What’s wrong with veterans preference? It depends who you ask

Agencies are hiring more veterans to the federal workforce than ever before. But veterans and agency managers say they’re confused by veterans preference regulations, because they’re too complex and ambiguous.

“It’s subjective,” Daniel Smith, assistant director of the veterans employment and education division at the American Legion, said during an April 20 hearing before the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “There’s no way to know if veterans preference is actually being followed. You have an HR manager or a hiring official inside of a closed door. They have two applicants. One’s a civilian, one’s a veteran. There’s no way of knowing if they’re using veteran preference. … When veterans preference is used, it works.”

This confusion is evident based on at the number of veterans preference appeals cases the Merit Systems Protection Board dismisses because they have no merit, said Michael Michaud, assistant secretary for the veterans employment and training service at the Labor Department.

MSPB closed 590 veterans preference appeals cases in fiscal 2015, he said. Of the 590, the board said 5.4 percent of them had merit.

“That leads me to believe that the system is complex,” Michaud said. “It’s very difficult to understand, whether it’s on the hiring managers’ side or the veterans themselves as far as how … the law applies to them.”

MSPB also raised similar concerns, Michaud said.

Veterans who do not get hired but believe the agency violated veterans preference can file a complaint with the hiring organization. If the agency doesn’t comply, veterans can submit an appeal with MSPB.

Aleks Morosky, deputy director of the National Legislative Service at the Veterans of Foreign Wars of America, said veterans are often confused why they don’t get hired.

“They feel that a non-veteran was necessarily hired ahead of them or they don’t understand that you also have to be qualified and meet basic job qualifications in the first place,” he said. “It’s sort of a myth that a veterans preference is a guarantee of employment in any job in the federal government that you applied for.”

Ideally, veterans preference means if a hiring manager has a choice between two candidates who are both equally qualified for the job, the manager will choose the veteran over the civilian.

A candidate with veterans preference will receive roughly five points more when the hiring manager calculates his or her job qualification score. A veteran with disabilities will receive 10 points.

Managers struggle with veterans preference

But some agency hiring managers have a different view of veterans preference.

As agencies struggle to fill mission critical occupations, some say veterans preference puts too many requirements on them. They feel it’s another requirement they need to fulfill, said Ed Meagher, former deputy chief information officer at the Veterans Affairs Department.

“Boxes have to be checked, discussions have to be had, minimums have to be met,” he said during an April 21 ACT-IAC panel discussion on veterans’ hiring in Washington. “This isn’t part of the process. … The government has to decide if it’s really serious about hiring veterans. It’s well intended.”

Members of the HR community raised similar concerns during an April 12 panel discussion with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-Minn.) suggested OPM create a specific office that actively helps veterans find the right kinds of federal jobs.

“We have the tail wagging the dog here,” she said. “If we care about our disabled veterans, we should be advocating for them in the system, rather than simply advancing their name into jobs that someone along the line says, ‘Look, you might be at the top of the list, but you’re not going to be as successful and as a result not happy.’”

Her suggestion isn’t far off from the system OPM had in the past. At one time, OPM kept a registry of available and qualified veterans and their resumes, but agencies wanted more flexibility in hiring their own employees, Hakeem Basheerud-Dean, director of veterans services at OPM, said during the ACT-IAC panel.

But Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said veterans preference isn’t the culprit behind agencies’ low satisfaction with job candidates. Government’s recruitment strategy — or lack of one — is the main reason.

“It really is a failure to actually have a process that’s designed to find the right talent for the jobs,” he told the Senate subcommittee.

Veteran hiring in the federal workforce reached all time high in fiscal 2014, the most recent year data is publicly available. Veterans made up nearly 31 percent of the federal workforce in 2014, compared with 25 percent of the workforce five years ago.

About 33 percent of new hires to Executive Branch agencies were veterans in 2014, compared with 24 percent in 2009.

The Labor Department will release the latest information on veteran hiring for fiscal 2015 soon, Michaud said.

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