The Paper Dinosaur

For more than a quarter century, Standard Form 171 reigned supreme. It was the federal government's universal job application form, aptitude test, initiation ceremony and career passport all rolled into one.

If you didn't have the patience and perseverance to fill in its innumerable little green boxes, you clearly didn't have what it took to be a federal employee. And once you got it filled out and got a federal job, you kept it filled out. Job after job, award after award, workshop after seminar, you updated your SF-171 and kept it close at hand. For executives, managers or anyone with long service and varied experience, the SF-171 was voluminous. Personnel offices complained that vacancy announcements for senior positions could prompt candidates to respond with SF-171s in three-ring binders.

In June 1994, OPM announced that the SF-171 had become a dinosaur; effective Jan. 1, 1995, it would officially start sinking into the tar. Federal agencies no longer would print and stock the forms, nor would federal job applicants be required to submit them.

That same month, Vice President Al Gore praised OPM's SF-171 Elimination and Automatic Staffing teams for bringing the government's job application process into the information age. In fact, OPM may have begun the process-but it hadn't actually happened yet. Now, nearly three years later, many people familiar with the federal staffing process are still asking "are we there yet?" The answer, my friend, as singer-songwriter Bob Dylan so poignantly put it, is still "blowing in the wind." Up in the air. Evolving.

SF-171, OF-612, or Resume?

Although federal agencies no longer can require applicants to submit SF-171s, they can permit them to do so. To do otherwise would be madness. Zillions of completed SF-171s still exist on paper and on computers. Between the untold numbers of blank printed forms squirreled away in private stockpiles and the many computer software versions of the form, the SF-171 may survive for centuries after the last official copy is issued.

Agencies also can permit applicants to use a new form, the Optional Form 612, or a resume. The OF-612 is much shorter than the SF-171 and is intended to be tailored by the applicant specifically to the position. It retains the structure of the old form for those reluctant to leap all the way to resume. But "resume" in federal personnel parlance is not as formless as it may seem. There are rules, which are set out in another OPM document.

OF-510, "Applying for a Federal Job," is a pamphlet that devotes two of its three inside panels to what your resume or application must contain. Items that federal resumes must contain, which many private-sector resumes probably don't, include (but are by no means limited to) Social Security number, citizenship, veterans preference, highest federal civilian grade, and high school name, city, state (and ZIP code, if you know it). The OF-510 is distributed with every federal vacancy announcement. It's available in every agency personnel office, on OPM's World Wide Web site at www.usajobs.opm.gov, and on other automated federal job information systems.

Hang On to Your 171

Traditionalists who have invested heavily in the SF-171 cling to it as though it were a bundle of Confederate C-notes. The progressives who never used or never liked the SF-171 are willing to dump it in a heartbeat.

"What I usually recommend, based on my own experience, is if you have an option, if the vacancy announcement allows you to submit an SF-171, do it," says Mack MacDougal, a Pentagon office coordinator. He works on a daily basis with military and civilian Defense Department personnel who are in the process of transition or relocation. In recent years, he has helped a lot of people apply for federal jobs. The SF-171, he says, "seems to provide a lot more information in a much more concise and accepted manner. 'Accepted' being what everybody is used to."

"We recommend the OF-612 up to a GS-6 level," says Lewis Fields, vice president of Affordable Resumes, a Washington-area company that has been in business for many years.

But the form's 12 lines, he says, even with a continuation page, are not enough to demonstrate a candidate's qualifications for a higher-level position. "Federal agencies are very quietly recommending SF-171s rather than 612s and even the government-style resume," he says. The resume company probably does more SF-171s than all its competitors combined, Fields says-more than 1,000 since the form was pronounced dead in January 1995. "It's a lost art, too, to do one properly."

Justice Department employee Tracy Sharpe-Rice, who rates and ranks applications for positions up to GS-12, prefers the SF-171 as well. "When people do the resume, they do it like they're doing it for private industry, and it's so scanty," she says. She sometimes has to tell applicants who might have been qualified that she has found them ineligible. When they protest that they do, in fact, have the experience required, she has to say she's sorry. "I don't know you personally," she tells them. "I can only go by what you wrote."

Another old hand in the resume preparation business, Gabe Heilig of Action Resumes, acknowledges that personnel professionals are trying to rationalize and streamline the process. "But applicants don't care how cumbersome the process is, they just want to come out on top," he says. "And even if the most cumbersome element is the SF-171, if that's what's going to give them a competitive edge, that's what they're going to want to use. And that's what they should use."

Heilig says those who rate applications have received no training in screening resumes and are much more comfortable rating SF-171s. "After all, one person's resume does not look like another person's resume. There's much more variation in resumes than there is in 171s," he says. "So how does the rater discern whether your resume now qualifies you as a GS-12 or -13 or -14? How do they make that kind of decision based on a very brief document?"

