Lessons for Talent Acquisition Tech From…the U.S. Federal Government?

You’ve probably heard: It’s tough to find talent for many roles right these days. Now, imagine your organization took twice as long as other companies to hire people. Or that people under 40 made up something along 7% of the federal workforce, even though they actually make up about 40% of the overall U.S. workforce. 

There’s no need to imagine it because that’s the state of hiring from the U.S. federal government. In a panel in late May, hiring leaders from the federal government and other agencies presented at a session hosted by the Alliance for Digital Innovation. SHRM News covered some of the key takeaways, including their difficulties in recruiting and retaining talent, specifically focusing on tech and early career talent. 

The conversations should be familiar to anyone who has dealt with a broken hiring process. Agencies are getting around hiring challenges by literally going outside of the government completely.  “There are so many barriers in place from the legacy hiring processes [that] we are creating more and more fellowships until the government workforce can get caught up with the kind of employees it needs,” said Victoria Houed, an associate at Schmidt Futures and founder at BlackByte

Relying on NGOs and other nonprofits to make up for missed hires doesn’t sound like a best practice in any sense of the phrase. What could talent acquisition tech leaders learn from the federal government’s struggles? Let’s just call them some anti-lessons.

If Everyone Is Responsible, No One Is Responsible

There is no one person ultimately responsible for the hiring experience in the federal government. Agencies are little fiefdoms, guided (but only in part) by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Agencies can choose their own ATS, with most choosing to use in-house applicant tracking system USAStaffing, but they can’t choose whether or not to use USAJOBS. More on that in a bit. 

With multiple decision points, technologies, processes, and people involved in the process, it’s an easy game of CYA when things don’t go well. For example, Pam Coleman, associate director of performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget, commented that agencies can’t currently share candidate profiles if there’s a person who would be a better fit at another agency. 

Where does the buck stop? Well, when you can point to multiple federal agencies for your hiring woes (including you own), the only common factor may be that they all ultimately feed into a federal government led by the President of the United States. Ultimately, for change to come, someone has to be able to say yes or no, in spite of challenges. And it’s probably not President Biden.

Listen to Candidates

People complaining about lousy application processes feels like complaining about the appeal of airplane meals. We get it, things aren’t great out there for job applicants. Making a frustrating process even more difficult with crappy technology isn’t ever going to be something you see me endorsing. But it’s easy to see complaints about USAJOBS.gov bucketed in with general complaints about how tough it is to apply for jobs. 

That would be a mistake. 

Reading some of the feedback on review sites like sitejabber shows clear trends. It’s not just about the 1.23 star rating. It’s that it’s more difficult to find jobs than competing sites, candidates sometimes have to re-enter information on an agency’s chosen ATS, and applications require hours to complete. These aren’t new complaints either. People have been struggling with the federal hiring process forever.

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It’s Not Just About Technology

As you read into complaints, though, you get the sense that it’s not just about how good or bad USAJOBS really is. For example, an applicant said they were shown in the system as being referred to an agency but that they never got a call and had no way of reaching out. 

That’s not just a technology problem. It’s a process problem. It’s what Jeff Neal, former chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department, suggested in a post for FedSmith:

“Blaming USAJobs is another example of trying to find a silver bullet to kill everything that is wrong with the federal hiring process. Could it be better? Absolutely. Would making USAJobs better solve the problems? No, not even close. We need hiring reform and a radically simplified hiring process. Agencies need to invest in their HR Specialists and ensure they are properly trained. Agencies need to do professional recruiting rather than post and pray. Hiring managers need to invest far more of their time in the process.”

USAJOBS is a problem, but so is the entire hiring process. From the other tools being used in the hiring process, to very little integration, to poor training, to…well, you get it. 

Beware of Humans and Technology Working Together

Techsploration isn’t just about the technology achievements and failures in recruiting tech. There are so many factors at work when organizations look at how they can improve their hiring processes.

The lesson from the federal government is that none of this gets fixed in a vacuum. USAJOBS can be everything you want it to be and more as an applicant. If a hiring manager still doesn’t call back, the process isn’t fixed. If an assessment is too long or irrelevant, the process isn’t fixed. If people aren’t trained to maximize technology, the process isn’t fixed. 

While the federal government is a unique hiring environment, there is a lot that could be improved to bend the hiring process to be easier for candidates and hiring leaders. For other organizations struggling with recruiting technology, this is another reminder that it pays to look holistically at the challenge. 

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
 
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.

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