Some Agencies Are Making Headway on Luring Millennials

Senate panel bemoans lengthy time-to-hire and still burdensome USAJOBS site.

At Home Depot, forklift operators can apply for jobs and get hired in 72 hours, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., instructed an Office of Personnel Management official at a Thursday hearing. “But in a government warehouse, it takes up to three months before he hears back.”

That won’t do much to attract the millennial generation so needed to offset the government’s coming retirement wave, Lankford said, noting that millennials—definitions vary but all are under age 40—are now only 16 percent of the government workforce. Surveys show that this age group is turned off by the lengthy and cumbersome hiring process; the General Schedule system’s “rigidity that treats everyone the same;” and jobs that are often “unrewarding,” where “incentives to excel are rare,” Lankford said.

What’s worse, a Government Accountability Office official told the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Federal Management Subcommittee, “The increase of the number of millennials of working age has coincided with several events in the federal government—such as hiring freezes, sequestration, furloughs and a 3-year freeze on statutory annual pay adjustments from 2011 to 2013—that OPM and others contend negatively affected federal employee morale and limited opportunities for new employees to join the federal government.”

The time it takes to be hired for a federal job is 100 days on average, Lankford said at the hearing titled “Understanding the Millennial Perspective in Deciding to Pursue and Remain in Federal Employment.” In the business world today, he told four witnesses, “decisions are made quickly. And while the acting OPM chief wants to [bring the] hiring time down to 60 days, the private sector can hire in a week.”

The federal government “is different from other employment sectors,” replied Mark Reinhold, OPM’s assistant director for employee services and chief human capital officer. “The principles that make us different include the need for fair and open competition—we have to put an announcement out on the street.” The need for background investigations, he added, “also makes us unique.”

The OPM representative laid out an array of actions agencies are taking to address the millennial problem, including the Pathways Program for students and recent graduates and seeking to improve employee engagement as measured by the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. 

 “People under 35 represented about 44 percent of new hires into federal service in fiscal 2015, which notably, is higher than the percentage of people under age 35 in the overall U.S. Civilian Labor Force,” he testified.

 “The federal government continues to be a leader in providing employment opportunities to minorities; as of 2015, minorities represented almost 36 percent of the federal workforce, which is greater than the percentage of minorities within the U.S. Civilian Labor Force,” Reinhold said. The Senior Executive Service also is more diverse than ever before.

But he met skepticism when he touted recent improvements to the USAJOBS website, “the face of federal hiring.”

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., the panel’s ranking member, said people “are still frustrated that platform is burdensome, a turnoff, and [that] the first impression we make [is] not usually good.” She said the government isn’t doing “enough to reach out, and is waiting for them to come to us. There’s a big difference between being recruited because you add to the mission,” she said, and merely being offered a job with good benefits that’s mildly exciting, but leaves them asking, “Do they want me?”

The OPM official said USAJOBS is a platform while the recruiting is done by agencies, which know where the jobs and talent pools are.

 For the past year the site’s webmasters have been “iteratively transforming USAJobs into a better job-seeking experience, one that is agile,” Reinhold said. They’ve been rolling out applications with enhancements every six weeks, and then they collect user satisfaction data. “We have talked to millennials and created a mobile-friendly Web site.” It includes a new profile dashboard that asks first-time visitors to “tell us a bit about yourself,” he explained. Then the user can upload a resume and is ready to press buttons and apply when they locate an attractive job. Previously, they had to find a job listing and then figure out what to do next, he said.

Reinhold also told Heitkamp that OPM has reached out to 150 colleges and universities as well as high schools with material on how to use USAJOBS, and is now collecting data on where most applications come from. The Pathways program for mostly summer interns and student employees has hired 35,000 since 2012, he added, and is “paying off in diversity.” Surveys show “93 percent say they want to stay in government.”

OPM’s Hiring Excellence initiative unveiled in April with the White House Office of Presidential Personnel has held 32 in-person workshops nationwide, Reinhold reported. It has reached nearly 1,200 hiring managers and human resources professionals from over 25 agencies to share best practices, tips, and techniques for improving federal hiring.

Lankford ticked off a list of OPM hiring initiatives going back to 2008, noting some that targeted students and veterans. “Seems like every year we have a new initiative” he said. Yet the hiring time in 2013 was 90 days, in 2014 it was 94 days, and in 2015 it was 99.6 days. “It’s getting longer,” the senator noted, except at the Homeland Security Department, which has improved its average hiring time, though at 124 days, it is still longer than the government average. 

Most of those initiatives had a special purpose, Reinhold said. Hiring Excellence “brings it all together.” Surveys, he added, show that managers are not always satisfied with the help they get from human resources. What’s needed is collaboration in a more holistic approach.”

Angela Bailey, the longtime OPM veteran who since January has been chief human capital officer at Homeland Security, gave examples of reasons for her department’s improvement in hiring times. “In July 26-27 of this year, the department hosted the DHS Cyber and Tech Job Fair here in Washington, D.C. We received over 14,000 applications to five DHS-wide job announcements, interacted with several thousand candidates, conducted approximately 840 interviews and made 326 tentative job offers during and immediately following the fair.” 

In addition, she said, “One of the ways DHS engages millennials is through initiatives such as the Cyber Student Volunteer Initiative, which provides students pursuing cybersecurity-related degrees with an opportunity to work with top DHS cybersecurity professionals.”

She also recommended an expansion of a “Passport” program that would allow federal employees to move in and out of government more readily to gain private sector education.

Lauren Leo, assistant administrator at the office of Human Capital Management at NASA, attributed her agency’s success in recruiting millennials to positive employee engagement survey scores. “The potential to work on NASA’s exciting mission attracts a wide variety of prospective employees, including those from the millennial generation. We strive to create an environment at NASA in which all employees feel valued and have opportunities to contribute to the NASA mission. This requires understanding the different styles, values and expectations of everyone in our workforce.”

The primacy of employee engagement was the chief recommendation of Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues for the GAO. “The tone starts the top,” he said. “OPM is taking steps in the right direction, he said, stressing the importance of data and “a whole suite of metrics, such as time to hire, quality of candidates, manager satisfaction and employee diversity.”

Lankford said he is still concerned that the current system produces situations in which managers are “locked in a box” and sometimes forced to hire the second-best candidate. “But we’re not here to play ‘Gotcha,’ ” he said, anticipating some fresh insights from people leaving government during the coming presidential transition. The conversation is to determine “how can we work together.”