Carolyn Kaster/AP

How Big a Deal Are the Governmentwide Hiring Reforms That Trump Just Signed Into Law?

Workforce observers praise the reforms, but caution they’re not a "panacea."

President Trump on Monday signed into law a defense bill that included a provision with major changes to the federal hiring process. Good government groups heralded the changes as a key reform to help agencies recruit the next generation of talent.

Lawmakers tucked into the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act new authority for all federal agencies to more quickly hire recent college graduates and current students. It allows agency heads to circumvent normal steps in the hiring process to bring on university students or those who have recently completed their studies. The agency leader can now appoint a “qualified individual” to any competitive service, professional or administrative position at the GS-11 level or below.

About 7 percent of federal employees are younger than 30 years old, according to government data, which observers of workforce issues said lags far behind the private sector and the new bill will help address.

“It is not healthy and a real problem that needs to be addressed now,” said Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Agency leaders have not yet “seen it as a priority they need to respond to.”

Stier said in any organization, the best way to determine if someone is a good fit is to actually bring them in and work with them. Government fails to do that, he explained, and overemphasizes prior experience in assessing candidates.

“Someone who can learn quickly and figure out how to do it even better is a great value,” Stier said.

Terry Gerton, president of the National Academy of Public Administration, said the timing is ripe for the hiring reforms. Agencies have for decades warned of a looming retirement wave as employees in the baby boomer generation age out of the workforce, but actual separations have only ticked up incrementally. That has opened up few junior-level positions, Gerton said, but soon the dam will burst.

“There’s a lot of expertise that’s going to be walking out the door,” Gerton said. “When that retirement wave really starts to hit, we’re going to need access to fresh, current talent, meaning fresh college graduates.”

Agencies are also gearing up for a reshaping of how federal work gets done, she added. Technology, artificial intelligence and process-assistance robots will revamp the workforce.

“The timing could be fortuitous to really reengineer government work at the same time you now have access to a fresh pool of young college graduates,” Gerton said. 

In order to get those graduates in the door, Stier said, agencies will have to demonstrate they are cutting red tape.

“A lot of folks that are new to the workforce are not going to wait as long as is required by the current system,” Stier said. “One of the advantages of the expedited hiring capability ... is that’s the norm for recent graduates in every other organizational context. They are used to being able to make the case for why they should be hired and getting hired right away, as opposed to waiting months and months and months and months.”

Part of the reason the process can often drag on is an array of requirements Congress and presidents have set for agencies to apply preference to certain types of candidates, such as those who are disabled, veterans and minority groups. This authority would bypass some of those typical hiring restrictions, but the proponents of the bill were not worried the new law would make them irrelevant altogether.

Agencies are still required to adhere to merit system principles and the appointments cannot make up more than 15 percent of the number of similar jobs filled in the previous year. Current students appointed under the new authority will serve on a temporary basis, but their agency head can hire them to a permanent position upon their graduation. The Office of Personnel Management is now responsible for creating regulations for the new law and agencies must report annually on their use of the authority.

Gerton predicted agencies will approach their new authorities with caution, not wanting to get ahead of the regulatory guidance. Any group that feels it would be negatively impacted by the changes can bring those concerns to the fore during the comment period after the proposed rule is introduced.

“There is a process to address all of those groups of stakeholders,” Gerton said.

Stier noted that Congress has included important protections in the hiring process, but agencies must not let that interfere with fulfilling their missions.

“We need to have balance in the workforce,” Stier said. “One of the things we need to recognize though is we need to have a system that is not so tied up in process that our government is losing out on critical talent. I think we have moved too far in one direction in terms of process.”

Both Stier and Gerton stressed that the new law would not cure all that ails federal agencies.

“This is not going to be panacea for every possible hiring problem that we’ve got,” Gerton said. “It’s going to be a pretty small number of people.”

Still, it will be incumbent upon agencies to maximize its usage as much as makes sense for their workforces.

“This is the kind of authority that federal agencies have been asking for for a long time,” Gerton said. She predicted it will vary “agency by agency, skill shortfall by skill shortfall.”

Stier said the law will only prove meaningful if agencies commit to using it, and if the administration holds them accountable for doing so.

“There’s so many authorities that are out there that are designed as solutions and never achieved their desired result because no one used them, or not enough,” Stier said. “This is a leadership issue. Leaders in the executive branch need to take advantage of tools that Congress is now providing.”