Implementing EO to change federal hiring practices

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Last month, the White House issued an executive order, 13-392, to curb what President Trump believes is over-reliance on credentials in federal hiring. And not enough emphasis on skills and merit. As is often the case, it’s up to the Office of Personnel Management to figure out how to implement the order. Joining the Federal Drive with Tom Temin with what they’re thinking, Acting OPM Director Michael Rigas.

Interview transcript:

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Tom Temin: Mr. Rigas, good to have you on.

Michael Rigas: Thank you, Tom. Good morning. Great to be with you.

Tom Temin: Now reading this executive order, it says that the emphasis where possible or where legal should be placed on skills and experience. But isn’t that something that federal hiring managers can do anyway?

Michael Rigas: Well, what the executive order does is it requires agencies to focus hiring on the skills job seekers possess rather than focusing on whether they earned a college degree. There are a number of federal positions for which a college degree will deem an applicant to be qualified for it, whether or not the degree has any relevance to the position or not. And what this does is it aims to measure a candidate’s skills and competencies rather than whether they have a college degree in some discipline or other to determine whether they’re qualified for the position.

Tom Temin: I guess if you’re going to work for, say, the Army Corps of Engineers, as an engineer, you should probably have a civil engineering degree, but we’re talking about jobs outside of whether the degree is directly related to what it is they do.

Michael Rigas: That’s exactly right, Tom. Thank you for bringing that up. I would say about 30% of all federal occupations–and that’s about a half a million federal employees–are reserved for those with specific post-secondary education credentials, such as an undergraduate or graduate degree. You can think of doctors, lawyers, nurses, engineers, the kinds of positions where you have to have some kind of certification or degree to be able to perform the duties of the job. What this executive order does, it says if a degree is not required to perform the duties of the job, you ought to look to make sure the candidates who are applying can demonstrate competency in that type of occupation before being hired.

Tom Temin: Now, years ago–I’m not sure whether they still exist–applications for federal jobs had the so called KSE–I believe they were called–knowledge, skills, experience essay, and everyone complained about them because they were long and detailed, and presumably, they thought nobody read them. So it sounds like the KSC idea is coming back into this whole process.

Michael Rigas: Well, no. So what’s going to be going on now is agencies will be able to use a skills-based assessment. So, a lot of these are online assessments that applicants can take. They’re actually in use already by some agencies, where they are tailored to a specific occupation and they assess the candidate’s ability to perform those duties rather than relying on a self-assessment, which is what many applicants do now. They just rate themselves as being the most qualified in all of the attributes for a position. The other type of assessment that is being done is using subject matter experts. For instance, technology experts, IT experts will interview a number of candidates to assess their ability to do a particular technology-related type job, and then rate them as qualified before they get graded and certified as being qualified. Right now under the current system, 40% of all certifications, which is the federal government term for people who are deemed qualified or applicants who are deemed qualified for a position–they get put on what’s called a cert. Forty percent of those go completely unfilled because hiring managers don’t think that the candidates on those certs are actually qualified for the position that they’re hiring for.

Tom Temin: So an example might be someone with a sociology degree that’s really good at computer programming or coding. They could get a technical job that despite the degree they’ve got, if they can demonstrate, “Yeah, I can code in C+ and create a program for you.

Michael Rigas: Right. Exactly. Yeah, you see this a lot, especially in the technology arena. You take a look at someone like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, were both college dropouts. So in some of these positions, they would be rated as not qualified because they don’t have a college degree. And we know, obviously, that is not the case. So what we are trying to do–if you ask any federal employee who was in one of these positions, what would it take for someone to be successful in your role mentoring some person who wants to become a candidate for a federal job? I would dare say that most federal employees, the first thing out of their mouth would not be you would need the fill-in-the-blank degree that I got from an institution in order to be successful in the federal job I have today. They would probably list a number of skills, attributes, experiences that are necessary to be successful in that job. And that’s what this executive order aims to capture.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Michael Rigas, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management. And what does the OPM have to do now to help carry this out? Because a lot of it’s incumbent on the agencies, but as usual, OPM’s got a big part here also.

Michael Rigas: So what OPM does is OPM establishes the federal job classification and qualification standards for the federal government and oversees individual agency hiring practices. Agencies, as you mentioned, they make their own individual hiring decisions, but it’s based on those standards and practices. So what OPM will be doing will be overhauling the qualification standards where they overweigh college attainment and will work with agencies to identify new and better assessments that take into account the many different ways that people can attain the skills that they need to be successful in the federal job.

Tom Temin: We talked about the IT jobs. Are there other large areas where, generally, you think this can be successful–this new approach?

Michael Rigas: Oh, yeah. If you look at sort of any job in the federal government where a particular degree is not required for a candidate to be successful in that role, this kind of assessment will have an impact on those kinds of jobs. Really any job that’s outside of these technical, you know, doctors, lawyers, engineers, other types of positions where you need that degree to actually do that job, right now and other types of positions, having a degree in any kind of discipline at all will deem an individual qualified for that position. And what we’re trying to do is make sure they have the actual skills and assessments necessary to be successful in that job.

Tom Temin: I would think something like contracting officer could be open to a great many more people, because you can teach someone the FAR, but you’ve got to have really good horse sense also, to be a good contracting officer.

Michael Rigas: Exactly. As agencies get more comfortable with the validity of these assessments that we’ll be doing, we’re going to see agencies cooperating both to develop and administer these kinds of assessments for common occupations and help build pools of qualified applicants from which every agency can draw.

Tom Temin: And do you think one of the challenges will be getting the agency hiring managers themselves to understand, “Yeah, you can do this now,” and so you’ve got that bit of a cultural change that has to happen.

Michael Rigas: Yeah. It’s in an executive order. So, that’s binding on the executive branch. Obviously, it will require some changes across the federal government in HR departments on how they manage the hiring process. They have, I think, become overly reliant on college degrees as a sort of indicator or a proxy for determining if someone is, in fact, skilled for a position where that degree may have no relevance or in relying on self-assessments by candidates basically determining on their own that they are the most qualified in the attributes for a position, and as I noted that has just resulted in, really, a lot of heartburn for hiring managers, because 40% of those certifications for federal jobs go unfilled for that reason, because hiring managers look at the candidates that they are presented with as having been deemed qualified. And they’re, in fact, not qualified. And that really actually also slows down the hiring process quite a bit, because then agencies have to repost those positions to find another pool of candidates that might be qualified, hopefully, this time around.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so a lot of problems could be solved here. And with respect to that reclassifying and going over all those jobs, how long do you think that will take?

Michael Rigas: Well, the executive order calls for this to be done within 120 days from the signing of the executive order. So that clock is already ticking, as the President signed it. That would be something over the next few months we’ll be seeing.

Tom Temin: But you’re working on it now?

Michael Rigas: Yes.

Tom Temin: Michael Rigas is acting director of the Office of Personnel Personnel Management. Thanks so much for joining me.

Michael Rigas: Thank you very much, Tom. It was a pleasure being with you today.