The Washington Post

Federal hiring: ‘We have gotten off of KSA island’


A buoyant John Berry preached the gospel of federal hiring reform Wednesday, with a good news message about about how much better the process has become in the last year.

Noting the attention on government shortcomings, Berry told a Government Executive Media Group breakfast forum that he was “very pleased and honored . . . to talk with you today about something that is working in government” — hiring.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

Not everyone, however, is a true believer.

As the Obama administration’s point man on federal hiring reform, Berry said the government has made significant strides in strengthening its employment process in the 12 months since President Obama ordered it fixed.

“We are hiring now based on resumes and cover letters 91 percent of the time,” said Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management. “That is up from 39 percent in 2009. It’s an amazing leap forward. We have gotten off of KSA island. Ninety-six percent of our job opportunity announcements no longer require KSA essays. That is also up from 39 percent in 2009.”

Requiring applicants to write essays to explain their knowledge, skills and abilities at the initial stages of the process was such a big turnoff for many job-seekers that “dreaded” seemed attached to “KSA.”

Another major problem with the application process: the applications themselves.

Now 66 percent of the applications and job descriptions are five pages or less. In 2009, just 24 percent were. Berry said one agency had a job description 75 pages long. Also shorter is the time to hire, down 15 percent to a government-wide average of 105 days.

The applications are not only shorter now but many more are easier to read, according to Berry’s statistics. In 2009, 55 percent of the job opportunity announcements were written in plain language. Today, 86 percent are.

Others who work closely with the federal hiring process agree things have improved, even if Berry’s numbers sound a bit rosy.

“I guess we would have to find out what would they consider plain language versus what we consider to be plain language,” said Derrick Dortch, president of Diversa Group, a career consulting firm specializing in the federal sector. Dortch writes a federal jobs column for The Federal Worker.

Dortch said many job announcements remain difficult for the uninitiated to understand. He cited this passage from a Justice Department job announcement:

“Qualifying experience for the GS-9 level includes one year of specialized experience at least equivalent to the GS-7 level which is in or directly related to the line of work of the position to be filled and which has equipped the applicant with the particular knowledge, skills, and abilities to successfully perform the duties of the position.”

Notice the reference to “knowledge, skills, and abilities.” Federal applications still call for job-seekers to demonstrate their attributes in those areas, but within the resume instead of in longer, separate essays.

“Don’t ignore those KSAs, even though they are eliminated,” said Kathryn Troutman, whose company, the Resume Place, helps federal job applicants.

Neither Berry nor the president’s memo mentioned a common complaint that Lily Whiteman, author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job,” called a “huge, huge problem” — jobs that are advertised, though people have already been selected to fill them.

“A significant percentage of federal jobs are only advertized pro forma and are not really open,” she said. “Such fake openings waste the time of applicants and HR people who must process applications for preselected positions, and help perpetuate the common belief among non-feds and feds alike that it is hopeless to apply for federal jobs because they are all rigged.”

In his May 11, 2010, memorandum, Obama recognized that the federal hiring process was sometimes counterproductive.

“The complexity and inefficiency of today’s federal hiring process deters many highly qualified individuals from seeking and obtaining jobs in the federal government,” Obama said.

“Americans must be able to apply for federal jobs through a common sense hiring process, and agencies must be able to select high-quality candidates efficiently and quickly. Moreover, agency managers and supervisors must assume a leadership role in recruiting and selecting employees from all segments of our society. . . . The ability of agencies to perform their missions effectively and efficiently depends on a talented and engaged work force, and we must reform our hiring system to further strengthen that work force.”

Berry said the government has made “major accomplishments” toward meeting the president’s directive. “We’re not done yet. . . . There are still too many frustrated applicants and hiring managers out there.”


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