December 2021
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TD Magazine

Hire Learning

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Meet federal surge hiring needs and attract the best candidates by rewriting agencies' recruiting playbook.

Faced with implementing some 55 executive orders, a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, and a host of other ambitious initiatives and programs, the federal government is rapidly looking to hire thousands of qualified new employees.


During periods of surge hiring—when an unusual volume of new employees is needed in a short period of time—federal agencies generally focus on strengthening their current structures and processes to handle the increased volume of applicants. However, too many agencies assume their default mode of "post and pray" will result in a sufficient number of qualified individuals applying for open positions. Agencies also often rely on the misguided notion that the longer a job announcement is posted, the more applicants it will attract. In practice, the percentage of quality candidates diminishes over time.

In October 2020, the Partnership for Public Service released its Rapid Reinforcements: Strategies for Federal Surge Hiring research report that explores basic strategies to shore up surge hiring capabilities. In addition to the new mission requirements, the report examines emergency responses, large-scale attrition, and emergent skills as catalysts for rapid workforce growth. The report recommends three basic strategies centering on strategic use of hiring authorities, implementation of a recruiting infrastructure, and integration of a project management approach to surge hiring.

As a follow-up to the report, the Partnership for Public Service worked with a few federal agencies to pilot the strategies with a focus on a recruitment infrastructure. During the information-gathering phase of our agency engagements, both HR professionals and hiring managers said they believed there were enough applicants to meet hiring needs, but hiring managers acknowledged their desire to see during the interview process a greater number of candidates who exceeded the minimum qualifications.

When there is a small surplus of candidates who exceed the minimum qualifications—even during a surge hiring initiative—hiring managers can consider how candidate knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) may meet future as well as immediate mission needs. When there is a lack of depth, however, agencies may find themselves searching for more talent sooner than expected to meet emerging needs.

To simplify the interdependent activities for hiring managers and those involved in the process who may not be familiar with the federal government's complex talent acquisition model, we used a basic recruiting framework or road map during our agency engagements. It is based on the four steps talent acquisition professionals often take in their recruiting efforts: planning for a hiring initiative, identifying talent sources, attracting potential applicants to the organization and job announcements, and engaging individuals throughout the process.

Using the framework can improve agencies' surge hiring capabilities, which has the added benefit of improving their normal recruiting practices.

Step 1: Plan

Planning comprises workforce plan utilization, strategic recruitment planning, position description management, collaboration between HR professionals and hiring managers, and the applicant tracking system.

Planning is essential but often treated as a nice-to-have option in the face of competing priorities. As a result, the Partnership for Public Service has generated a strategic recruitment plan template to help facilitate the planning process.

The template serves as both a recruitment guide and a project management template to help agencies proactively identify resources and align efforts across functions. It includes guiding questions to help identify appropriate milestones and hiring authorities, key strategic metrics to track, ideas around diversifying recruitment events, and practical advice on engaging candidates during the lengthy federal hiring process.

During our agency engagements, we noticed that application screening was limited to two ratings: does not meet minimum qualifications and meets minimum qualifications. That turns out to be the norm in many federal agencies, while most private sector organizations have at least three ratings: does not meet minimum qualifications, meets minimum qualifications, and exceeds minimum qualifications.

In job announcements, agencies use the list of specialized skills or preferred qualifications as the threshold for rating applicants as exceeding the minimum qualifications. But by not including both minimum qualifications and specialized skills in a job announcement, HR professionals are required by law to lump the most-qualified applicants onto the same certification list as the minimally qualified, which can be more than 100 individuals depending on the open position.

Consequently, that requires hiring managers to develop their own approaches to ranking the list of qualified candidates they receive from HR. Although some hiring managers are capable of that task, too many lack a consistent and efficient approach to ranking applicants. Because time is even more critical during a surge hiring initiative, the additional rating would enable hiring managers to initiate the interview process faster because they will screen fewer applications and be better able to identify the most-qualified candidates.

At one agency, we co-designed and piloted a two-session series around talent acquisition for which HR professionals and hiring managers equally populated each cohort. The sessions' purpose was to analyze existing recruiting strategies and hiring processes, discuss applicable government-wide best practices, and calibrate on specific touchpoints where stakeholders can clarify their expectations. The sessions strengthened cohesion between the functions, developed a shared understanding of existing challenges and paths forward, and uncovered practical opportunities to improve the candidate experience.

Step 2: Source

Sourcing refers to finding and cultivating relationships with talent pipelines. Talent from varied sources can not only meet but often exceed job announcements' minimum qualifications.

A lack of pre-established talent sources—such as college and university alumni groups and professional trade organizations—often catches up with agencies during surge hiring initiatives, especially when it comes to hiring people of color and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics occupational series. Federal agencies that lack strong talent sources should not forego building new ones during hiring surges.

In a way, it may be an advantageous time to start a new relationship. When an agency hires multiple candidates from one source, it demonstrates to members that their KSAs are needed and consequently increases the individuals' interest in the agency when considering career opportunities.

When building relationships with new talent sources or strengthening connections with existing ones, agencies should focus on developing deeper relationships with a smaller number of talent sources. Agencies often associate their expansive list of talent sources with the depth and potential quality of applicants, which is a misperception, especially if the extent of the relationship is limited to posting open positions on each source's job board. If agencies concentrate their efforts toward a limited number of talent sources whose members' KSAs and social identities align with workforce gaps, the hiring organizations will see a larger return on investment from recruiting efforts and a greater depth in candidate quality.

