The Pentagon Is Increasingly Using Special Authority to Quickly Hire STEM Candidates

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The Defense Department’s laboratories have relied on special hiring authorities to bring on most of their new employees in recent years, according to a new report, but the department has failed to measure whether they are using those authorities effectively.

Nearly half of the 11,500 Defense lab hires between fiscal 2015 and 2017 resulted from direct hiring capacity Congress has provided specifically to the research facilities, the Government Accountability Office found, while another 19 percent came from other expedited authorities. Congress authorized the labs’ direct hiring to help recruit candidates from science, technology, engineering and mathematics backgrounds. The labs maintain distinct categories for expeditiously hiring applicants with advanced degrees, bachelor's degrees, veterans and students completing STEM programs.

The labs’ use of the hiring authority has grown, jumping from 38 percent of hires in fiscal 2015 to 54 percent in fiscal 2017. Hiring officials told GAO their special hiring privileges were key to bringing on employees more quickly and to keep pace with competition from the private sector. Employees the labs onboarded using normal, competitive hiring had to wait twice as long to start, GAO found. In addition to the private sector, laboratory officials said the governmentwide hiring freeze President Trump initiated in the opening months of his administration and delays regarding security clearances presented the most significant hiring challenges.

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Despite the anecdotal reports praising the direct hire authority, GAO found the department lacked formal performance metrics or data analysis related to its use. The authority was established as a demonstration project, meaning it could be expanded to other parts of the department if it were successful. Without the proper data, however, Defense could not make that assessment.

“Without performance measures for evaluating the effectiveness of the defense laboratories’ hiring, and more specifically the use of hiring authorities, the department lacks reasonable assurance that these authorities—in particular, those granted by Congress to the defense laboratories—are resulting in improved hiring outcomes,” GAO said.

Without such an understanding, the auditors added, Defense could not determine if the program should be expanded. GAO also criticized the laboratories for not maintaining a policy for quickly implementing new hiring authorities. When Congress last expanded its expedited hiring in 2015, the labs took two and a half years to issue guidelines through the Federal Register.

When the labs face delays in initiating new hiring capacities they “may not promptly benefit from the use of congressionally granted hiring authorities, relying instead on other existing authorities,” GAO said. “Doing so could, according to officials, have the unintended consequence of complicating the hiring process, increasing hiring times, or resulting in the loss of highly qualified candidates.”

GAO advised the department to better track hiring data and use performance measures to better inform future decisions on hiring efforts and policies, as well as to establish timeframes for implementing hiring authorities more quickly. Defense agreed to follow GAO’s recommendations.

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