Competitive hiring not ideal for college grads, officials say

Competitive hiring for government jobs leaves recent college graduates behind, federal officials said on Friday.

During a public hearing hosted by the Office of Personnel Management, chief human capital officers said continued use of excepted service authorities and a simpler, faster hiring process that focuses on job competencies rather than experience are the best ways to recruit college graduates. Competitive hiring is cumbersome and doesn't allow agencies enough flexibility, the workforce chiefs said. They added excepted service options like the Student Career Experience, Student Temporary Employment and Presidential Management Fellows programs offer opportunities to target hiring to agency-specific needs.

"I don't think competitive service allows us to be as creative with these types of internships," said Justice Department Deputy CHCO Rodney Markham. "But excepted service only works if you have structured programs in place. It has be to fair and transparent."

Federal employee union representatives expressed concern that agencies' use of excepted service often leads to abuse of merit system principles. In particular, the Federal Career Intern Program has drawn criticism for being a loophole through which agencies avoid veterans preference and fair competition for jobs. A more limited and targeted use of STEP and SCEP with better oversight will prevent similar abuses, union officials said.

"We can no longer accept scenarios where agencies give up standard hiring procedures and simply go around the established hiring system," said William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. "In doing so, we absolutely should not settle on solutions that undermine the merit system principles of free and open competition for federal jobs or weaken veterans preference."

Andy Grajales, general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, said competitive service in and of itself isn't a barrier to bringing college graduates into the federal workforce. "Competing with someone with a higher degree isn't going to go away by switching to excepted service," he said, adding, an "unwieldy competitive process is a case for reform, not for creating excepted service."

But excepted service doesn't eliminate competition, according to Marilee Fitzgerald, director of workforce issues and international programs at the Defense Department's Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Civilian Personnel Policy. These positions still require assessments of applicants, and agencies should be held accountable for showing they were fair in applying veterans preference and merit system principles to hire the best candidates.

CHCOs said a streamlined application process is one way to get college graduates interested in government jobs. For example, federal agencies should simplify job descriptions, allow candidates to check the status of their applications and create a one-stop shop for job postings that treats the government as a single employer rather than as individual agencies.

"It's a foreign language that we are asking folks to respond to," said Robert Buggs, CHCO at the Education Department. "It's simply a turnoff for students, for folks in the private sector who have never experienced applying for a federal job."

Officials also agreed that hiring based on past work experience also puts college graduates at a disadvantage when they are compared with applicants who have been in the workforce for many years. Instead, they should be evaluated based on "foundational competencies that we believe are lifetime skills and underpin every job," said Fitzgerald, such as optimism and intellectual curiosity.

"We should focus on results and what we need in the hiring process," said Markham. "You go out and hire best for your organization and then you're done."

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