The president’s latest federal hiring executive order may have flown under the radar in light of other, more hotly-contested governmentwide policies from the White House in recent weeks.
But the president’s June federal hiring EO calls on government to develop some different tools to evaluate prospective job candidates, and it may take a new or expanded workforce and assessment strategy, resources and even new expertise to implement it.
To lay the groundwork for the new federal hiring EO, the Office of Personnel Management recently completed an initial review of hundreds of government occupations.
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Just 50 out of 400 government occupations have an education requirement needed to satisfy federal hiring laws, Michael Rigas, OPM’s acting director, said last week at a virtual event covering best practices for implementing skills-based assessments.
OPM and the Office of Management and Budget held the event as part of their ongoing efforts to help agencies implement a recent federal hiring executive order.
“The executive order won’t affect these jobs,” Rigas said of the 50 or so federal occupations that still require a degree. “Doctors at the VA will still have medical licenses. Practicing lawyers at the Department of Justice will still need to pass the bar exam. Civil engineers who build our roads and bridges will continue to need degrees as well. But going forward, federal agencies will cease relying on college degrees alone to filter through applicants for nearly 350 of 400 occupations.”
The EO requires agencies eliminate 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.
Most agencies won’t have to start from scratch to implement the executive order, as many already use at least one form of assessment to vet and select candidates for certain positions.
But agencies will have to find new ways to better screen and assess job candidates, rather than relying on the usual occupational questionnaires that allow applicants to self-rate their level of experience or expertise.
When agencies use those assessments on their own, they’re often not reliable or dependable, because candidates tend to over or under inflate their skills, said Michael Blair, OPM’s lead personnel research psychologist.
Today, some 95% of announcements listed on USAJobs.gov are dependent on those occupational questionnaires, said Dianna Saxman, deputy associate director for OPM’s federal staffing center.
“It does a nice job of taking out the people who absolutely could not do the job and don’t have the basic skills. What it’s not as efficient at is actually helping to identify your top candidates,” she said last month at a webinar on skills-based assessments produced by HR Solutions and Government Executive. “You end up having a lot of applicants with scores of 90 and above, so that’s the reason we’re moving away from the occupational questionnaire. We’re still heavily dependent on that as our primary assessment tool in government.”
Under the new federal hiring EO, that all should change.
Properly implementing the order, however, will require some legwork on the part of agencies.
In many cases, agencies need a solid “people” and workforce strategy to inform the development of their assessments for today — and tomorrow.
“The reality is AI, robotics, machine learning and natural processing skills are the present; they’re the now,” April Davis, manager for classification assessment policy, said at OPM’s virtual event. “As we move forward that work will continue to evolve, and we need to be ready to assess for those skillsets to select the best talent.”
NASA, for example, began using skills-based assessments on a pilot basis to help screen potential candidates for its new class of astronauts for the Artemis lunar exploration program.
Now, NASA is planning to expand the program and begin using a broader array of assessments for other positions within NASA.
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“It’s really required us to refine and develop a much more robust talent strategy than we had in the past, using more home-grown systems that did a lot of resume-screening,” Alana Cober, a branch chief for strategy and innovation at NASA, said.
Besides developing a future workforce plan, agencies may need more resources to help properly implement a new workforce and assessment strategy.
“Obviously, money is involved,” Cober said. “Knowing how much money you have, or being able to ask for the money that you’re going to need to support that strategy or being realistic about how much money you think you’re actually going to get is going to really drive what is possible in what you’re developing — along with the people.”
Cober said agencies may need to hire or contract out for experts who are well-versed in building skills-based assessments — who can also evaluate the data to ensure those new tools are working.
Many agencies have human resources professionals who can spend time implementing the federal hiring EO. But far fewer agencies have industrial and organizational psychologists and data scientists who can properly measure outcomes from these skills-based assessments, Saxman said.
“We have more and more data that’s invaluable to us,” she said. “We’re going to need to analyze this data, and that will inform our assessment strategies over time. That’s another critical skillset to consider when implementing these assessments, and I do think that’s going to be a challenge for agencies until they get that requisite expertise on board.”
There isn’t one type of assessment that will best fit all agencies’ needs — or even all types of federal positions.
And like the occupational questionnaires that many use today, agencies will find flaws as they test out new assessment formats.
“Assessments are not perfect,” Blair said. “The goal with assessments is to minimize errors while maximizing our prediction. There are two errors that we really focus on when we talk about assessments. One is the false positive. We don’t want to hire an applicant who actually cannot do the job, because that has a dramatic impact on our ability to meet our mission and our objectives. We also want to minimize the number of times that we erroneously reject an applicant who could do the job.”
To reduce the potential for false-positives or other mistakes, OPM recommends agencies use a variety of assessments to screen candidates and measure their cognitive, practical, inter-personal and technical skills.
Blair described the approach as a “whole person assessment,” one that helps agencies better and more accurately predict job performance.
“We’re not trying to measure everything about the individual, but measure enough that we can make good decisions to hire the best possible people that we can to achieve out mission outcomes within our agencies and departments,” he said.