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How to transform agency workforces with skills-based hiring

COMMENTARY | This fundamental shift requires government recruiters and hiring managers to think outside the box and adjust how they source, screen and train talent.

With nearly one million job openings across the federal government, agency leaders can help close existing workforce gaps by reimagining traditional hiring practices and embracing skills-based hiring initiatives. These efforts can broaden the talent pool and lower barriers to entry for public-sector roles by eliminating specific degree requirements. 

Some federal and state government leaders are already leveraging skills-based hiring to address their needs for more workers. In May 2022, the Office of Personnel Management released guidance on skills-based hiring implementation. And over the past year, states such as Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Colorado have led skills-based hiring efforts to increase workforce diversity, fill high-demand roles and attract top talent.

Skills-based hiring can help solve many longstanding government recruitment challenges. However, due to the nature of agency hiring processes and systems, many of which are siloed, this isn’t always effective. To improve success, leaders should consider three guiding principles

Rethink Traditional Recruiting Practices and Talent Sources

Migrating to a skills-based hiring approach will require government human resources professionals to expand recruitment efforts and identify non-traditional career pathways to source workers. While a traditional four-year degree can still serve as a valuable route to a government career, recruiters could also tap talent pools among community college graduates, reskilled workers and people with certain internship or apprenticeship experiences. 

Broadening the prospective universe of candidates can assist recruiters as they search for workers with unique – and sometimes undiscovered – combinations of skill. In Texas, for example, government agencies partner with local universities to provide experiential learning programs that reskill mid-career professionals with transferable technical skills. Similarly, apprenticeship programs supported by federal and state governments – and buffeted by the private sector – can produce highly skilled candidates with on-the-job experience who work directly under professionals in the field. Already, the number of apprentices has grown by 64% from 2012 through 2021. Additional focus on, and investments in, these kinds of impactful programs can offer creative ways to solve government workforce challenges.

Restructure the Applicant Screening Process

As organizations implement skills-based hiring approaches, they should identify and inventory the positions that do not require a four-year college degree or an advanced degree. Roles like scientific researchers, health care providers, and engineers might continue to require advanced degrees. But jobs for IT support specialists and administrative professionals might not. Discerning which specific roles could benefit from a skills-based approach and consulting legal teams on what roles require a degree from a regulatory perspective will help streamline efforts to begin restructuring the agency hiring process.

Once key qualifications are determined, government agencies should create an equitable candidate screening and vetting system that recognizes and appropriately weighs skills and experiences alongside educational experience. Once a candidate advances to the interview stage, human resources professionals should prioritize candidates’ competencies with specific, applicable skills, rather than their previous experiences and educational credentials.

Emphasize Onboarding, Training and Growth 

Once a candidate is hired based on his or her skills and aptitude to succeed in a given role, managers must provide thorough onboarding and upskilling for the specific position. In a survey of state and local government human resources managers, 20% reported hiring candidates below a role’s minimum qualifications in anticipation of providing those candidates with post-hiring upskilling programs. Some states that have adopted a skills-based approach have leaned into an on-the-job training model that emphasizes learning by experience. In Indiana, the state’s Learn and Earn program has helped train individuals with a passion for public-sector IT through an immersive 12-month, on-the-job training program.

Beyond initial job training, organizations should reinforce and support career advancement and upskilling. Opportunities to encourage career development include providing access to additional certifications, mentorship, rotation opportunities, credentials or degrees, as well as flexible work arrangements and tuition support.

Realizing a Skills-Based Future Workforce

A skills-based hiring approach is a fundamental shift that requires government recruiters and hiring managers to think outside the box and adjust how they source, screen and train talent. Though the process might take time to implement successfully, it can help develop a more equitable and sustainable government workforce and close today’s talent gaps. 

Considering candidates with non-traditional pathways opens up avenues to increase diversity in the government workforce and identify new sources of talent – offering some of America’s brightest minds a seat at the table for generations to come.

Glenn Davidson helps lead Deloitte’s workforce development transformation efforts for government agencies and other public sector organizations. Glenn also lives in Arlington, Va., and served as chief of staff to former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.