OPM to host listening sessions with agencies, private sector on new federal hiring EO

The Office of Personnel Management has an ambitious timeline to roll out and implement the administration’s new federal hiring executive order.

The hiring EO, which the president signed back in June, removes college degree requirements from federal positions unless they’re legally necessary — and it urges agencies to use skills-based assessments when evaluating the abilities of a job applicant.

For the Trump administration, it’s the biggest shift in the way agencies evaluate and assess applicants for federal employment since the Carter administration abandoned the Professional and Administrative Careers Examination (PACE) in the early 1980s, a senior OPM official told Federal News Network.

The federal hiring EO charges OPM and agency human capital experts with conducting a top-to-bottom review of job classification and qualification standards, and eliminate certain educational requirements.

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It means OPM will go through more than 400 “occupational qualification standards and determine where educational attainment requirements are inappropriate,” the senior agency official said.

Draft changes to the current qualifications policy are due in the coming weeks, with final policy changes scheduled for the end of October.

An updated operations manual, delegated examining handbook, revised General Schedule qualification policy and assessment guidance will be out around the holidays, Michael Rigas, OPM’s acting director, told agency chief human capital officers and HR directors in a July 31 memo.

Agencies have each named an executive to lead the implementation of the federal hiring EO, and those points of contact will participate in virtual focus groups to share their experiences, best practices and concerns in the coming weeks.

A joint industry and federal sector day is also in the works.

“We’re currently planning for a series of listening sessions with the private sector,” the OPM official said. “As the federal government we always strive to be a model employer, but when it comes to assessments we’re not leading the way yet. We want to talk to those private sector companies that are leading the way, both in employing competency-based assessments and developing competency-based assessments.”

The first listening sessions with the private sector will begin later this month.

Agencies will also receive OPM guidance in the coming weeks, which will describe how they can develop and use skills-based assessments to vet and evaluate candidates, Rigas said.

To determine who has the skills to take on a specific federal job, agencies may ask candidates to complete or submit a work simulation, such as a writing sample or coding challenge, OPM said.

“This is done across the private sector, and it’s being done in the federal government to a lesser extent but still very effectively,” the OPM official said.

Having subject matter experts conduct interviews and review resumes is another way agencies will pivot toward the use of more skills-based assessments.

Some agencies are embracing the concept after OPM and the U.S. Digital Service introduced a subject matter expert pilot last fall. Under the pilot, agencies use their own subject matter experts to help them screen candidates for a specific position. No candidate is considered “qualified” until they’ve passed through two structured interviews with the SMEs.

“It just makes good sense to bring in subject matter experts to determine the quality of applicants who are going to be doing very similar work to what they do every day, as opposed to relying on HR professionals.”

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The Department of Health and Human Services and the Interior Department have used the pilot to hire IT specialists, while other pilots have taken place at the State Department for grants management professionals, at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for product managers, at the Environmental Protection Agency for personnel security specialists and the General Services Administration for user design experts.

Nine agencies participated in another pilot to help hire customer experience specialists, an OPM senior official said.

“Twenty SMEs volunteer[ed] to serve as SMEs to help with resume review and structured interviews,” the official said. “At all of these competitive pilots, multiple selections were made. Currently, Interior, State, CMS and EPA have all proceeded with additional hiring actions using this process.”

USDS and OPM are exploring how new technology can help SMEs schedule interviews and review resumes. They’re also testing asynchronous interviewing technology, which an OPM official said gives applicants “multiple chances to record their verbal answer before submitting it when it is convenient to them.”

These kinds of skills-based and interview assessments, the OPM official said, will allow truly qualified applicants to “shine above the rest of the field.”

Self-assessments, like those currently on USAJobs.gov, allow applicants to inflate their skills, and critics have said they don’t give agencies a true picture of who’s qualified or simply lying about their abilities.

Agency CHCOs have already expressed their frustrations with these assessments and educational credentials, which HR specialists and hiring managers tend to rely on heavily.

“It’s a bit overly rigid or formulaic,” the OPM official said of educational requirements. “It’s not 100% clear why someone is not qualified for a job after 20 credit hours, but after 21 credit hours they’re ready to start.”

Educational credentials will still be a factor in federal hiring, but having a college degree or higher will only be a requirement for certain positions, such as doctors or lawyers.

“Educational attainment is a less and less clear or reliable signal of applicant quality, in whether or not someone possesses the relevant skillset, and that’s especially true when it comes to emerging technologies,” the OPM official said. “To the extent that we test directly an applicant’s skillset rather than relying upon surrogates — a college or a university to test that applicant’s quality for us — we’re going to do a better job identifying talent.”