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Singling Out Veterans

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There are few topics in federal management as emotionally charged as veterans preference, which gives former military members a leg up in federal hiring.

Talk to veterans groups and you'll find they are inundated with complaints from veterans who say they were passed over for jobs. Many-even those who should get special consideration because they are disabled- tell about applying for, and being rejected for, job after federal job.

It's easy to point to statistics that challenge the notion that veterans don't get their due. There are 450,000 veterans in government's civilian ranks. That's 25 percent, much higher than the 11 percent in the U.S. workforce overall. In 2003, 33 percent of new federal hires were veterans. That would suggest veterans preference is highly successful.

Managers say it is veterans preference- not veterans themselves-that they dislike. They say it enables unqualified candidates to get jobs in their programs. If managers are going to be judged on program results, they contend they should be able to hire the most qualified people.

Some say that, in their experience, retired military personnel with 20 years of service seek federal jobs so they can coast to a pension five years later. (Such employees are called ROADkill, for "retired on active duty.") Others who want to hire people just out of college, or minorities, say veterans take jobs those candidates could fill.

Others have less-than-defensible reasons for disliking veterans preference. In one such case, the Office of Special Counsel sought a manager's removal at the Fish and Wildlife Service for passing over a disabled veteran who was listed as the top candidate. The manager is accused of canceling the job announcement and then re-advertising it at a grade level for which the veteran couldn't apply. The job went to a contender who allegedly was the manager's friend and who had trailed behind the disabled veteran on the original list of qualified candidates.

Canceling job announcements and then reposting them is one of the old tricks for managers who want to avoid hiring a veteran. There are numerous such end runs in the complicated web of federal hiring regulations. Another is to use one of a variety of special hiring authorities in which veterans preference doesn't apply.

Veterans preference has long been tied to the "rule of three," which requires hiring from among the top three candidates on a list from human resources offices. Preference gives veterans a better chance of ending up on that list. When Congress created the Homeland Security Department in 2002, it granted agencies the authority to ditch the rule of three and instead use "category rating," in which an unlimited number of candidates can qualify for the job. But few agencies have adopted the new system. One reason: Veterans preference is part of category rating, just as it is under the rule of three.

Good managers want to hire the most qualified. Veterans want their service and sacrifice to give them an advantage in federal hiring. The tension between those two has veterans feeling left out and managers feeling hamstrung. If there's a way to have a clear-headed discussion about working out that tension, it is overdue.

 
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