No More KSAs? How the Federal Job Application Process has Changed

By on March 21, 2011 in Current Events, Human Resources with 27 Comments

On May 11, 2010, President Obama signed a memorandum that would make many changes in the federal hiring process a reality, come November 1st.  The primary goal was to make federal jobs more accessible by shortening the amount of time it took to apply, as well as the length of time applicants had to wait before they heard back.  In addition, the memorandum tries to make it easier to hire specialists.

In order to achieve these changes, the memorandum ordered changes to the federal hiring process in several important areas.

No More KSAs?

The biggest change for most people is the elimination of KSAs from the initial application. Before the memorandum, most federal jobs required applicants to complete not just a specially-formatted federal resume, but also KSAs, which stands for Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities.  Each KSA required a page-long statement, in essay format, of the applicant’s qualifications in a specific area.

KSAs were a fairly grueling requirement in the federal application process, and many were concerned that it was scaring away qualified candidates. Applicants often reported it took them anywhere from one to several days to complete a single federal job application. In addition, there was a lot of pressure on applicants to get those KSAs just right — many agencies used computers to scan KSAs for keywords that were supposed to reflect the right qualifications, and unless placed in the “Best Qualified” category by the computer, an applicant’s resume might never even be looked at by human eyes.

Don’t get too excited, though — the new hiring process doesn’t eliminate KSAs entirely.  It merely eliminates them from the initial application.  The idea is that too many people were either spending too much time on applications for jobs they weren’t even marginally qualified for, OR were scared off by the prospect.  In the new hiring process, on the other hand, applicants can quickly and easily apply for federal jobs with traditional resumes and cover letters. Then the agency determines who is qualified enough to complete the next step, which is when applicants are asked to submit KSAs.

What this means for you: You can now apply for a federal job using just a cover letter and a traditional resume service.  You are only asked to put the time into writing KSAs if you have a reasonably good chance of getting the job.

The Hiring Process

In addition to the simplification of initial applications, the President’s memorandum makes other changes to the hiring process. For instance, time limits aim to make the entire process, from the posting of the job announcement to the new employee’s first day, much shorter.  While that process could previously take more than 200 days, the memorandum sets a time limit of 5 months, shaving a couple of months or more off the time that many applicants have to wait.

If you haven’t actually done so, imagine applying for a federal job under the old process. Not only could you wait months between the time you apply until the time you start your new job, you would also be virtually in the dark the entire time. That’s another problem the President’s memorandum addresses: Now updates are sent to applicants via email, so that they know where their application is in the review process.

What this means for you: You won’t submit your application only to not hear anything about it for months.  You’ll be able to track where you are at in the hiring process, as well as know that a decision will be reached within a reasonable amount of time.

Making an Offer

One final change that the memorandum made was to eliminate the Rule of 3. 

Dating back to 1871, the Rule of 3 was an outdated requirement that a federal job had to be offered to one of the top three applicants before it could be offered to anyone else.  The rule was obviously an effort to ensure that jobs went to qualified individuals, rather than the hiring manager’s friends, but in modern times it meant that even if someone had specialized skills or knowledge in one area, they couldn’t be offered the job first unless they were a top performer across the board.

Under the new memorandum, however, federal agencies are required to comply with a new statute passed on February 5, 2010.  The new statute implements a category rating system that allows a candidate to be considered if they rate highly in a specific category, even if they don’t do well in others.

What this means for you: Applicants no longer have to worry about losing a job offer because they don’t do well in one category.  For instance, if you have highly specialized skills that qualify you for the job, but you don’t score well on verbal communication in the interview, you can still be offered the job.

Problems with the New Hiring Process

All of this sounds great, but reality rarely works so well. In actuality, many federal agencies weren’t ready for the switch by the November 1st deadline. As a result, you may find that:

  • Because of the time restrictions, job announcements may not give you very long to complete your initial application.
  • Some job announcements still ask for essay statements of your skills, which are basically KSAs under a different name.
  • If you make it to the next step in the application process, you may not have much time to complete your KSAs, because of the tighter deadlines.
  • Some experts are suggesting that applicants include shorter versions of their KSAs with every initial application, even if they don’t ask for one.  Because not all agencies have not succeeded in meeting the November 1st deadline, there can be some confusion as to what is expected.
  • Although the memorandum is meant to allow “plain language applications,” job announcements are still in what is known as “fed-speak,” which can make it difficult to translate.

This wasn’t the first attempt at reform, so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the KSAs won’t die easy: In 2008, the End-to-End Hiring Roadmap (E2E) was supposed to eliminate them and shorten the hiring process.  The 2010 memorandum simply reiterated many of the new guidelines set forth in 2008.

It may take a little while, but change is on its way. 

Between the End-to-End Hiring Roadmap and President Obama’s May 11, 2010 memorandum, there have been several attempts to make the federal application and hiring process easier to navigate.  The KSAs might not be entirely gone, but now that they are being weaned away from the initial application, applicants will be able to spend more time applying and less time on tedious essay-format statements!

© 2016 Jason Kay. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Jason Kay.

About the Author

Jason Kay is a professional resume writer and regular contributor to KSADoctor.com, a professional federal resume service and repository of sample KSA statements.

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