Assessments are becoming the new norm in federal hiring

President Donald Trump signed an executive order in June 2020 that tasked federal agencies with modifying their hiring practices to value actual skills over degrees, and the order will have an increasing impact on applying for government jobs over the remainder of 2020 and into 2021.

At the heart of the change is a refocus on skills assessment programs as a suitability benchmark for federal jobs, rather than relying on degree requirements. But that isn’t to say that all positions will remove the need for higher education from the job posting.

“Currently around 30 percent of federal jobs require minimum education or licensure. So if you think about doctors, lawyers, engineers — certain scientific professions — those would not change,” Office of Personnel Management acting Director Michael Rigas told Federal Times.

“What we are looking at is the other 70 percent of jobs, where applicants with relevant skills could apply for those jobs. So you wouldn’t be able to take a degree in an unrelated discipline and use that to automatically qualify you for a position.”

Practically, this means two things for federal applicants: an opportunity to prove that one has the necessary skills without a degree and an inability to use just any degree to qualify for a job.

The changes will likely be most concretely seen in IT and STEM positions, which are both systematically underfilled in the federal government and often attract talent with unconventional educations.

“We are seeing that those kinds of skills are increasingly obtained and honed and perfected outside of the college degree attainment process. If you look at someone like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, they’re both college dropouts, and under the previous status quo, their lack of a degree would have been a real barrier to entry for them to come into the federal government,” said Rigas.

 In the case of an entry-level IT position, an applicant without a degree could use an assessment to prove that they have the skills to do the job, whereas an applicant with a degree in a field like English could not use that degree alone to prove that they are qualified.

That does not mean degrees will become useless on federal applications. A person with a degree in computer science could apply for that IT job and reference their degree as a reason for qualification.

Assessments will also be used to speed up the application process for jobs that are similar across multiple agencies.

“Having standardized assessments for similar jobs across agencies will obviously have huge advantages. So we want to encourage agencies to the extent possible to use standardized assessments for that exact purpose,” said Rigas.

“If someone is rated as qualified for a position, but they’re not able to be hired — for instance if an agency only had one or two openings that they’re currently hiring for but they ended up with six qualified candidates — another agency that is hiring for that same position would be able to immediately hire those other qualified applicants, who, through no fault of their own weren’t able to be hired at the [other] agency.”

As part of that goal, OPM is working on technical updates to USAJobs to include an “opt-out” function for cross-agency visibility, meaning that applying for one job at a particular agency would automatically make a person’s application available to other agencies with similar openings unless the applicant chooses to remove themselves from that consideration.

“Right now, that is not technically feasible on USAJobs. Some agencies allow that to happen within the agency, which is something and better than nothing, but we’d like to allow for that to happen governmentwide,” said Rigas.

But while more assessments will be encouraged across federal hiring initiatives, they are not the only means by which an applicant may be asked to prove their skills.

“One of the other ways they can do that is through subject matter expert interviews,” said Rigas.

“This is a pilot that we’ve seen successfully rolled out at a number of agencies, especially for technical positions, where people from the U.S. Digital Service have participated in the hiring process to interview candidates and determine a qualified pool for final selection for agency managers.”

The changes also open up opportunities for current feds that want to apply for promoted positions.

“It would work the same way for someone who is applying for the next opportunity up on the career ladder. They’d be able to demonstrate their skills and experience in a way that previously was not available to them,” said Rigas, adding that the ultimate goal is to encourage “hiring people and promoting people based on their merit and based on their skills.”