Essay-based job applications are on the way out

Jim Watson/Newscom
President Obama on Tuesday released a long-anticipated hiring reform memorandum, replacing requirements that federal job applicants respond to essay questions with a résumé-based approach more in line with private sector practices.

The human capital officials in the audience erupted in applause when Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry announced the elimination of knowledge, skills and abilities statements.

"Now, for the first time in history, you will be able to apply for almost every federal job with a simple résumé and a cover letter," Berry said. "This will save applicants millions of person hours as well as money."

Berry said Monster, the company OPM hired to run the USAJobs website, has prepared the site to accept résumés immediately.

The memo also does away with the rule of three, where managers must choose hires from among the top three applicants, as determined by an earlier scoring and selection process. Instead, agencies must use a category rating approach to keep the best qualified applicants in a pool of potential hires even if officials have selected another candidate for the vacancy in question.

"Right now, once you made it through the meat grinder of this process, all these good candidates, who are well qualified -- they're best qualified -- we throw them out and make them start over again," Berry said. "We're going to stop that and now allow departments to immediately draw out of that pool."

Under the order, the candidates would be available for positions within the department where they applied. Berry will seek congressional approval to allow agencies governmentwide to draw from the pool.

In addition, the memo outlines responsibilities for managers and supervisors. They are to be more fully involved in the hiring process, including planning current and future workforce requirements, identifying the skills required for the job, and actively engaging in recruitment and interviews.

Managers will be held accountable for finding and hiring qualified employees and supporting their transition into their new federal job. Beginning on Nov. 1, officials must provide the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management with timelines and targets to improve the quality and speed of agency hiring.

Agencies will be required to fill mission-critical and commonly needed positions faster, measure progress of reforms, analyze the causes of problems and identify remedial actions, and train hiring managers on effective recruitment and hiring practices. Berry said the president has set forth "very simple and straightforward metrics," including cutting the average hiring time in half to 80 days.

"The other bottom line is quality and making sure we get the right candidate for the right job," Berry said. "That's a tougher one to measure, but we're working with the [Chief Human Capital Officers Council] and OMB and others to develop metrics."

One option is to use manager interviews, where OPM or OMB officials talk to hiring supervisors to get a sense of whether or not they're happy with their choice, Berry said.

The memo also states the government must keep applicants who apply for federal positions through USAJobs updated on the status of their inquiry at key stages in the process.

OPM will take ownership of a number of the memo's directives, including establishing a governmentwide performance review and improvement process for hiring reform. This will include a timeline, benchmarks and indicators of progress, as well as a data-driven system for holding agencies accountable for improving the speed and quality of the process, achieving targets and satisfying merit system principles and veterans' preference requirements. Scott Gould, deputy secretary at the Veterans Affairs Department, said he believes the move will help veterans as well as hiring managers.

"This reform is going to make it easier for veterans to seek and obtain federal jobs," Gould said. "It does for veterans what it does for every federal job seeker -- it speeds up the whole process. You don't have to submit a book to be able to apply for a job."

Gould said eliminating the rule of three greatly expands opportunities for veterans who are placed at the top of the hiring pile.

In addition, OPM must develop a plan to promote diversity in the workforce while adhering to merit principles, and it must review the Federal Career Intern Program and provide recommendations on FCIP's future.

OPM will submit an annual report to the president on the impact of hiring initiatives set forth in the memo, including recommendations for further improving the hiring process.

The National Treasury Employees Union expressed cautious support for the overhaul.

"NTEU supports prompt and efficient federal hiring practices, but we also want to ensure that merit remains the linchpin of the hiring process," NTEU President Colleen Kelley said in a statement. "We will be monitoring the changes advanced in the White House memorandum, particularly category hiring and the creation of new assessment tools, to make sure there is no abuse by agencies."

Kelley said, however, reforms to the hiring process will "accomplish little" as long as agencies are allowed to avoid competitive hiring by misusing excepted service hiring authorities, particularly the Federal Career Intern Program.

"NTEU wants the FCIP ended now, and is working to accomplish that goal," she said. "While the White House memorandum does not end the FCIP, I am pleased to see that it has directed the Office of Personnel Management to evaluate agency use of the FCIP and make recommendations about that program to the president within 90 days."

Kelley said she is confident a fair review will result in a recommendation to end the program. The American Federation of Government Employees also released a statement expressing cautious support for the overall memo, but was disappointed it did not include restrictions on the use of FCIP.

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