Bipartisan Bill Aims to Improve Federal Hiring

Measures include increased use of assessments, expert reviews

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer January 31, 2022
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​A trio of lawmakers recently proposed new legislation building on a Trump-era executive order to reform the federal hiring process.   

The introduction of the Chance to Compete Act was announced Jan. 18 by Sens. Bill Haggerty, R-Tenn.; James Lankford, R-Okla.; and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

The bill prioritizes candidate evaluations based on knowledge, skills, abilities and competencies while limiting the use of education when determining if someone is qualified for a role. It also facilitates the use of more robust assessments over the self-assessment questionnaires currently used for nearly all federal jobs. Agencies could more easily share information about job candidates when they are working to fill similar positions, decreasing time-to-hire for all applicants and making the federal hiring process more efficient.

"For too long, the federal government's hiring priorities have focused on college degrees and institutions instead of if the individual is actually qualified," Hagerty said. "Federal workers should be hired based on skills, not just if they have a degree."

Sinema's office said the legislation will help eliminate longtime challenges that have prevented skilled workers from getting federal jobs.

"Instead of relying on subjective self-evaluations, key-word search resume reviews, and binary credentials for positions, federal agencies will be required to use actual job evaluations and tests to determine if applicants can do the job," Sinema said. "We're making federal hiring more efficient and the federal government more effective by removing barriers and expanding opportunities for [those] who have the knowledge and experience to work in the federal government, even if they don't have a traditional college degree."

The proposal is based on the June 26, 2020, executive order on Modernizing and Reforming the Assessment and Hiring of Federal Job Candidates signed by former President Donald Trump. The purpose of the order was to modernize federal recruitment practices to better identify and secure talent through skills- and competency-based hiring. Key provisions included modifying qualification and classification standards to eliminate degree requirements where possible and eliminating the reliance on applicant self-assessment questionnaires.

SHRM Chief of Staff and Head of Government Affairs Emily M. Dickens said the bill "represents an important step in the right direction by facilitating the implementation of HR best practices by federal agencies. Now more than ever, effective talent acquisition requires a recruiting approach that develops a talent pool capable of providing a steady stream of quality job candidates. Hiring practices that negatively impact the candidates' experience or overlook qualified job candidates inhibit the ability of the federal government to fill vital roles."

Dickens added that the effective use of candidate assessments can improve time-to-fill metrics, employee performance and retention.

"Candidate assessments closely aligned with the knowledge, skills, abilities and competencies necessary for on-the-job success represent an important strategy for accessing untapped talent," she said.

Jeffrey Neal, an expert on federal HR management and former chief human capital officer for the Department of Homeland Security, sees much to recommend in the legislation and the executive order it is based on.

Even though he believes that the bill is "probably not going anywhere," he said that "if implemented properly, it could result in significant improvements in the hiring process. If agencies take the easy way out and do not make the kind of changes the executive order mandates, nothing will change."

Limiting Degree Requirements

Neal explained that while reducing reliance on degree requirements seems like a positive step, it may not make a big difference.

"Most jobs do not have degree requirements now," he said. But in practice, agencies tend to only hire people with degrees, even when it's not necessary, he said.  

"Agencies that have become reliant on degrees to differentiate between candidates where the job does not require a degree may find they cannot do that in the future, and that is a good change," he added.

But the jobs that do require degrees are likely to continue to have them. "We are not going to see the Department of Veterans Affairs hiring doctors without degrees," Neal said. "Engineers, architects, accountants, attorneys and other professions are likely to continue having the degree requirements that are associated with those lines of work."

Rethinking Assessments

The requirement to use better prehire assessments, if followed, should result in better qualified candidates getting through the screening process, Neal said. "It is also likely to screen out many more poorly qualified candidates, including those who routinely lie about their qualifications."

Across the federal government, 97 percent of open-to-the-public job announcements rely solely on applicants' answers to a self-assessment questionnaire and a resume review by HR to determine whether their experience makes them eligible for the position.

"Those questionnaires, to be blunt, are worse than useless," Neal said. "They do not differentiate between candidates in a useful way, and they do not reliably predict performance on the job. Many agencies do little checking beyond tallying up the scores people give themselves. Assessments that actually measure skills would be far more helpful than self-assessments that measure nothing."

Resume Reviews

Another bone of contention is having HR conduct resume reviews without input from hiring managers and subject matter experts (SMEs). Neal pointed out that improving the assessment and resume review process is entirely within the power of the agencies right now and doesn't require new legislation.          

A recent pilot program conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the U.S. Digital Service allowed SMEs to assess applicants to determine if they could perform the duties of the role, while HR maintained responsibility for the hiring process and compliance.

The OPM reported that several participating agencies had positive results.

"There has been actual clapping at the end by hiring managers and HR staff," according to a report on the pilot program. "They point out this is not new, but people have stopped doing these practices after much of hiring was automated with self-assessment questionnaires. Despite the significant time it takes SMEs to conduct resume review and assessments on top of their normal workload, all of them have said they would do it again because of the high-quality applicants they have hired through this process."

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