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Investing in job skills pays off

COMMENTARY | Well-defined competencies are tools that help managers provide useful feedback.

Skills-based hiring initiatives have become broadly popular with the worker shortages emerging from the pandemic. The Office of Personnel Management is clearly on board with the decision to drop degree requirements followed by the release last fall of its updated lists of competencies for federal jobs. The focus on skills in other sectors predates the pandemic but the shortages along with declining college enrollment has sharpened attention to recruiting practices. In 2022 there were 2.5 million fewer undergraduates than in 2010 although there was a small increase in 2023.  

As a workforce strategy, my experience confirms focusing on skills is an important step – degrees only help in getting a job. However, the initiative has to be more than an isolated change to attract more applicants.  Knowledge, skills and abilities should be a concern at every job level. Moreover, investing in training and coaching to improve skills is known to pay off in improved performance.

The real payoff is when improved skills enable engaged employees to perform at higher levels. Knowing the basics of how to drive a car does not guarantee a teenager will be a safe driver. Or from the list of skills for the General Attorney series, “attention to detail” and “flexibility” are not what makes a great lawyer.

The demographic trends indicate this will be a long turn problem. A few days ago The Wall Street Journal published a column, “Suddenly There Aren’t Enough Babies. The Whole World Is Alarmed.” The growth of the U.S. population has steadily slowed for decades; several states and cities reported a drop in population for 2024. That promises to escalate the competition for talent going forward.

Now, except for professional jobs, degree requirements no longer make sense. There was never any real evidence that having a degree confirms a good hire.

A Broader Strategy to Improve Performance

A new Harvard Business Review article, “What Companies Get Wrong About Skills-Based Hiring,” outlines a strategy that would help to gain support for identifying key skills for all jobs, including professionals, and using the skills to improve performance and commitment.  

Government differs from industry on a key workforce concern. Only a relatively small percentage of jobs have a measurable output. The phrase “knowledge jobs” describes thousands of government jobs. Large groups of workers are involved in administering laws, protecting the public, or supporting the economy.  Service jobs also account for large numbers of public employees. Whatever a worker does, he or she benefits from feedback to improve performance. Enhancing their skills should be a universal concern.

The HBR strategy is broadly consistent with my experience in working with Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency 25 years ago. That was when it was created by combining three small, essentially failing departments in the Washington, D.C., government. Congress acted in response to repeated reports of parolees involved in horrific crimes.

When they were District agencies, individuals on parole or probation were required to check in regularly.  They sat for a few minutes, responded to questions, and their attendance recorded. There was virtually no follow up or efforts to monitor their lives.  

That changed dramatically under the newly appointed CSOSA director. He worked with his team to create a new strategy with aggressive goals and key performance indicators. A prominent goal was to reduce the rate of recidivism (that is, new crimes by parolees) by a significant percentage. It was collectively seen as a difficult challenge but in conversations it was clear the staff were committed to achieving the goal.

He also introduced a radical change in the role of what are now Community Supervision Officers. They went out into the community to meet with family, friends and contacts of parolees working to keep parolees out of trouble. That was a largely unproven approach at the time but the CSOs were committed.  

My role was to help develop a new pay and performance system, making it supportive of the plan for the CSO staff. A team of experienced CSOs was formed to support the planning.  

A key point is that the best CSOs were assigned to the most difficult parolees. That means even the best CSOs could have failures. So, the team agreed to assess performance on a set of nine skills or competencies. Newly hired CSOs were assessed on a related set of competencies. The team members “sold” the new system with ongoing feedback to their colleagues.

Limiting the number of competencies helps managers focus their performance feedback. With CSOSA, each competency was defined at three levels, with the highest descriptive of “role model” performance. One, for example, was “flexibility” defined at the highest level as the ability to switch instantaneously from “law enforcer” to “social worker” to be effective in discussions with an offender.  

Initially this was to be a demonstration “pay for competence” system but the director ran into problems with OPM’s director, was forced to resign, and CSOSA was brought under the GS system. That hurt the new agency.

The HBR article provides a similar story. It mentions Walmart and their decision to start by rewriting all the job descriptions to include essential job skills, “not those that would generally be ‘nice to have’. . .”  The ‘nice to have’ skills “obscure what really matters and can scare qualified applicants away.” Again, the intent is to focus on those skills that are most important.

The OPM lists of skills unfortunately are loaded with “nice to have” skills. For lawyers (0905), two that standout are “writing” and “memory” on a list that grows from 13 skills at GS-11 to 25 skills at GS-15.  Another example, Administrators in the Correctional Institution series (0006) need 30 skills at GS-11 but only 28 skills at GS-12. Each set of skills includes several that “obscure what really matters.”

Well-Defined Competencies Are Keys to Performance Discussions

When OPM kicked off the Federal Workforce Competency Initiative in 2021, the announcement stated the work product, updated competency models, would be used for “a wide variety of human capital actions including job design, recruitment, selection, performance management, training, and career development.”  That would be important but it’s not clear from the lists released so far if that’s been achieved.

The lists released by OPM raise important questions. To use the General Attorney list, as an example, skills like “Attention to Detail” or “Flexibility” could be deleted. Both are also listed as skills for Administrators in Corrections but logic tells us the two job series are very different. “Writing,” as another example, was included for CSO trainees as a requirement for promotion but then deleted at the next job level. A basic job duty is drafting statements for use in court, making it a core skill expected of every experienced CSO.

For the lists to be useful, the competencies should be reviewed and defined or fleshed out by individuals in each field, ideally in each agency. The lawyers in the Justice and Interior, for example, would very likely define them differently. The key is defining skills in ways that capture the thinking and behavior of the best performers – “that really matter.”  They know how the skills are understood by colleagues and how each impacts the management of individuals in their job series.  

My experience has convinced me employees want to be successful in their job; they value effective coaching and training. Well-defined competencies are tools that help managers provide useful feedback. The commitment of the CSO teams in defining competencies was manifest. Everyone was determined to make the new agency a success. The cost is nominal but the potential payoff benefits everyone.