Agencies not ready for future recruiting challenges, researchers say

The sluggish economy has encouraged more job seekers to apply for civil service positions, creating a false sense of security and a dangerous sense of complacency at many federal recruiting offices, according to researchers at an Arlington-based think tank.

Too many of the government's human resources officers point to a rising number of applicants as evidence that their department's current recruiting strategies are working well, said Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute, a think tank focused on government management, and an author of a new report on how agencies can improve their recruitment strategies. Application rates are a poor measure of success because they tend to increase as the economy worsens, he explained.

Instead, agencies should work on identifying gaps in the skills of their current workforce and should try to recruit people who can fill in those holes, DeMaio said. Agencies cannot afford to rest on their laurels until they have filled in those gaps and are able to retain the talented workers they have hired, he warned.

From interviews with human resource officers at each federal agency, DeMaio and co-author Patti Powers concluded that many agencies might be in for a rude awakening when the economy improves and the cluster of federal employees eligible to retire leave work. By 2004, more than 900,000 workers, amounting to 50 percent of civil servants, will qualify for early or regular retirements and by 2005, 71 percent of the Senior Executive Service will be eligible, according to the report released Tuesday.

These agencies should seize on the "reprieve" granted them by the slow economy and develop recruiting strategies that will help them weather retirements and a rebound in the economy. In the course of interviews for their report, DeMaio and Powers found a few agencies that have done a good job of this already, and from these model programs, gathered a list of best practices that will help the other agencies develop better strategies.

The agencies that are best positioned to continue recruiting top applicants view recruiting, not as a way to fill empty seats, but as a way to fill competency gaps, DeMaio said. They gather statistics on their current workforce and figure out what skills their employees will need to contribute to reaching the agency's performance goals.

Successful human resources offices have also done an effective job branding and marketing their agency's mission. For instance, the General Services Administration has coined the slogan "You can do that here" to draw applicants.

The "sexier" an agency can make its responsibilities seem, the more likely it will win the "war on talent," DeMaio said. Agencies should concentrate on advertising openings to candidates who work in the nonprofit sector and academia, not just those in companies, he added. In addition, they should align salary offers with these sectors, rather than worrying about competing with corporations.

Agencies should also consider using different approaches to target certain groups of candidates, Powers said. For instance, human resources offices could send young recruiters who can better relate to college students to university career centers. Agencies could also consider alternative staff positions such as internships and fellowships to attract younger candidates, she said. In addition, agencies should make sure they have effective ways to reach out to women, minorities and disabled people.

Once agencies successfully recruit candidates, they should concentrate on retaining them by offering attractive and flexible benefits packages, the Performance Institute report said. "Attractive" benefits do not necessarily mean higher pay, DeMaio said. Candidates dedicated to the ideals of public service do not necessarily expect to make as much money as they would in the private sector, but would be receptive if the government replaced the general schedule pay system with a "broadband" system where pay is comparable with market rates for the nonprofit sector and is based on performance, according to the report.

DeMaio said that the Internal Revenue Service is a good example for agencies to follow. The IRS, part of the Treasury Department, set recruitment as a top priority four years ago and staffed its human resources office with 40 full-time recruiters, according to the Performance Institute report. The recruitment staff came up with a slogan to attract candidates: "It all adds up."

In addition, the IRS human resources strategists conducted an analysis of workforce skills and came up with targets for the type of workers it needed to hire to fill gaps. For instance, the agency discovered that it was low on revenue agents and certain types of tax specialists. The analysis also helped the IRS realize it needed more staff in some major cities.

To attract and retain new hires, the IRS offered flexible benefit packages stressing quality of life. The agency promoted telecommuting and flexiplace work arrangements, as well as training programs and other opportunities for professional development.

These strategies paid off and the IRS was able to demonstrate results using six indicators. The mix of qualitative and quantitative measures included the number of employees declining job offers, number of hits on the IRS recruiting Web site, retention rates and explanations of what prompted new hires to accept an offer. The agency plans to refine its recruiting measures in the coming year, including the collection of data on which Web ads have attracted the most candidates.

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