Pandemic forcing agencies to think outside the box to recruit, onboard new talent

Agencies are substituting in-person hiring events with virtual job fairs and recruiting webinars, and many organizations are thinking outside the box to onboard...

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The local grocery store around the corner is probably hiring during the pandemic, but so are federal agencies, which are knee-deep in a whole-of-government response to the coronavirus.

Many agencies are suddenly slammed with work sending out stimulus checks, processing small business loans and caring for veterans.

For the last six-to-seven weeks, individuals have started an average of 340,000 applications on each week, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

Overall, applications on the job site are up 2% today compared to this time last year, Anthony Marucci, an OPM spokesman, said in an email to Federal News Network.

To date there are 502 coronavirus-related announcements on, which have more than 161,000 applications. Agencies can fill multiple positions through one posting, so the number of needed new hires is likely larger.

Those positions have a “COVID-19” job tag, which OPM created to help the public more easily find coronavirus-related work and agencies better track the positions.

But quickly hiring new talent hasn’t necessarily been the federal government’s strong suit, despite multiple attempts to shorten and ease the process. Agency human resources shops have long suffered the brunt of budget cuts, and improving the federal hiring process has been a priority goal for past and present administrations.

The current circumstances only make recruiting, hiring and onboarding fresh talent more difficult, former chief human capital officers say.

Because of the circumstances surrounding the pandemic, agencies can’t tap into the sources they’d typically use to easily recruit new talent. They haven’t been able to visit colleges and universities to recruit students and upcoming graduates, and job seekers haven’t been able to visit in-person job fairs.

That means agencies have had to get more creative.

The Department of Homeland Security is stepping up its direct outreach efforts to colleges and universities, a DHS spokeswoman told Federal News Network. The department has always relied on third-party job boards to post its positions, and those efforts have continued.

It’s also offering a new slate of recruitment webinars to help reach more candidates.

“In partnership with DHS components, headquarters is developing a robust series of webinars to highlight our department-wide mission and current job opportunities in lieu of in-person recruiting and hiring events,” the DHS spokeswoman said. “The webinar series includes several sessions geared towards targeted demographic groups the department can use to fill critical vacancies through its special hiring authorities (i.e., cybersecurity, veterans, military spouses, and individuals with targeted disabilities).”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is actively recruiting returned Peace Corps volunteers, who can usually have up to a year to apply non-competitively to federal positions. The Peace Corps recalled most of their volunteers from their posts around the world and brought them back to the U.S. in early days of the pandemic.

DHS held its own informational webinar for Peace Corps candidates last month and will participate in a virtual hiring fair for returned volunteers in May, the department said. It has another informational webinar for military spouses planned for August, the DHS spokeswoman said.

The Presidential Management Fellows program conducted virtual job fairs and gave agencies tools they needed to interview and select candidates remotely, OPM said.

OPM’s PMF program office is working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to match finalists’ technical backgrounds with coronavirus-related roles there. VA management will host a virtual information session and will remotely conduct interviews and make PMF selections, Marucci said.

Hiring was up 37% at VA between March 29 and April, when the department hired 3,183 new employees, including 981 registered nurses, it said. VA has actively been recruiting health professionals, including federal retirees through a national hiring campaign. It’s also searching for dozens of temporary IT specialists to help support VA employees working from home, according to an agency announcement.

OPM has also partnered with the Small Business Administration, which needs to hire hundreds of temporary employees to staff the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program. OPM is reviewing applications for several SBA positions, Marucci said.

A search on Open Opportunities, the subset of USAJobs reserved for current federal employees searching for a temporary detail or reassignment, shows SBA could use some HR help.

Two separate SBA offices are looking for at least five HR specialists each to help them process departures, promotions and reassignments and handle customer service questions from agency employees about onboarding and their benefits.

FEMA too is looking for HR specialists, according to the listings on Open Opportunities.

Onboarding goes virtual

OPM gave agencies permission in late March to virtually onboard new employees, suggesting HR specialists may even consider giving the traditional oath of office via Skype or FaceTime.

DHS has onboarded more than 100 new employees since March 16, the department told Federal News Network. It’s using video teleconferencing platforms to connect virtually with candidates.

Once new hires at DHS are ready to begin work, the department is issuing alternative credentials so they can begin logging onto the department’s networks without needing to visit a department credentialing facility.

DHS and others are also using OPM’s USAStaffing platform, which allows new hires and HR specialists to electronically complete, review, sign and accept a wide variety of federal, agency-specific and other tax forms needed to fully bring new talent in government.

OPM customers used USAStaffing to onboard 253,338 new hires and transmit more than 1 million forms and documents into electronic personnel files last fiscal year, Marucci said.

In addition, onboarding usually requires agencies to verify a new hire’s identity, another tough task under the current circumstances. To comply with Employee Eligibility Verification (Form I-9) requirements, agencies typically must review an employee’s identity and employment authorization documents in his or her physical presence.

DHS in March began allowing agencies to review employee documents virtually, and OPM updated and published new forms on USAStaffing to comply with the temporary policy.

Some agencies are also developing their own internal procedures to tackle situations where a new hire can’t gather all the necessary signatures usually needed to begin working.

“Agencies are developing plans to obtain documents requiring a wet signature by having the new hire upload the document directly into USA Staffing’s Onboarding tool or sending the document by mail when the new hire can obtain the appropriate witness signatures,” Marucci said.

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