information technology, contracting and human resources.

OPM advertises the jobs, evaluates the applicants, applies veterans preference points and then forwards lists of suitable candidates to hiring managers.

"If you like the first person you interview, he can start the next day," OPM Director John Berry said. "You can hire him on the spot, and it's legal."

The change promises to revolutionize the hiring process for managers and job applicants alike, eliminating duplicative work and saving time for hiring managers to focus on harder-to-fill jobs. Agencies need only alert OPM of its requirements to generate a list of potential candidates.

"We can cut it any way you tell us to," Berry said. "You can say, I need it in the Southeast, I need this level of skill, this person has to speak Spanish. You tell us whatever you need, and we will send you a list of names, however many you want."

Using the registers is free, and optional. But agencies must be willing to use category rating — where candidates are placed in broad quality groupings rather than being assigned numerical ratings — to participate.

OPM will keep its applicant pool stocked with fresh candidates by periodically publishing vacancy announcements. If a candidate is not hired after six months, he must say he wants to stay on the register or he will be removed.

Berry said the registers, which were announced April 8 but have been in the works since September, will be one of many ways the government tries to fix its broken hiring process this year. The White House wants to cut the average hiring time to 80 days or fewer.

"It's not going to be one stab and the dragon dies," Berry said. "Hiring is so complicated, it's going to take multiple efforts. It's kind of like attacking the Hydra."

‘Take the headache' from HR

Berry sought to reassure HR officials that the centralized hiring effort won't push them out of their jobs.

"This is not an attempt either by [the Office of Management and Budget] or OPM to try to slash HR any further," Berry told an audience at the Interagency Resources Management Conference (IRMCO) in Cambridge, Md., last week. "I'm trying to take the headache of the pain-in-the-butt jobs, and get that off your back so that you can spend your time doing the outreach and finding the much harder-to-hire jobs."

HR offices should use their time to build relationships with universities and work on other outreach efforts to recruit more specialized workers such as scientists, Berry said.

OPM tried to establish similar registers in the early 1990s, but the effort failed. Berry said he has heard complaints that the old registers had poor-quality candidates, and he asked agencies to work with him to ensure that doesn't happen this time.

"I want this to work," Berry said. "If you ask for a register and you [interview] candidates ... and you say, ‘Oh my God, these were really crappy candidates,' let us know, because we will fix them. We'll ask better questions. We'll draw you in and help us refine the assessments so that the next time we can get you what you're looking for."

A second try at registers

Ellen Tunstall, OPM's former deputy associate director for talent and capacity policy, said the increased use of automation and improvements in the assessment process over the last two decades could help registers succeed this time.

"In the old days, we had huge tables with stacks of applications on them," Tunstall said. "The world has changed so much. Automation will make it so much easier."

Another problem with OPM's old hiring registers was that its paper-based process meant candidates were often referred to multiple agencies, Tunstall said. This created a problem when several agencies wanted to hire the same person. But the automated process should allow OPM to keep better track of who is referred to which agency, she said.

Agencies have so far hired about 200 people from OPM's registers, Berry said.

Tunstall said the initiative will fail if agencies don't try it out. Berry needs to keep pushing the registers, she said.

"Agencies have got to put their toes in the water," Tunstall said. "The beauty is that OPM is doing their work for them."

John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, said the plan is an efficient way to centralize hiring.

"They're using economies of scale," Palguta said. "But what will determine [the registers'] success is whether agencies get well-qualified candidates. If somehow [the registers] are not ending up with really good candidates on top, agencies will not use them."

Poor progress in scrapping KSAs

OPM also said last week that agencies have made poor progress in replacing the outgoing knowledge, skills and abilities essays used to assess job applicants.

While most agencies no longer require the lengthy, widely criticized KSA essays, they have not come up with efficient and effective assessment tools to replace them, said Nancy Kichak, associate director for strategic human resources policy.

Instead, agencies have adopted extensive questionnaires that end up being just another form of KSA, she said.

Agencies "didn't do a good job with the assessment tools, and they didn't do a good job of redesigning job announcements to get right to the heart of the mission," Kichak said at IRMCO. "They cut [KSAs] out, but they didn't retool. We're getting ready to say, be more serious, take another crack, do it better."

Kichak said that within the next two to three weeks, Berry will send agencies a memo on replacing KSAs, telling them to "kick it in a higher gear."

Berry said last June he would ask agencies to stop requiring KSAs and instead rely on résumés, as the private sector does.

During a panel discussion, Kichak said that agencies still need some way to evaluate job candidates' knowledge, skills and abilities. But instead of requiring all applicants to submit essays as part of their initial application process, Kichak said that in the future, some form of written assessment will likely come later in the process.

"You will need an assessment tool to get that large number of applications down to a manageable number," Kichak said.

Future assessment tools could include limited written responses to questions, Kichak said.

"We'd frown on massive writing," Kichak said. "Instead of a long essay about leadership, maybe a paragraph or two about an accomplishment [and how] it demonstrated strategic thinking."

Jim McDermott, chief human capital officer of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said his agency is still going to need some way to test job candidates and make sure they have all the necessary technical skills.

"There are things you need to know, or be able to do," McDermott said.

But panelists said some job applicants go overboard and submit KSA essays consisting of dozens of pages because they fear if they leave anything out, they'll lose the job. Jeff Neal, chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department, said he once received a 500-page essay — in a box for a ream of paper — from someone seeking a GS-5 secretary job detailing every facet of her career.

She didn't get the job, Neal said.

"Nobody had a week to devote to reading" her essay, Neal said.

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