Federal hiring changes bring hope, skepticism for application process

By Ed O'Keefe Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 12:46 AM

People looking for work with the federal government often call Kathryn Troutman and her company, The Resume Place, for tips on writing the perfect federal job application. But business is down right now because, she suspects, potential federal job seekers are waiting until this week to take advantage of promised changes to the tedious federal job application process.

"We're very concerned and not very happy that our business is really down," Troutman said. "We're really shocked about it actually."

President Obama in May gave federal agencies until this week to radically overhaul the federal hiring process, mandating simply worded job descriptions and the end of the lengthy "KSAs," or essays that describe an applicant's knowledge, skills and abilities. Applicants for federal employment should be able to apply and be rejected or hired in about 80 days once changes are fully implemented.

Officials have backed off the president's deadline, however, cautioning that only some agencies are ready. The departments of Commerce, Defense and Veterans Affairs and NASA are in good shape, but others are working through reforms that could take years to complete, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

"The prior process is already faster," said OPM Associate Director Nancy Kichak. "From the time the president issued his memo telling us to get going, we've been going. A lot of agencies have already eliminated [KSAs]. They have already simplified the job announcements, have done them in plain English and have done them in a way applicants can understand them."

The hiring process is now averaging about 110 days, down from 180 - 100 more days than Obama asked for, Kichak said last week.

Jonathan Sykes, 29, is already seeing changes as he applies for jobs at Defense and Homeland Security. He's been trying since February to find a position in security or office management.

"Before they made changes and before I got used to it, it would take me from one day to four days to fill out an application," Sykes said. "Recently there are some government jobs where I can fill out an application in an hour or two because they've gotten rid of the KSAs. They've definitely improved since they got rid of the KSAs."

Best of all, he's receiving e-mail updates about the progress of his applications, a big change from the past, when people never received feedback after submitting the paperwork.

"It is working," Sykes said. "At least now I know what's going on."

Troutman cautioned, however, that all the reforms won't necessarily make the hiring process easier. And although KSAs have been eliminated in the initial application, agencies may use them later in the process, after the initial screening.

Troutman said that some job postings still require KSA statements. "And people are very confused on how to put them in and where to put them and what to do with them," she said. If an application requests a traditional resume instead of KSAs, she recommends including short versions of accomplishments within the resume that explicitly demonstrate the applicant's knowledge, skills and abilities.

"But that's still not a simple application. It's really kind of complicated, because if you don't prove the KSAs in your resume, you may not be most qualified," Troutman said.

In addition, top officials who make hiring decisions at some agencies might not be aware of the impending changes, said Tim McManus, vice president for education at the Partnership for Public Service.

"What we've been hearing and seeing is that it's not for lack of interest that they're not engaged; it's because they're not sure what it means," McManus said. "They're asking, 'Where am I supposed to be engaged? Where is it supposed to be me making decisions versus human resources?' "

The Partnership, a nonpartisan think tank promoting public service, last month published a guide for agency officials who are less familiar with the hiring process.

Good hiring "is not being done consistently," McManus said, "even within individual agencies."

OPM declined to answer detailed questions about the changes, saying it plans to share more information this month.

"We will be able to tell you what great progress we're making on the key points that were most troubling to the best-qualified applicants: time to hire, no KSA's, and resume and cover letter applications," Kathryn M. Medina, executive director of the Chief Human Capital Council, said in a statement. CHCO is made up of the top human resources officials at most federal agencies.

Despite the structural changes, other applicants are still frustrated by federal preference laws that favor military veterans or in-house candidates.

Walter "Skip" Fischer, 51, is a 20-year veteran congressional staffer who was repeatedly rejected for executive branch positions. He's relocated to Duluth, Minn., to be closer to his wife's family, but might start applying again as the hiring reforms take place.

"There's going to be less emphasis on the onerous and extraordinarily redundant questionnaire where you're restating your job qualifications in several different ways," Fischer said. "That's a great start.

"But don't put me through the rigmarole of having me spend time on the paperwork if you already know who you're going to hire," he said.

Despite the slowdown in business, Troutman plans to celebrate the hiring changes at her office this week with cake and balloons. "I had a cake during the Clinton years when they made hiring changes, and I'll do it again," she said. "The cake will say 'KSAs' on it."

ed.okeefe@washingtonpost.com The Washington Post maintains a content-sharing agreement with the Partnership for Public Service.

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