The Department of Defense has dozens of civilian hiring authorities at its disposal, some unique only to that agency, in order to bring on the best and most flexible talent in service of the nation’s defense.

But according to the union that represents approximately 300,000 employees at the agency, it is those very hiring authorities that have caused the DoD to struggle in finding and keeping enough talent in key areas like STEM, acquisition, financial management, cyber, artificial intelligence and foreign language skills.

“The Department of Defense has sought these authorities purportedly in the quest for greater management flexibility, often to the detriment of the long-term job security of employees being hired into the department,” American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley said in a letter to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks dated May 5.

“In fact, the misuse of these authorities arguably has been one of the primary factors leading to these persistent skills gaps in the workforce. There has not been a recognition of the inherent contradiction between unfettered management ‘flexibility’ to set the terms and conditions of employment to deviate from standard Title 5 civil service procedures to preserve an apolitical workforce and the very idea of human capital planning that views employees as possessing both existing skills and potential talent that can be developed only through a long term commitment to those employees as a valuable part of a team.”

The union cites, for example, the fact that personnel caps for foreign language instructors mean that any time the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center needs more teachers in a particular language, they have to sacrifice instructors in another, leading to a year-to-year workforce that does not have the necessary people on hand to pivot to emerging linguistic needs.

And DoD has increasingly made use of temporary personnel, as the Government Accountability Office found in August 2020 that the agency increased term personnel by 40 percent from 2016 to 2019.

“Another contributing factor to these management problems in the department has been lax oversight by the Office of Personnel Management of the delegated examining authority provided to the department, a delegation that has persisted over a couple of decades. As a result of this lax oversight, there has been a proliferation of separate career programs within each military department for the same kinds of skills,” wrote Kelley.

“Sometimes this results in each military department creating separate developmental paths and certification requirements for similar sets of skills, a practice that creates significant barriers for promotion for internal candidates or lateral entry for external candidates. Moreover, management practices and culture more often than not erect barriers to hiring more than the lack of authorities. A prime example is the department’s reported failure by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence to recognize experience as a substitute for educational credentials when determining appropriate compensation for persons with cyber skills.”

This isn’t the first time that “flexibility” has been labeled the enemy of improved hiring, with HR professionals from several agencies testifying in a 2019 hearing that the myriad special authorities with different titles for certain job types have made the job of hiring managers that much more cumbersome. And that burden gets translated into longer hiring times.

AFGE called on the DoD to cut back on hiring caps, siloing of positions, extended probationary periods and unnecessary degree requirements, while expanding on existing incentive programs like the three-year Cyber Scholarship program to attract and keep talent.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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