HR

How assessments could look in the federal job market

Federal agencies are beginning to work through how assessment-based hiring will operate for their open positions and have begun to take cues from the private sector and other agencies on where to start, based on an Oct. 29 webinar hosted by the Office of Personnel Management.

The shift toward assessment-based hiring and away from degree-based hiring stems from a June executive order that tasked federal agencies with changing the way they hired most positions, both to expand the number of people qualified for federal jobs and to ensure that candidates with the right skills make it into the final selection process.

“We do anticipate upcoming issuance where OPM will be providing some additional policy updates to help agencies implement the executive order,” said April Davis, head of the Classification and Policy Office at OPM, said at the event.

OPM acting Director Michael Rigas indicated in his remarks that the changes to how federal agencies hire new employees are likely to be sweeping and significant.

“The last change to the federal hiring process of this magnitude took place when the Carter administration phased out the Professional and Administrative Careers Examination, or PACE, in 1979. Until that point, the PACE served as the entrance exam to the civil service,” said Rigas.

“Once it was phased out, HR staff were forced to filter candidates using a cumbersome system of resume reviews and self-assessments. Desperate for an easier way, they began relying more and more on college degree, and we’ve had the same system ever since.”

According to Rigas, 50 of the approximately 400 federal occupations require some sort of degree by law, such as nurses, lawyers and civil engineers. Those positions will therefore still require a degree as the baseline for qualification.

But particularly in the technology space, OPM officials speaking at the event said that there was significant evidence from the private sector that skills in those areas can be cultivated outside a traditional degree program, and demand for positions in areas like cybersecurity will require the government to dig deeper into the candidate pool.

The days of the personal assessment questionnaire — one of the more commonly utilized assessment techniques in the federal government today — are also numbered, at least as a standalone tool.

According to Michael Blair, lead personnel research psychologist at OPM, such assessments by themselves lack accuracy, as candidates tend to over-inflate their own expertise to make themselves look like a more attractive choice.

He noted that agency assessment plans would need to take a “whole of person approach” that, while not a complete picture of everything about the candidate, gives HR professionals the ability to confidently sense what kind of employee that person will be.

The event also featured private sector hiring experts who explained what kinds of assessments most helped their companies find the right people.

Bryan Hancock, a partner at McKinsey & Company, said that his company turned to game-based assessments to determine how well and in what ways a candidate approached problem solving challenges that didn’t focus too deeply on the traditional business school teachings.

Lily Lamboy, diversity, equity and inclusion lead at Stripe said that assessments paired with thoughtful job postings also help to keep hiring managers from hiring the same types of people they already have because it is “safe.”

“There’s this anxiety that you have as a hiring manager that you’re sort of on the line for whoever you hire. So this drives us to hire people like the people we’ve worked with before. The people we’ve worked with before might have been fantastic, but they may not have — in the spirit of the executive order — been representative of the set potential candidates in ways that could be relevant and innovative,” said Lamboy.

“What we’ve found really works is to take a lot of time on the front end to build a thoughtful job description, to mine that job description for very concrete skills and responsibilities, to take that and translate it to observable skills and competencies, to weight those skills and competencies against one another … and then [determine] how would we observe that.”

Beyond just the initial hire, the federal government also has a broad enough employee base to benefit from a skills catalog or talent marketplace that tracks when current employees gain additional skills that may make them useful in a new or higher level position.

“An advantage the federal government has, and that you have with this executive order, is that you will consistently staff agencies, and you will hire career staffers,” said Lamboy, explaining that the government can play the “long game” because it will continually staff certain roles and know that it will have a business in which to do so years down the line.

Agencies have until late December this year before they will be expected to begin using an assessment-forward hiring strategy under the executive order.

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