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Competing for talent in the federal government--Part I: several federal agencies are streamlining their hiring and recruiting processes, making their organizations "employers of first choice" for the next generation of civil servants.

Federal government agencies face a colossal human capital challenge: how can they win the increasingly competitive war for talent? How can they streamline their hiring and recruitment processes to attract a new generation of workers to public service? And how can they become "employers of first choice" for more job seekers in the future?

Today, the stakes for agencies and government chief human capital officers (CHCOs) could not be higher. Just as baby boomers are poised to retire from government jobs in record numbers (half the federal workforce will be eligible for retirement by 2010), our government is ramping up to fight an increasingly sophisticated (and labor-intensive) war on terror--one that will require highly educated, specialized workers in record numbers. The Departments of Defense (DoD) and Homeland Security (DHS) are set to hire as many as 150,000 workers in the next few years to support an expanding array of defense and national security requirements, mostly in the areas of security, criminal investigation, law enforcement, and bioterrorism protection.

These numbers don't take into account other critical jobs to be filled in the more "shadowy" areas of government service, places like the National Security Agency, National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Data on their job requirements aren't publicly known, but these agencies, like their public counterparts (DoD and DHS), face staffing pressures of their own. In November 2004, President Bush signed an executive order requiring the CIA to increase staffing 50 percent in three critical areas: clandestine operations, intelligence analysis, and mission-critical languages. The number of job slots to be filled in each area is unknown, but could be 2,000 or more according to the Partnership for Public Service (PPS).

Defense and intelligence aren't the only areas where government needs to staff up in the years ahead. Potential talent shortages in the federal government's scientific and technical communities--in agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)--mean that staffing challenges will be an issue for many federal agencies for years to come.

Overhauling Hiring and Recruitment

As government struggles to fill its twenty-first century needs, "Its hiring and recruitment practices are in big need of an overhaul," says Jane Paradiso, a consultant on workforce planning issues to Watson Wyatt Worldwide. Government hiring practices, she says, are complex, impersonal, and bureaucratic. "Federal job applications can run thirty-five pages, and it's not unusual for some federal agencies to take more than a year to bring new hires onboard, especially in key defense and security areas." In one case, she worked with a federal agency whose average time to hire was 374 days. "Anybody who's good at what they do isn't going to wait around that long to get hired. They'll just go someplace else and probably for more money than they'd make in government."

Government agencies aren't in a position to offer the kinds of job flexibility, perks, and salaries that private-sector employers can offer, says Paradiso. Consulting firms, for example, "can hire retiring military personnel as contractors at salaries no agency can match. Meanwhile, high tech firms like Raytheon, IBM, Lockheed Martin, and others spend millions annually on high-powered recruiting to identify and acquire top scientific and engineering talent."

The federal government--with a few notable exceptions like the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)--does little proactive recruiting and, because of poor agency branding, is seldom seen by new college graduates as an employer of choice says Bob Tobias, director of the Institute for Public Policy Implementation at American University and author of Successful Recruiting Strategies for Federal Agencies.

In fact, according to one federal manager interviewed for this article, "Hiring officials in many agencies privately pray for economic downturns in the national economy," so that high volumes of high-quality resumes from the private sector will land on their doorstep. Hardly a sophisticated recruitment model!

How then can the federal government compete in recruiting and retaining the brilliant and talented of this generation of Americans? One way is to identify and replicate the best practices in hiring and recruiting of agencies like the U.S. Department of Education (ED), GAO, and IRS.

How ED Redesigned Its Hiring Process

In 2004, ED used a slow and cumbersome process to hire new employees. "The process was inefficient and didn't let you track your hiring and recruitment activities," says Bill Leidinger, then ED CHCO. Leidinger helped spearhead the transformation of the agency's hiring process as part of a project dubbed "Extreme Hiring Makeover." Based on the popular Extreme Makeover TV shows and promoted by PPS, the Extreme Hiring Makeover project was the subject of intense interest at the 2005 Excellence in Government conference in Washington, DC.

ED was one of three agencies (NNSA and CMS were the others) that radically reengineered their hiring process during the ten-month project, cutting the number of individual steps required to hire a new employee from 114 to 53. ED, however, was the only agency to reengineer the hiring process agency-wide.


How did ED streamline its hiring practices? Leidinger, working with a team of human resources (HR) practitioners, ED managers, and staff from PPS, redesigned the hiring process to bring HR professionals and hiring managers together at the start of hiring cycles. The idea was to have both parties to the hiring process agree ahead of time on job descriptions, skill requirements, recruiting strategies, sources of job recruits, and screening procedures to use--before future hiring activities are actually undertaken.

"Our reengineering efforts ensured that, in the future, both hiring managers and HR people will be on the same page from the time a job opening is first identified, and can have a shared understanding of the skills that job candidates have to possess to get that job," says Leidinger. Previously, ED hiring managers and HR didn't always synchronize their efforts to ensure effective and expeditious hiring of new employees.

Senior ED managers were also asked to prepare and adhere to annual staffing plans that outline the number and types of employees they plan to hire in the coming year. "This way, hiring managers can tee up their staffing plans to be in alignment with the Department's overall Strategic Human Capital Plan," Leidinger says.