To ensure stronger bonds with talent sources, one agency relies on current employees to act as its ambassadors. The employees are members of different talent sources, such as university or college alumni groups and professional societies. In addition, some hiring managers are frequent guest speakers at higher education institutions and trade organizations. To optimize those individuals' ability to attract other members to the agency, it developed volunteer recruiter workshops that equipped staff with the skills to tell their own story of why they like working at the organization, tips and tricks around leveraging social media, and how to effectively talk about career opportunities in an engaging way.

Step 3: Attract

Attraction encompasses all efforts to elevate awareness of the organization's work, culture, and job opportunities. The end game is to convert interested individuals into applicants. Agencies can source systematically, but attracting talent requires agility to keep pace with trends, including nuances in content consumption across occupational series.

The True Size of Government, an issue paper by the Volcker Alliance, states that USAJobs "has become home to a seething group of confused and angry job seekers and fulfills a main purpose for a limited set of people desperately seeking any kind of employment or those who don't really know what job they seek." USAJobs can no longer serve as the sole, or even primary, platform for agencies' recruiting efforts, especially during surge hiring initiatives.

One of the best approaches for agencies to cultivate a digital ecosystem for recruiting is to use their career webpage as the hub for all content. That entails linking to USAJobs announcements and all social media platforms, as well as adding more substantive information about the agency culture and work. Including additional information around the federal hiring process is especially important for nonfederal employee audiences.


The US Department of Veterans Affairs has one of the most comprehensive and engaging career pages in the federal government. It includes many of the essential details potential applicants need to make an informed decision about pursuing a career at VA.

For example, its nursing career page describes the role in plain language, identifies the varying career paths within the occupation, and explains how the role connects to the agency's mission. The page also includes videos that illustrate a typical day (a day in the life) from different perspectives. Just as important, VA provides information about total compensation, in particular nonmonetary benefits such as tuition reimbursement, which many agencies under-promote when competing with the private sector for talent.

Step 4: Engage

A Sherpa's role is to carry supplies, ensure the path ahead is navigable, set up and break down camp, and support hikers along the trek, to name a few responsibilities. The fittest and most skilled climbers could not ascend and descend Mount Everest without a guide to show them the way and provide a helping hand through the toughest passages. The comparison to federal hiring may be an exaggeration, but why aren't more agencies hiring or contracting recruiters to engage candidates, especially if an agency's ability to deliver on its mission is dependent on talent?

Such trained professionals can help to increase the depth of candidate pools as well as improve retention throughout the recruiting and hiring processes. Many agencies are coming to the realization that they can no longer expect HR professionals to manage the recruiting and hiring processes because many of those individuals lack the bandwidth and skills to be proficient in both.

The General Service Administration's Technology Transformation Services has improved its talent acquisition capability by creating a recruiting team comprising nine people, including recruiters, a recruiting coordinator, a sourcing strategist, and an onboarding lead. The team partners with the agency's HR office. TTS recruiters talk to potential applicants, shepherd candidates through phone screens and interviews, and stay in close contact with them until the start of the security clearance process, which is when the onboarding lead becomes the primary point of contact.

There are multiple ways to build a recruiting shop. Some agencies hire contractors to establish an infrastructure and then convert them to full-time staff as their results garner more support from leadership. Others prefer to upskill and reskill current HR professionals through a mix of internal development and external certification courses.

Regardless of whether an agency has a dedicated recruiting team, there is no excuse for not communicating to candidates at minimum the timeline for milestone decisions. Candidates should not feel like they are pouring their energy into a black hole. And for agencies with a lengthy security clearance process, it may help to have hiring managers add monthly five-minute check-in calls with candidates who received a conditional offer to keep them engaged. Most importantly, agencies cannot effectively assess how well they are doing without measuring the candidate experience in the first place.

No more going through the motions

Strategic planning is critical for federal agencies to identify and engage the right talent, which will enable the organizations to estimate the time needed to solicit enough applicants to ensure a desired depth of quality talent in the shortest period of time.

In a resource-starved function like HR, playing it safe by following the normal recruiting playbook will not meet surge hiring needs. Whether it's upgrading the country's decaying infrastructure or integrating long-overdue equity practices into the delivery of public services, the surge hiring efforts associated with those policy initiatives should not turn into another process that simply goes through the motions. Surge hiring requires planning, sourcing and attracting highly qualified applicants, and engaging with those candidates as they go through the hiring process.

Metrics to Start Tracking

The time-to-hire metric is considered the key performance indicator for all talent acquisition work, but there are other metrics that agencies need to track to gain a more holistic view of recruiting efforts. Below are varying metrics for agencies to monitor and establish benchmarks as they make adjustments to improve recruiting capabilities.

  • Application completion rate measures the user-friendliness of platforms, efficacy of instructions, and interest of applicants in the job announcement and agency.

  • Source channel effectiveness measures how many individuals from a particular talent source responded to a job announcement in comparison to the number of members who attended an engagement (for example, job fairs, informational webinars, and live social media events).
  • Depth of candidate pool measures the percentage of applicants who exceed the minimum qualifications.
  • Candidate retention rate measures the number of candidates who remain in the process during each step or round of the hiring process. A hiring process metric that serves as an indicator of mitigative actions during recruiting efforts, such as the security clearance process, may take up to one year to complete.
About the Author

As senior manager for the Partnership for Public Service, Kevin Johnson II leads the strategy, development, and implementation of federal hiring solutions and services. Previously, he oversaw the strategic direction of a portfolio of leadership development programs at the Partnership for Public Service, as well as designed and facilitated sessions for a wide range of topics and federal audiences at all levels. Prior to joining the Partnership for Public Service, Johnson led all diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at Battelle Memorial Institute and earned his entry into a public service career as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ghana.

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