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Why so many SES jobs go unfilled

Sep. 13, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
Soon after becoming director of the Office of Personnel Management last year, John Berry announced plans to create an office to oversee Senior Executive Service issues and hire a leader for the office by the end of 2009. But that effort stalled, Berry said, because he not yet found a "superstar" to head the office.
Soon after becoming director of the Office of Personnel Management last year, John Berry announced plans to create an office to oversee Senior Executive Service issues and hire a leader for the office by the end of 2009. But that effort stalled, Berry said, because he not yet found a "superstar" to head the office. (Thomas Brown / Staff file photo)

It takes special talents to become a member of the Senior Executive Service. Not only must an aspiring executive have exceptional technical skills in his chosen field, but he must know how to lead others, manage complicated programs, and in some cases oversee massive budgets.

But many senior agency officials are complaining now that the candidates they receive don't have what it takes. And rather than accept a substandard executive, agencies are forced to start looking all over again before finding the right person for the job.

Experts say it's a problem that has come into sharp focus recently because of the Obama administration's efforts to reform the federal hiring process. Many of the problems plaguing hiring overall are particularly acute when it comes to filling SES vacancies, experts say.

The agency normally charged with fixing the problem — the Office of Personnel Management — has been incapable of dealing with the problem. Soon after becoming director of OPM last year, John Berry announced plans to create an office to oversee SES issues and hire a leader for the office by the end of 2009. But that effort stalled, Berry said, because he not yet found a "superstar" to head the office. When asked, OPM officials cannot provide data on how many SES vacancies there are or the average length of those vacancies.

"OPM has been supportive of moving to résumé-based recruiting for SES going back to the pilot program they implemented over a year ago, which is now being used across government," said Kathryn Medina, executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council. "OPM is also working closely with OMB and federal agencies on advancing improvements to recruitment and selection in the SES ranks, through a joint working group."

Finding qualified candidates is a problem that especially affects small to midsize agencies, experts say.

Ron Flom, who retired recently as OPM's chief human capital officer, said the challenge for small agencies like OPM to find qualified SES candidates is huge. "It would not be unusual for us to have to go out two times at least — maybe even more," looking for qualified SES candidates, he said. "We did interviews, but at the end, we shook our head and said the right person isn't in this group. He's got to be out there somewhere."

Agency officials cite a range of problems — from poorly written vacancy announcements to shortsighted training and succession planning — that must be corrected to overcome the paucity of qualified candidates. They told Federal Times they usually end up finding qualified people to fill their executive slots, but having to repost vacancy announcements often adds several months to the hiring process. And while agencies keep looking for someone to head a particular division or project, they have to rely on acting officials — who don't have the power to make budgetary or strategic decisions — to keep it in a holding pattern.

"While we had an acting person in a position, they were just meeting the day-to-day requirements," Flom said. "We didn't have a person in place looking after the future of the organization."

The severity of the problem largely depends on where someone sits in the government. Officials at small and midsize agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Department, report frustration with the quality of candidates.

But larger agencies, such as the Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs departments, say they're pleased with their quality.

Brian Costlow, Energy's administration director, said at a Partnership for Public Service event last month that he is often given "the best of the worst" when filling SES or GS-15 positions. In many cases, he said, the candidates lack both leadership and technical skills.

"In some cases, it's extremely shallow," he said in a Sept. 9 interview. "It really gives me pause."

Costlow said he usually looks to see if an SES candidate has managed significant projects, has led a work force that is comparable to the staff he will lead as an executive, and has the required technical skills, such as engineering or analysis. But he said it sometimes seems people with those skills aren't looking for work, or are unwilling to wait for the government to take roughly five months to hire them.

One senior executive at EPA, who asked not to be named, said her agency has a hard time finding executives with specialized scientific skills. She said she thinks the problem is getting worse, and said the Clinton administration's downsizing meant the government didn't hire as many talented, midcareer workers who could grow into the executive ranks.

She is concerned that talented candidates will become even more scarce in coming years, as executives begin to retire. The government has avoided the "retirement tsunami" officials once predicted, but the EPA official said executives will have to retire sooner or later. And that's just going to increase the demand for qualified candidates.

A former chief human capital officer at a large agency, who asked not to be named, said the problem stems from severe training cutbacks in recent decades. He said some agencies' SES development programs are inadequate, and are often filled by people who filed grievances and were promised development opportunities as part of their settlement.

"It's one of the dirty little secrets," he said. "These programs are filled with people who will never be SES."

He added that the government has a hard time finding qualified candidates to oversee functions such as procurement, human resources and financial management — careers that were downsized in the 1990s and contracted out in the Bush years.

Flom said he believes many agencies aren't effective recruiters and are too often content to post vacancies on USAJOBS.gov. That approach only reaches people who are looking for government jobs during that vacancy period, he said, and misses "passive job seekers" who could be swayed to a federal position.

Flom — who became a managing director at the executive search firm Preston Reffett in May — said most agencies don't take advantage of headhunting firms, or advertising in publications that reach nonfederal audiences. Part of that problem is budgetary, he said — some agencies don't have the money to drop on ads or headhunters.

VA chief human capital officer John Sepulveda said VA rarely uses executive search firms because they are expensive. But when VA has used them, they found excellent candidates from academia, nonprofits and the private sector.

Sepulveda said VA generally is pleased with its candidates because the department's size gives it a broader pool of potential executives already familiar with VA to choose from. But he acknowledged that the quality of SES candidates VA received was somewhat lacking before 2009, when VA consolidated its SES hiring efforts. Previously, individual offices and divisions conducted their own SES searches.

"Before, it took longer to fill, and they didn't always find the people they needed," Sepulveda said. "It was the fact that they had to reinvent the process each and every time that contributed to it not being as efficient and effective."

Many experts agree the lack of qualified candidates shows the government's succession planning efforts are falling short.

"Agencies that aren't thinking out into the future, keeping accurate job descriptions, growing their bench and building candidates internally, they're in worse shape because they go out with a description that doesn't reflect what the job is," Flom said.

Those poorly written vacancy announcements contribute to the poor quality of SES candidates, Flom said. Others may be so vague that unqualified people don't realize they don't have a chance.

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