VA says onboarding changes made during the pandemic will ‘change the way we hire forever’

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In the earliest days of the coronavirus crisis, the Veterans Health Administration faced a difficult personnel challenge: Hire as many new medical professionals as possible, and get them working as quickly as they can.

Richard Stone, VHA’s executive in charge, tasked the agency with a tougher goal: find a way to onboard a new employee within three days.

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The challenge seemed daunting, considering it usually takes VHA about 90 days to hire and onboard a new employee. Checking the identity and medical credentials of a prospective employee often takes 30 days.

Quick hiring isn’t a strong suit for the federal government, and it’s long been a particularly stubborn challenge for VA, which has often struggled to compete against the private sector for top medical talent.

“We went directly to our field counterparts in human resources and said, ‘What would it take to actually help you break down all these barriers? What do you need us to waive or to eliminate to get you where you need to be to get to three-day onboarding?” Jessica Bonjorni, VHA’s chief officer for workforce management, said in an interview with Federal News Network. “We got a lot of great ideas from that discussion.”

VHA reviewed its own hiring policies and worked with the Office of Personnel Management and the chief human capital officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs to waive and delay certain onboarding requirements.

Like many agencies during the pandemic, VHA moved many of the usual onboarding activities to the virtual space. It deferred the collection of fingerprints for some new employees and waived the in-person requirements to verify an individual’s identity.

But the agency found other steps in the onboarding and pre-employment process to postpone and waive.

VHA, for example, delayed the verification of a new hire’s education, license and medical references from their prior practice until after the employee begins work.

Pre-employment drug testing and physical exams can also be delayed, Bonjorni said, though VHA must still perform these checks within 120 days of a new hire’s entry to the workforce.

The agency also allowed new providers to postpone certain medical tests until their first day on the job. New physicians can instead take those tests right before their first shift begins.

Now the need to hire quickly has inspired a new wave of thinking within VHA, Bonjorni said.

“It pushed our thinking so hard,” she said. “We were working on making incremental improvements to time-to-hire, which I think is what you see across most federal agencies. But in truth, our private sector counterparts are able to onboard very quickly. This pushed us to get us to a very similar point to our private sector counterparts. It’s going to change the way we hire forever.”

VHA hiring surges during two-week period in March

The process improvements helped VHA hire more than 12,000 new people between March 29 through May 18, Bonjorni said.

Part of that number includes some 100 retirees, which VHA rehired as reemployed annuitants using a dual compensation waiver it received from OPM, Bonjorni said. The waiver allows VA to rehire retirees on a full-time basis with a full salary and pension for about a year.

Most of the reemployed annuitants are nurses and physicians, Bonjorni said, but VHA did hire back a few former HR specialists to help handle the extra workload.

The vast majority of VHA’s new hires came from the department’s national recruitment campaign, which it launched earlier this year. The agency released public service announcements and advertised open positions on social and national media outlets. It also targeted former military members with medical experience, Bonjorni said.

VHA posted announcements on USAJobs.gov, but it also allowed candidates to submit their resumes directly to VA’s applicant tracking system, she said. A recruiter contacted some of the applicants on VHA’s behalf, who then passed on the promising resumes to HR clinicians at VHA facilities around the country. From there, HR and clinical leaders in the field began making selections locally.

The effort resulted in a 48% VHA hiring surge during a two-week period in March.

Normally, VHA workforce grows by 2-to-4% throughout the course of each year. But in the last  six weeks alone, the workforce has experienced a net increase of 1%, Bonjorni said.

“Because we have upwards of 350,000 employees, that amount of growth is a lot of people and a lot of hiring activity. We really saw a big surge in the last six weeks,” she said. “Now we’re going to move into likely a sustainment period. We’re going to continue to hire, but we need to maintain the growth that we have achieved in the last few weeks so that we can anticipate any future potential needs that we might see coming into the fall or down the line.”

Based on VHA’s initial estimates, the vast majority of the agency’s new hires — about 85% — will be permanent employees, but Bonjorni said the numbers may change. As the agency revisits the steps in the medical verification process that it initially delayed during the height of the pandemic, VHA may convert temporary appointees to permanent employees.

Pandemic lessons informing future VHA hiring recommendations

Many of the background, reference and medical verification checks are part of the VHA hiring process for good reason, but the agency is assessing what risks it can assume in order to onboard new talent more quickly.

“We’re taking this experience to look through the data and what it’s actually telling us,” Bonjourni said. “How frequently are we running into an issue where we have onboarded without all the checks in place and had to make an unfortunate decision to let someone go during their temporary appointment?”

With any luck, many of the agency’s recent changes could become permanent fixtures in the VHA hiring process. Though VHA may be able to change some pieces of its hiring process on its own, others may need OPM approval or legislation to make permanent.

The agency is currently reviewing its successes and is drafting a list of hiring improvement recommendations, which it may pursue later in Congress or with OPM.

“It’s really putting our processes to the test in a way that is going to be really beneficial for us down the line,” Bonjorni said. “Now we need to look toward how [we’re] actually cementing these processes in the future so that we can be just as quick when we’re trying to hire in normal times.”