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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

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If you work for a federal agency, chances are you've been hearing for years about the impending "retirement tsunami" in which 40 percent of the federal workforce will be eligible to retire during the next five years. The reality is that with the economic downturn, more baby boomers probably will postpone retirement, and the predicted mass exodus is more likely to be a gradual stream of departures.

With financial markets in the doldrums and the country facing the possibility of double-digit un-employment rates, the federal government has never been more attractive as an employer. The election of President Obama has created an enthusiasm for public service among younger Americans that's been absent for a generation, and agencies would be smart to seize this moment to replenish their workforces.

The numerous regulations related to recruiting and hiring candidates into the government present federal managers with unique challenges. The multitude of required forms, background checks and security clearances is enough to confuse or discourage even the most eager applicant. The process from recruitment through hiring can take six months to a year, which discourages candidates who need immediate employment. Randy Moon, chief of employee engagement and retention at the CIA, says the hiring process can take up to nine months at his agency, considered one of the most desirable places to work in the federal government.

One way agencies can streamline the hiring process is through Web-based talent management software, which helps automate the recruiting and hiring processes and makes it easier for managers to track their employees' performance and identify candidates for advancement. Talent management software can be crucial to succession planning as well, helping federal managers identify which skills they already have on board and where knowledge gaps lurk.

Talent management software usually refers to a suite of applications related to recruiting, hiring and evaluating employees. Launching a complete suite can be daunting because it requires an organization to spend three to four years reworking its internal processes. It also requires risk management and change management strategies to ensure the agency's mission is not compromised by the transition.

A more measured approach would be to adopt individual applications, beginning with a talent acquisition system that helps identify strong candidates from the pile of applicants. Agencies can direct potential applicants to a recruitment system, where they can take part in a series of questions and assessments to determine their suitability.

"Applications are fairly in-depth, very flexible and configurable, and able to identify what's important in terms of criteria," says Chris Feeley, vice president of Taleo Corp., a talent management software company based in Dublin, Calif. Feeley said the city of Chicago, which receives on average 1,000 applicants for every open position, uses the company's software to eliminate 90 percent of the workflow involved in narrowing the candidate pool.

Applicants' responses can be weighted, so possessing certain attributes can move a candidate toward the top of the heap. If a position requires a security clearance, for example, the software can be programmed to ask job-seekers whether they have a clearance and what level. Managers would then have access to those applications first, cutting down on the time needed to sift through résumés. Similarly, the system can identify veterans or other individuals with needed skill sets.

Before rushing to set up a talent acquisition system, it's important that agencies have an up-to-date description of every position they are seeking to fill, complete with the skills and competencies required. Eric Hutchison, vice president of assessment and hiring solutions for Arlington, Va.-based consulting firm Vangent Inc., says many agencies rely on outdated job listings and competency reviews, which hamper the system's ability to identify the most attractive candidates.

"You can dive into a talent management system, but if it doesn't map to key competencies or they aren't current, you could be bringing on new individuals but not the right ones," Hutchison says. He recommends that agencies start with the most basic form of job analysis, looking at their employees' core functions and identifying the positions most likely to lose employees to retirement or the private sector.

"There are ways to use software to automate every piece of this, but you don't need to buy the whole kit and caboodle right out of the gate. You can have a few key initiatives going on at once," Hutchison says.

Once agencies have conducted a staff inventory, identified core skill sets for various positions and staff areas where attrition is expected, the next step is designing the talent acquisition system. Using the updated job descriptions can help managers craft a series of questions that ideally would reduce the pool of applicants to the top few candidates. After candidates are selected, the software can streamline and accelerate the onboarding phase as well.

Newer talent management applications can automate forms for new hires, including paperwork for drug tests and background checks. Employees and managers can track where they are in the hiring process. The system notifies new hires by e-mail when they need to complete tasks, and connects them with other employees for guidance and advice.

"The Office of Personnel Management's objective is to have a candidate on board within 45 days. Agencies are nowhere near that goal," Feeley says. "The software makes the onboarding process more intuitive, complete and automated. It also helps in the initial engagement of a candidate; it's their first introduction to the organization and forms a better first impression, leading to better retention."

Once agencies have automated the recruitment and hiring processes, those applications can be integrated with evaluation, training and career development programs. The result is a fully integrated system that tracks an employee from recruitment through retirement, with continuously updated information on performance, training, job function and career goals. But the first step is implementing software to quickly identify and hire the best candidates.

"Talent acquisition is the best first piece, it's easier later to bring in the performance evaluation piece," Hutchison says. "That can be worked on and implemented, even as new direction comes out, [the system] can be updated. If you're not ready for the full-blown suite but still want to build up your bench, you can still implement it. You don't have to be like a deer in the headlights."

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