Go Federal Resume

Have you ever watched a very long coal train start from a dead stop?

The engineer throws the locomotive into gear, and the locomotive's coupler slams against the coupler of the car behind. That action jerks the second car into motion and causes its coupler to slam against the coupler of the third car. And so on. If the train is a long one, the cars in front begin rolling slowly, while the cars in back, hump-backed and coal heavy, remain motionless. During this process, the engineer in the locomotive and the conductor in the caboose are having significantly different experiences.

The wonderful thing about the federal government is that it's very large. It's so large that, like a very long railroad train made up of many heavy cars, very different things seem to be happening in different places at the same time. Especially during the start of something new.

Bill Hutch, a manager at the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, for example, seems to be somewhere between the engineer and the conductor. He sees problems with both the SF-171 and the resume. He dislikes having to deal with SF-171s that are choked with acronyms and jargon and are "just too thick to wade through." On the other hand, he has seen resumes that fail to provide the basic information he needs. "To write me a two-pager and say 'additional information available on request' is just not good enough," he says. "You have to give me enough information that I feel I need to talk to you."

OPM's Dick Whitford, the engineer in this long-train analogy, says the SF-171 is too cumbersome. But unless a resume is written to meet the requirements spelled out in the OF-510, he says, it's likely to provide insufficient information for a personnel or hiring official.

Whitford wears two hats. He's the director of OPM's Employment Information Office and its Washington Service Center operations. As such, he's the federal executive who gets to blow the whistle and ring the bell. And he does so with infectious enthusiasm.

Whitford sees the train starting to roll. "A year ago," he says, "people were slow to switch. Now we're starting to see a shift away from the SF-171."

OPM is seeing a 50-50 split in the job applications it receives. About half are SF-171s, and the OF-612 and the resume make up the other half. But OPM is seeing more and more resumes, Whitford says, because "we've gotten out more specific direction through the [OF-510] flier 'Applying for a Federal Job.'

"Now that we have eliminated the SF-171, the whole thrust is on an applicant's describing his or her specific background-knowledge, education, experiences and skills-in a way that is germane to the specific job he or she is applying for," he says. "This is a significant departure from the life-biography approach taken by the SF-171. That's what the OF-510 is all about." The resume, Whitford says, is clearly OPM's preferred form of the future because it "really has become the standard application form for the American economy" and offers greater mobility between government and private-sector employment.

The SF-171 and its life-history approach, he says, is simply too cumbersome for everyone involved-applicant, application evaluators and hiring officials.

The OF-612 came about as a compromise when the proposal to eliminate the SF-171 was on the table. A number of federal agencies wanted an optional form instead of going immediately to the resume. "People were used to some kind of a form," Whitford says. "We didn't want to leave them out in the cold." But even that form, which looks like the SF-171, "is structured with the philosophy of asking people specific questions that relate to the actual job being applied for rather than taking the life-biography approach," he says.

"Initially, the reaction was, 'Oh, it's a big change, and the new forms aren't giving us enough information,' " Whitford says. "Well, as the word is getting out, more resumes are coming in, and more and more of them include the information that we need."

The elimination of the SF-171 is just one step in OPM's streamlining of federal staffing processes, Whitford notes. To illustrate his point, he spreads out on the table several colorful documents that are part of OPM's ongoing efforts to inform the public about the new procedures. A glossy, four-color, full-page magazine advertisement proclaims, "Imagine, finding a federal job is as easy as 1-2-3 . . . And it's FREE!" The three easy steps, the ad explains, include OPM's self-service system for federal employment information, finding the job for you and following the application instructions.

Automated Services

Whitford takes pride in automated services that OPM provides agencies on a fee-for-service basis. The agency plans to survive more as an entrepreneurial human resources consultant and less as an appropriations-dependent central management agency.

"The whole thing is that we don't look at all this as a number of pieces anymore," he says. "We see the federal employment process as a unified and integrated piece, and automation becomes a common denominator." OPM has automated not only the job search, but also the application process.

OPM does a great deal of recruiting for other federal agencies. The approach has been to ask people to complete an application form either electronically or using the "C Form," which is machine-readable. Applicants blacken in responses to questions that are directly related to what the managers at the agency are looking for. Applicants also can answer the questions via computer or telephone. From the responses, OPM can rate and evaluate the candidates.

"In effect, we conduct an electronic interview of each applicant," Whitford says.

Automation in the staffing process is by no means limited to Washington. "It's really quite widespread-and growing steadily," Whitford says. "We do merit promotion as well as competitive examining for several of the larger agencies. And we do it not only here in Washington but also at 16 other service centers throughout the country."

Agencies using OPM's automated staffing services include the Patent and Trademark Office. OPM has screened thousands of examiner applications and produced hundreds of registers of candidates who have the specialized qualifications. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, which recently hired several hundred border patrol agents in four days, saved $20,000 by using OPM's Telephone Application Processing system. INS was able to eliminate 3,500 ineligible applicants before the testing phase.