ED also changed how it posts job vacancies. "We created job descriptions free of federal government jargon and put greater emphasis on functional job requirements and opportunities for advancement," Leidinger says. To accomplish this, the agency worked with a variety of outside vendors, including Monster Government Solutions and Korn/Ferry International, to develop powerful, private-sector-style employment ads and electronic job postings.

Customized IT System

The technological backbone for ED's new hiring process is a customized information technology (IT) system that agency managers developed in-house. "We designed the system to track every position we recruited for, and that was a big first," says Leidinger. The system tracks the length of time it takes to accomplish each step in the hiring process, the goal being to recruit for jobs and track and fill virtually any ED job slot in just forty-five days. Previously, the agency didn't track specific and average hiring times, and really had no fact-based understanding of how long it took to fill ED job slots.

Strategic Partnership

In Leidinger's experience, the real strength of ED's new hiring process is that it requires hiring managers and HR specialists to work together as a team throughout the process. "Today, no hiring manager can hire somebody without using the system, which is controlled by HR. And HR won't start the recruitment process until there's agreement on all specifics," he says.

So what is Leidinger's advice to other agencies interested in revamping their recruitment and hiring practices? "The real key to redesigning an agency's hiring process is to create a strategic partnership between HR specialists and the hiring managers they support inside the agency," he says. "That means HR managers need to intimately understand the needs of their clients--the hiring managers--and be highly proactive in positioning themselves as resources to help fill critical needs positions."

At the same time, hiring managers need to view HR practitioners not as administrators or paper shufflers, but as effective, valuable partners in the hiring process. "Hiring managers must consult closely with HR on the requirements and specifics they need in individual job candidates."

Leidinger concedes that in some agencies, getting line managers and HR practitioners to view one another as partners is likely to take time and will require culture change within the organization. "People sometimes push back," he says, adding, "That's where strong, top-level leadership needs to intercede to help drive change in how people look at one another and work together."

Government Accountability Office

In recent years, strong leadership of change has been much in evidence at GAO as it has radically transformed its own hiring and recruiting processes. As head of GAO, Comptroller General David Walker has been intimately involved in helping his agency develop elaborate systems to better identify, recruit, develop, and retain topflight managerial and leadership talent. Today, GAO links strategic talent recruitment strategies to its strategic plan and its reward-for-performance pay system.

As part of its recruiting activities, GAO assigns senior executives the task of nurturing relationships with key schools of public administration and public policy. These schools serve as talent pools for strategic hiring and for attracting the kinds of skills GAO needs to serve as the country's official accounting and auditing agency.

In the last few years, the agency has "geared up its recruitment efforts," says American University's Tobias. "GAO hires about 60 or 70 percent of its new staff based on internships. Once people are hired, the agency has strategies in place to keep those it wants." For example, it assigns GAO senior executives to serve as mentors to every new person who's hired.

GAO also has a systematic method of giving new hires new jobs every three months as part of a robust job rotation program designed to strengthen employees' management and leadership skills. The program, much like those at big companies like GE, gives high-potential managers a variety of developmental job experiences, so they become high performers on the job very quickly.

To lure job candidates to the agency, GAO uses numerous incentives--training, repayment of student loans, and competitive pay. (Competitive pay is possible because GAO is not limited by civil service salary ranges.) GAO also does a good job of branding itself as an employer of choice. Tobias notes that government participants in his leadership development program at American University (typically GS-14s and -15s) crave getting job offers from GAO because it's viewed in government as such "a great place to work."

Internal Revenue Service

The IRS is another agency known for strong branding and proactive recruiting. Under Julia Cronin, director of the agency's Talent and Technical Management Division, IRS has targeted job recruits through some unique channels. For example, it recruits at NASCAR events and has published full-page employment ads in different sports publications, including the program for Major League Baseball's World Series. In one recent recruiting campaign, an ad encouraged readers to "step up to the plate" by going to the IRS jobs Web site ( Once there, visitors were encouraged to explore the possibilities of working for "one of the largest financial institutions in the world."

"IRS made itself sound more like a bank or investment firm than like the country's tax collection agency," says Tobias.

IRS also promotes its branding and recruiting message on many Web sites, using banner ads to track ad responses. It has also sent blast e-mails to hundreds of thousands of college students on the basis of their participation in college classes that could be good indicators of their suitability for IRS jobs.

Like GAO, IRS bases recruitment and branding strategies on detailed internal discussions of what it needs to fulfill its public mission. Cronin's office works closely with IRS business units to identify required IRS core competencies in existing open jobs and emerging competencies the agency will need in the future--in areas such as enforcement.

Edwards Air Force Base

Another example of innovative government recruiting can be found at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Edwards is the aviation test site used to flight test America's experimental aircraft. Recruiting ads for the base today describe Edwards as "the Home of more milestones in flight than any other place on earth."

