The composition and capabilities of the American workforce are ever in flux, while hiring requirements for government contract positions and civilian posts are fixed and immovable. The U.S. government has historically loved its workers to have college degrees, and so college degrees are often required—even for jobs where a certification is more than sufficient. This is in contrast with trends in the private sector. Companies like Google, to name one, won’t even ask for a high school diploma if you’ve got talent. Because of this, Google is able to onboard workers quickly and tap into a workforce with diverse backgrounds and life experiences.
Catalyst for Change
One thing 2020 has taught us is that managers know when a system is broken, but nobody wants to be the first to change. However, once change arrives, the entire apparatus goes all-in. A global pandemic and passionate protests have already proven to be precisely the catalysts for change overdue.
When it comes to actually doing a job, consider what has happened with telecommuting: On March 1, asking your manager to work full-time from home would have been met with a blank stare. You may as well have asked for the keys to the company airplane. On March 15, not only did telecommuting become the singular way of doing business, but—surprise—it worked smashingly. Productivity didn’t sink. Rather, it went up! And though you might expect brash young companies like Twitter or Facebook to make telecommuting the new normal, even venerable companies are planning to close down their offices and make working from home a permanent thing.
With respect to job promotions, meanwhile, look to the Army—itself not always the nimblest organization on Earth. The service branch has removed the DA photo requirement for promotion packets, so as to eliminate any possible unconscious biases of promotion boards. The momentum of the day brought immediate change.
SUCCESS AMID THE CHAOS
“Hiring is an increasing pain point across the entire government,” says Max Stier, the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on making the government work better. “That is the number one trend that I see. It is a really important problem that various folks have tried to address and, frankly, without a whole lot of success.”
Stier points to the pandemic as a phenomenal challenge to federal agencies, but one that has spurred innovation in hiring requirements. “One great example of this is the VA,” he says. Right after COVID-19 began washing across the U.S., there was a race against the clock by health care organizations to prevent being overwhelmed. Veterans Affairs hired a stunning 12,000 people in just two weeks. It previously took three months or longer to onboard an employee. The VA got it down to three days.
“They’re succeeding and doing new things that are working better,” says Stier. “One of the opportunities now is to harness those innovations, to make sure that even post-pandemic, they become the normal course of business, rather than returning to old processes.”
Executive Order Says Degrees Take Backseat To Experience
The VA isn’t alone. The White House seems to be moving decisively in that direction, with the president signing an executive order on Friday changing the way federal government hiring managers evaluate potential workers. Degree requirements are out, and life experiences and skill sets are in. What implementation looks like remains to be seen, but earlier this year, the proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget offered the broad strokes:
The existing system places obstacles to many who would consider a career in public service. For instance, the Administration intends to eliminate degree requirements for Federal jobs when not inherently necessary to perform the duties of a position, and to identify other instances where degrees are used as a poor proxy for specific competencies sought in job candidates. Over-reliance on degrees can be a barrier to entry into Federal service, and it can also prevent current civil servants who possess relevant skills, training or experience from transitioning into emerging fields within the Federal sector.
SELF-GENERATED PROBLEMS and hiring requirements
As the business saying goes: the most dangerous words to any organization are “This is how we’ve always done it.” And that is how the hiring process and hiring requirements got so bad in government. “There are a lot of policies that are assumed to be necessary, that may not be so,” Stier explains, calling the problem self-generated. “To my mind, a lot of the recent success is about a more intense focus on outcome, and a realization that a lot of processes that built up over time may either be unnecessary or can be done in better, more creative ways.”
Before the pandemic hit, one area where the old rules were being relaxed was in cyber security and information technology. There was a time when the government was requiring computer science or information systems degrees to do a job that most high school freshmen could have done better. “On the cyber side, there was obviously an intense need,” Stier says. “There’s just no question, when you think about the changes in our society, that we’ve moved from physical to digital in so many ways, but our policies in government haven’t kept up. And that’s a big problem.”
To help prove the case for a more diverse workforce, the Partnership for Public Service, which publishes the famed, annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report, even established the Cybersecurity Talent Initiative, a fellowship placing young students in federal jobs, with the option to eventually join top private sector companies.
Ongoing events in America are set to affect more than college degrees and hiring requirements, and more than federal contracts and civilian jobs. “People of color in this country make up 40% of the population and 30% of the voting age population, but only 7% of top staff positions in the Senate,” says Dr. LaShonda Brenson, the senior fellow of diversity and inclusion at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a non-profit dedicated to generating ideas that improve the socioeconomic status and civic engagement of African Americans.
“The reason why this matters so much is that these positions inform legislation,” she says, pointing to the difficulties that minority-owned small businesses had in receiving federal COVID-19 loans and relief to which they were entitled. (We have discussed those loans and grants previously at ClearanceJobs. See: How to Get COVID-19 Federal Aid for Your Small Business.) “Having diverse staff in the Senate could allow for those folks to use their experience and their expertise to craft legislation that is more responsive to black communities in particular.”
Lack of Diversity is a Bipartisan Problem
The problem, she says, is bipartisan: a result of the way interns and staffers are hired on the Hill; often who you know, and not what you know. “People don’t always take the time to consider the importance of race,” she explains. “Some people may argue that they only want the best man or woman for the job and that diversity just doesn’t matter. And, you know, there’s research by Scott Page and others that describes how diversity is proven to help businesses perform better and make better decisions, simply because different backgrounds and life experiences give companies more things to consider.”
Dr. Brenson says the solution is government transparency: give us the hard numbers. She points also to the National Football League, which uses what they call the “Rooney rule,” in which a certain number of ethnic minority candidates must be considered when hiring head coaches and senior league operations jobs.
This is certainly the time for such changes to be implemented. It’s not often that reform to government hiring requirements gets momentum. This opportunity shouldn’t be missed.