This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
USAJobs, the government’s central job announcement site, often comes under fire for being outdated, hard to search, unresponsive and simply too hard to use. So does it make sense to start over with something entirely new? Or to outsource the project (again) to the private sector? Or to give to someone other than the Office of Personnel Management to run?
Let’s take a look at some of the complaints about USAJobs and see what solution might best address the problems.
USAJobs does not provide feedback to applicants regarding their applications. I hear this complaint all the time. For many people, submitting an application is like tossing it into a black hole, never to be seen or heard from again. The complaint is true, but USAJobs is not the problem. Notifications to applicants can be handled by USAJobs and by the applicant tracking systems (USAStaffing, Acendre and Monster) that most agencies use. Those systems work, but only when the people using them actually do their jobs. If the HR specialist does not use the system properly, many of the notifications will not go out. If we trashed USAJobs and replaced it with something else, we are still going to be dependent upon people using the system properly. Properly trained HR Specialists are the solution to this problem and USAJobs is simply an excuse.
USAJobs is too hard to search. This one is true. When I checked USAJobs today for jobs that are open to the public, the system showed 8,324 listings for jobs in the United States. Some people look at that and say the number of jobs makes it likely that sorting through them will be difficult. Those folks say the number of jobs is the real problem, so this one cannot be pinned on USAJobs. Just as a point of comparison, I checked a few of the commercial job boards to see how many jobs they have. Setting the search as broadly as possible, I searched for job listings in the United States, and on one board found just over nine million. USAJobs handles a lot of vacancy announcements, but the number is not unusually large and searching should be much easier. One problem with USAJobs is that it does not have a particularly effective search process. It appears to search words that are in the entire job announcement, even when they are part of the announcement format. For example, when I searched for customer service jobs (using quotes to search for an exact match), I found some, but also found jobs that included the word “service” in the section of the announcement that describes whether the job is competitive service or excepted service. When I searched for human resources positions, I found jobs that had nothing to do with human resources, but where the announcement says to submit the application to — you guessed it — the office of human resources. Search algorithms vary in their effectiveness, but eliminating the canned sections of a job listing should not be that difficult and it might make USAJobs searches more productive.
USAJobs is not an effective recruiting site. That’s true, it is a job board. Sadly, too many agencies and HR Specialists equate posting on USAJobs with recruiting. Posting on USAJobs or any other job site is not active recruiting. It is something many HR Specialists refer to as “post and pray.” Post the job and pray someone good applies. For some jobs it works, but real recruiting is far more than that. It is creating material that sells the agency mission, or the interesting work, or the opportunity to make a difference. It is going where the applicants are, rather than waiting for the applicants to come to you. It is creating interest even when you do not have a specific vacancy to fill. It is finding out what applicants are looking for, and making certain you address those interests. Posting on a job board is hiring 101. Effective recruiting is so much more than that, and blaming USAJobs is a convenient way to deflect blame when an agency’s “post and pray” approach fails. The USAJobs contribution to this problem is probably about one percent, with 99 percent resting with the agencies that do not do real recruiting.
USAJobs does not explain the hiring process effectively. USAJobs actually does a decent job of explaining the hiring process. The problem is that the hiring process is not one process, but many. There are literally dozens of hiring authorities, hundreds of job series, and thousands of job classifications. There are jobs that are open to the public and those that are not. Jobs that are open to current federal workers, or those that are open to former federal workers too. But those do not always go together. Some jobs have veteran preference, some do not. Some are not real jobs at all — they are just announcements to get a list of applicants. Getting a big list of interested applicants is a great idea for jobs that are filled often, but it assumes that the applicants will wait around for months, or even a year or more, hoping to get that federal job. The unemployment rate nationwide is so low that we are in an applicant’s market, not an employer’s market. The traditional approach to filling federal jobs is too complicated, too confusing, too bureaucratic and too HR-focused to work effectively. Again, blaming USAJobs is an excuse. Trash USAJobs and replace it with another job board and nothing will change, because USAJobs is not the problem. It is just the public face of the problem.
The private sector could do it better, so USAJobs should be outsourced (again). USAJobs has been done in-house, outsourced, and done in-house again. OPM had valid reasons for bringing USAJobs in-house eight years ago. Those reasons included leveling the playing field so agencies could use the applicant tracking system they chose and one such system would not have advantages over the others. I was a member of the CHCO Council at the time and supported OPM’s decision. The problem is that following that decision, a series of events at the Defense Department caused DoD to abandon a project to replace their old applicant tracking system, (Resumix) with a commercial product. Their solution was to take the easy route and sign an interagency agreement with OPM to use USAStaffing. Combined with other customers, Defense gave OPM more than 70 percent of the government applicant tracking system market overnight. So we moved from Monster having the job board and the largest share of the applicant tracking system business to OPM being in the same position. What OPM saw as a problem when it was someone else in control became OK when they were the ones in control. Outsourcing USAJobs does not solve anything. The real solution is to level the playing field for applicant tracking systems. OPM can sell its applicant tracking system (USAStaffing) with interagency agreements that are quick and easy and have no risk of protests. Their private sector competitors have to use the federal contracting process. It is expensive for the firms that are competing, and expensive and time-consuming for the agencies that are buying. The reason why OPM now has 75 to 80 percent of the market is not necessarily on the strength of their product; more likely it is the ease of using interagency agreements. If we want to fix that, the solution would be to require agencies to put these system out for bids and for OPM to bid along with everyone else. An alternative would be to have OPM or the General Services Administration award a blanket purchase agreement or other similar contract to all of the providers of such software and allow agencies to choose whichever best meets their requirements without having to go though a lengthy process.
Blaming USAJobs is another example of trying to find a silver bullet to kill everything that is wrong with the federal hiring process. Could it be better? Absolutely. Would making USAJobs better solve the problems? No, not even close. We need hiring reform and a radically simplified hiring process. Agencies need to invest in their HR Specialists and ensure they are properly trained. Agencies need to do professional recruiting rather than post and pray. Hiring managers need to invest far more of their time in the process. And agencies need to tailor recruiting to their talent requirements and spend some dollars on it, rather than relying on undertrained HR specialists with no budget and very little support to get the people they need.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.