At the Defense Commissary Agency, OPM was able to help the agency with its ongoing need for cashiers. With OPM's automated systems, DeCA was able to reduce the time it takes to get someone hired and reporting to work from 75 days to nine or fewer. "We've had cases where people applied on Friday and received job offers on Monday," Whitford says.

For the Immigration Service, OPM handled 8,000 applications via telephone, performed minimum qualifications reviews and referred 4,900 qualified applicants for testing. "INS estimated that this entire staffing process that we've done for them saved them a million dollars in the first year alone," Whitford says.

For the Patent and Trademark Office, OPM produced 447 lists of candidates, each typically within 24 hours. And these are just a few examples. OPM has contracts with the Justice Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services. "It's quite large, and growing," Whitford says. "We think it's a growing part of doing business quickly."

Adding the full-text vacancy announcements to OPM's self-service information systems is a benefit not only to job seekers but also to federal agencies, Whitford notes. The process was begun in October 1995 and completed in September 1996 with the opening of the USAJobs Web site. Federal job information systems used to contain a "forms request." Applicants could furnish their names and addresses and OPM would send the form to hiring offices. Every morning, agencies would get a list of requests and would have to mail the information to the applicants.

The process was both costly and labor-intensive for agencies, and applicants, who could never be sure their message had been received, sometimes called in the same request several times. Also, a potential applicant might decide not to apply and end up throwing away two or three packages of information that cost the government about $3 each.

Now, job seekers can read or print entire vacancy announcements from one of the self-service systems and decide whether to apply, Whitford says. "If it is an OPM-serviced activity, applicants can apply via keyboard and just mail their resume." In the past, Whitford says, personnel offices often feared casting too wide a net and receiving more job applications than they could process. "But the fact is, if you really want to get the highest quality people for the civil service, then you really need to make it known," he says. "And you need to be able to process the applications in a way that gets critical jobs filled very quickly."

On to Automationville

From Whitford's perspective, the road ahead leads to increasing automation. But only a few others see it quite so clearly.

Paul Maraschiello of Associated Resume Writers, a Washington-area resume writing firm, says personnel offices eventually will scan job applications. Forms, such as the SF-171 and OF-612, are more difficult to scan than resumes. The SF-171s tend to be too long, and scanning the OSF-612 can be a problem if the applicant types over rather than just above the form's lines.

Maraschiello is an unabashed advocate of the federal resume. "Anybody who submits a 612 is almost guaranteed to be disqualified," he says. "You put that 11 lines of text up against a 37-page SF-171 or a 20-page federal resume and you've lost, no matter what you've put in those 11 lines."

Kathryn Troutman of the Resume Place, which operates in Washington and Baltimore, sees "scanability" as an important aspect of the federal resume. Troutman is author and publisher of The Federal Resume Guidebook, which includes a chapter on maximizing the computer's ability to read your resume and maximizing your ability to get "hits" (matches between your skills and the computer search). The book reproduces OPM's OF-510 and includes other essential information for writing a federal resume (see www.resume-place.com/jobs).

Both Troutman and Maraschiello say people who come to them for professional resume consultation and writing services lack fundamental information about the federal job application process.

Application-preparation professionals say their services go beyond mere typing. A basic application package consisting of a resume, SF-612 or SF-171 with a cover letter and a limited number of "KSA's" (descriptions of the applicant's job-related knowledge, skills and abilities) typically run in the low hundreds of dollars. The cost goes up for more writing or consultation with the client. Executive-level job applications that require extensive documentation of the applicant's executive qualifications cost the most.

This Just In

At the Defense Department's Human Resource Services Center in the National Capital Region, the SF-171 and OF-612 will no longer be accepted-only resumes.

HRSC has installed patented artificial intelligence software that reads resumes and extracts an applicant's skills and other significant information, according to its Job Kit, available at www.hrsc.osd.mil. It saves applicants from having to submit separate applications for each vacancy. The Job Kit promises to contain all the information needed to complete a federal resume and apply for a position. The Web site also allows applicants to submit their resumes online.

Troutman notes that HRSC is likely to be followed soon by many other federal hiring authorities. Resumix, developer of the optical scanning used by many corporations and federal agencies, received its largest contract last October, to automate civilian hiring and management programs for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Defense agencies. Other agencies, including Commerce, Justice and Veterans Affairs, also are re-engineering, reinventing-automating-their personnel functions.

Are we there yet?

Well, some of us have arrived. DoD's Human Resources Services Center and OPM have brought the job application process into the information age. Others are well on the way. And still others have yet to feel the tug of progress. But it's coming.

Clickety clack. Down the track.

Tom Kell, a Washington-area freelance writer and public relations consultant, was a public affairs specialist at the Office of Personnel Management for 23 years.

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