Three years ago, the base had problems. It needed to hire fifty to seventy-five engineers a year in esoteric areas like aeronautical engineering and electromagnetics. The base was, at most, hiring just five or six engineers a year, according to Paul Tierney, chief of the Avionics Systems Integration Division. Its recruitment process was cumbersome and paper-driven. What's more, Edwards did no proactive recruiting, relying instead on passive recruiting efforts (job fairs and job descriptions posted on government Web sites) and traditional marketing materials to woo job candidates.

"Identifying high quality candidates and getting them on board rapidly was difficult," says Tierney, who adds that it often took nine months to bring new and mid-career engineers onboard.

Private-Sector Recruiting Practices

When Tierney and his team got the opportunity to be part of a pilot program aimed at introducing private-sector recruiting practices into the base's hiring process, he jumped at the chance. He worked with Knowledge Workers, Inc., an outside vendor, which designed a high-powered applicant tracking system for the base. He also teamed up with the Bernard Hodes Group, which developed an edgy new branding and marketing plan to sell job candidates on the allure of working at an elite flight testing site.

As part of new recruiting efforts, the base's recruitment ads pushed the idea that working at Edwards would give young and mid-career engineers unparalleled career opportunities, such as hands-on exposure to leading-edge technologies and experimental aircraft designs. Ads screamed with headlines such as "Push it to the Limit," "Make it beg for mercy," and "Turn your tech friends green with envy." "We wanted the ads to reflect the Edwards swagger," says Tierney.

Tierney and his recruiting team also began to strengthen relationships with local universities, reached out to job prospects through the Web (,, Google search, TAOnline), and targeted e-mail postcards to passive job seekers. They also placed ads in various student engineering magazines, which contained "headlines with attitudes" and updated the base's Web site with edgy new marketing and recruiting copy.

"In every way, the new campaign challenged traditional recruiting approaches used by Edwards up to that time," says Tierney.

Web-Based Metrics Reporting Tool

Working with Knowledge Workers, Tierney's team also implemented a Web-based metrics reporting tool (HRDashboard) to track recruitment efforts and time required to fill key engineering positions, determine recruiting return on investment (by activity), and actively manage job prospects.

The results? In the last two years, Tierney says recruitment times for engineers have been cut from nine months to just three. The base has also formed strong working partnerships with half a dozen local universities with strong engineering programs. It has a very robust internship program in place that serves as both a recruitment pool and a marketing channel for Edwards back on campuses. Because the pilot has worked so successfully, Tierney says it has now been implemented at six other Air Force bases.


What lessons can federal agencies draw from the examples of novel government hiring and recruiting showcased in this article? All four examples illustrate private-sector best practices in recruiting applied with creativity and leadership in a public-agency setting. In each case, government recruitment processes have been transformed, and the efficiency of recruiting efforts has been vastly increased. All four case studies--and the lessons they contain--have implications for the strategic hiring of professionals and technicians to fill various priority jobs in government today.

Developing strong in-house hiring and recruitment processes and practices is clearly key to aligning recruitment efforts with an agency's (or base's) strategic mission. Careful branding is clearly important in helping government agencies become employers of choice for more and better qualified job candidates. Finally, putting adequate systems and infrastructure in place can accelerate organizational alignment with recruitment activities and ensure that hiring is done with strategic goals in mind.

In today's world, the adoption of recruitment best practices from the private sector is critical to ensuring that we have needed competencies and human resources in place, to fight the war on terror, to ensure the fair administration of our tax laws, to guarantee that taxpayers receive their Social Security checks on time, and to handle thousands of other key government functions.

As government moves ever closer to the "retirement cliff "--the large-scale loss of an entire generation of federal workers--senior civil service executives and political appointees must work together to identify the critical skills and competencies needed in the coming years. They must also set the policies, establish the systems, and carry out the processes and procedures that will attract the superior minds of this generation to form an elite government corps to serve the public good.

We're confident that government executives are up to the challenge, but addressing these issues is more marathon than sprint. It will require concerted public-sector leadership, not just from senior government executives and political appointees, but also from lawmakers and the White House.

When It Comes to National Security Why Not Simply Outsource?

Given the slow pace of most government hiring, DHS, DoD, and various intelligence and law enforcement communities rely heavily on outside staffing agencies to help them recruit linguists, Arabists, interpreters, and those with specialized analytical, computer, and surveillance skills needed in espionage and counterterrorism work. They need to hire people quickly for sensitive positions, and they want outside analysis, especially in the wake of the government's failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Outsourcing isn't always a cost-effective answer to recruiting issues, says Jane Paradiso. "Sometimes improved infrastructure--good applicant tracking systems, strong inhouse recruiting skills, good interview design, and other factors--can reduce hiring costs. An organization should look to improve these internal processes first," she says.

Outsourcing can also depersonalize the hiring process from a job candidate's point of view, experts say. Without effective oversight, outsourcing can also expose organizations to liability or other problems if contractors fail to perform.

--B. T.

Bill Trahant is national leader of Watson Wyatt's Government Consulting practice in Arlington, Virginia. Reach him at William.trahant@ or 703-258-8022. Steve Yearout is a senior consultant at Watson Wyatt and can be reached at or 703-258-8005. Copies of WW reports are available from its Web site,
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Author:Trahant, Bill; Yearout, Steve
Publication:The Public Manager
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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