OPM’s Ahuja says agencies need to balance speed with ‘doing it right’ for Bipartisan Infrastructure Law hiring

OPM will use Bipartisan Infrastructure Law recruitment as an opportunity to create better pathways to federal jobs for younger and more diverse candidates.

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As agencies ramp up hiring for 8,000 new federal jobs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Office of Personnel Management is trying to create expedited pathways to recruit qualified, younger and more diverse candidates.

Agencies’ hiring efforts for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (IIJA) are “foot to the pedal,” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said in an interview with Federal News Network.

The surge includes filling 3,000 of those new positions over the first six months after President Joe Biden signed the bill into law.

Ahuja has frequently spoken about her goals to attract more early-career workers to federal service. The BIL gives OPM another chance to do just that.

“We’ve been wanting to really make this about a call to public service,” Ahuja said. “We think it’s a great opportunity for individuals, especially those early in their careers. Here’s a really great way about the things that they may care about that hits so close to the communities they may be a part of that they can have a real impact on.”

To amplify that call, OPM expanded the use of hiring authorities and created a talent surge playbook to offer agencies more information about the types of hiring authorities they can use to recruit for BIL jobs. Specifically, OPM authorized the use of excepted service Schedule A appointments for those roles.

Additionally, OPM created a tiger team “before the ink was dry on the new law,” Ahuja said. OPM also met with agency hiring leaders to get feedback on the specific types of support they would need to successfully and efficiently recruit BIL candidates.

“We were hearing from agencies about the kind of things that they’ll need to do to implement this law to meet the benchmarks. We have a team of about 30-plus folks working with all these individual agencies,” Ahuja said. “We started off with helping them create talent surge plans, to ask what is that strategic workforce planning that has to happen? What are the positions that you need? What are the positions you need first in order to get the other positions later?”

Along with focusing on early-career individuals for this governmentwide hiring effort, OPM is looking to expand diversity in applicant pools.

“We’re doing a huge target for those individuals who may not be thinking about government as an opportunity,” Ahuja said.

A lot of the work in hiring for BIL jobs ties to the diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility executive order that President Joe Biden signed last summer.

“When we were sitting down with agencies to plan out what their talent surge plans are going to look like, we had our DEIA specialists right there and our team saying, ‘OK, here are the things you need to think about,’” Ahuja said. “We’re trying to balance between the speed, but also to do it right.”

To open doors to more candidates to enter the federal workforce, Ahuja said OPM is trying to clarify the hiring process, including making USAJOBS.gov more comprehensible and attractive. For example, OPM regularly hosts webinars and engages with community groups, such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), in an effort make the federal recruitment process more accessible to disadvantaged communities, such as people of color.

“A big part of it is just demystifying, how do you get into the federal government?” Ahuja said.

Expanding DEIA for the hiring surge also involves data, Ahuja said. In particular, OPM wants to help agencies expand their applicant data pools to gather a more diverse and equitable group of candidates. That effort is part of OPM’s equity action plan, as well as a focus of agency hiring for BIL roles.

“There’s been a big focus for this initiative around reaching out to minority-serving institutions, Hispanic-serving institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities in order to build those relationships for the long term,” Ahuja said. “But for the short term, we think this is a really exciting moment and we want folks early in their careers from these diverse institutions to be a part of it.”

OPM hosted a “week of action” the week of April 25, collaborating with the White House and other agencies on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The goal was to raise awareness around the hiring the federal government needs to do to recruit for BIL positions.

The hiring surge for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has a particularly acute focus on recruiting for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) roles. Those open positions include resource management specialists, landscape experts, biologists, civil, mechanical, environmental and electrical engineers, as well as safety managers. But human resources specialists, attorneys and program managers are also in the mix.

Agencies’ hiring for BIL can also act as a good learning opportunity for other recruitment efforts across the government, Ahuja said. She said she wants OPM to be a strategic partner and leadership for agencies as they apply lessons learned.

“It’s been really great for us as a model of what we can look back on and say, how were we able to improve the time-to-hire timeline? How are we able to implement some of these DEIA practices? How was the work and organizing that we did internally inside our agency a good model for how we might be able to also continue to support these larger search efforts that are happening across the government,” Ahuja said.

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