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By reducing application redundancies, streamlining hiring and onboarding and increasing cross-agency data sharing, federal agencies can transform the hiring process to meet current and future needs.
Digital services quickly became central to Americans' work and personal lives almost overnight during the pandemic. But have federal agencies' digital transformation efforts accelerated enough to keep up with hiring and onboarding needs?
Despite the unusually rapid progress, the work is nowhere near done, and the shortage of technology workers has become an increasingly urgent challenge. A recent Government Accountability Office report found that the federal government “faces a severe shortage of digital expertise in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), data science, application development, cybersecurity, computational biology, and robotics process automation.”
The average time to hire a public-sector employee ranges between 90 and 119 days, depending on the position and government agency. In addition to taking more than three times longer than hiring processes within private industry, the federal application process is cumbersome, requiring up to 10 steps per job applied for through USAjobs.gov.
Between the need for employees -- especially in science and technology fields -- and a three-month-long turnaround hiring time, it is more important than ever to reduce the procedural burden and hiring time to ensure agencies don’t face labor shortages. By reducing application redundancies, streamlining the hiring and onboarding processes and lowering barriers to applying for public-sector jobs, agencies can help address the pressing hiring challenges they face.
A citizen-centric hiring process
Job seekers invest a considerable amount of time searching and applying for new positions, and employers are under more pressure than ever as they compete for qualified applicants. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 10.4 million open positions nationwide at the end of September, with workers leaving their jobs at unprecedented rates. In this challenging environment, a multi-step process that is less likely to quickly result in an offer may prevent highly qualified candidates from applying for a government job altogether.
While some agencies post their open jobs on platforms like LinkedIn, they must go further to meet candidates where they are. Rather than redirect job seekers back to the posting source or a department website, allowing them to apply directly for jobs from popular platforms would lessen the initial steps required to apply for positions.
Further, the application process should feature more automation. Having to manually input information already on a resume is time consuming. Interagency job postings, at minimum, should be automated. When a job seeker applies for more than one job at the same agency, they should not have to repeatedly input their data in the required fields.
Ensuring a job seeker can easily apply from a mobile device is also important. Almost half of all internet web traffic comes from mobile devices, so job postings should be accessible from a phone. A mobile-friendly application process both communicates support and respect for potential future employees and helps widen the recruiting pool. Members of communities that are underrepresented in the federal workforce are more likely to access the internet via mobile devices.
Moreover, modernizing web-based job applications is even more important to recruiting top technology talent, a critical gap in the public-sector workforce. An outdated, cumbersome job application leaves a poor first impression among skilled cybersecurity and IT professionals -- especially in comparison to the sleek interfaces available in the private sector.
There is also an immediate need for accelerated onboarding. One participant cited in the GAO study said that “onboarding takes 9 months on average, and that a recent onboarding of an official in a digital services leadership role took 19 months.” Couple the nine-month-long onboarding process with the 90-day hiring process, and agencies are looking at one year for new employees to be fully onboarded.
Part of the lengthy timeframe can be attributed to security clearance processes, but steps to accelerate the process like on-the-spot hiring at career fairs can help agencies get the onboarding process underway more quickly.
Cross-agency data sharing is critical
With data playing a key role in federal priorities, there is an increased need for cross-agency data sharing. The President’s Management Agenda, or PMA, underscores the imperative to collaborate “across Government to emphasize shared data, secure systems, and seamless interactions among agencies in back-office operations.”
Using secure channels to share application data across agencies could help a single job application reach more than one employer as well as expand the job seeker pools for agencies with critical needs. The outcome would be a win-win as it would not only cut down the time job seekers spend applying to multiple positions but also give human resource offices more applications to review for job openings.
The time for digital modernization is now
With the “Great Resignation” sweeping across the private sector, it's past time to accelerate hiring. Moreover, the aging of the existing workforce leaves government anticipating more labor shortages beyond the pressure agencies are already feeling. According to the PMA, “today less than 7% of the federal workforce is under the age of 30 and nearly 28% of federal employees are eligible to retire in the next five years.” That means agencies have five years to hire nearly 600,000 new federal workers to meet the need, and the competition for talent from the private sector is fierce.
Filling gaps in mission-critical roles in science and technology must be central to the government’s digital transformation priorities. By reducing application redundancies, streamlining hiring and onboarding and increasing cross-agency data sharing, agencies can transform the hiring process to meet current and future needs.
Heather Whitlock is Adobe Head of Public Sector (Document Cloud).