A Bad Recipe: The Irish Burgoo Vacancy Announcement

Federal agencies are facing a retirement tsunami. This federal employee describes a significant problem that some agencies will face when in trying to recruit new employees.

By Timothy W. Cannon
Director, Office of Work Life Services
Office of Human Resources Services
Library of Congress


My mom, now age 89 and a member of America’s “greatest generation”, was a maker of stew. Nothing went to waste. At the end of the week she had enough leftovers to plop in a pot to make our family her famous “Irish Burgoo”. Meaning no disrespect to the Irish or my mom, my brothers and I hated it. It didn’t matter that the ingredients did not agree or compliment each other. Regardless of nutritional value or matters of thrift, our stomachs failed their weekly test.

Unfortunately some agencies in the Federal government are serving federal job seekers a full menu of this same Irish Burgoo in the form of indecipherable, confusing and convoluted vacancy announcements. The critical difference is, unlike my mom’s stew, they are not compelled to partake.

Is it any wonder good and talented people thinking about working for the federal government are turned off and go elsewhere when confronted with a long-winded, disconnected, and overly cumbersome federal application process? I am amazed that Federal human resources practitioners contend that we are committed to competing in this war for talent to head off the near-future retirement tsunami. How can that be true when we refuse to provide a simple and straight forward application process to entice future public servants?

Recently, a friend of mine sent me this email voicing her frustration with this process in applying for an HR Specialist position vacancy at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Based on her present work experience she went online to apply for a job for which she felt particularly well qualified. The duplicative, confusing, and endlessly long announcement information and a self certifying assessment questionnaire that required the answering of 48 questions with justifying essays prompted this email response back to me (which is too colorful to be fabrication on my part):

“I may explode with impatience before I correctly submit the DHS job application, closing today. It is via some OPM online hire engine that is NOT USAJOBS. There are FIFTY, Count’em, FIFTY ‘rate yourself A to E’ questions, and on each one of them you have to fully explain, without pasting your resume at any point, your experience/knowledge that justifies how you answered. AND OF COURSE, THERE IS A LOT OF OVERLAP AND DUPLICATION IN THE QUESTIONS SINCE THERE ARE FIFTY OF THEM AND IT’S NOT A NUCLEAR PHYSICIST SLASH HUMAN GENOME ANALYST TYPE OF JOB, BUT RATHER, A ROUTINE TRAINING PROGRAM MANAGER JOB. GIVE ME A BREAK!! "

After I received her email I went online and reviewed the seven page DHS Job Announcement seeking an HR Specialist (GS-201-13/14). The job summary describes DHS as looking for a person with certain behavioral competencies in the use of their technical HR expertise and experiences. It says the agency is looking for a motivated, pro-active customer-oriented team player with excellent communication skills. The major duties described the common programs in an HR office. Only then did they finally describe the real reason for the job posting: they were looking for a training program manager with workforce development experience. If they find this person using this process it will be purely by accident as the better candidates will be employed elsewhere.

Start with the menu. The announcement repeats identical information in the sections “Key Requirements”, “Please Note” and “Other Information”. This goes beyond duplicative. Also the same federal technical employment information and jargon is repeated under the headings of: “who may apply”; “qualifications and evaluations”; and “Additionally:” Let’s just keep throwing the same ingredients into the pot.

The occupational questionnaire was the greatest deterrent to completing the application. This is what it required and would turn any stomach:

Essay question 1 asks the applicant to describe their level of experience supported by the applicant’s resume but not using the resume in the written essay response. Huh?

Questions 2 through 12 related to training development and implementation of a training program and to write an essay that explains experience in each of the eleven described training tasks aligned to the level of experience selected.

Questions 13 through 35 focus on HR technical skills that run the gamut of all the functions of an HR office (whether the job requires it or not) and required writing an explanation of these twenty two (22) tasks that must also be documented in the resume but not cut and pasted from the resume. Injected into this mix is providing experience in labor relations, reductions in force, retirement programs, and the Presidents Management Agenda. These are not described as part of the job in the announcement and are showing up for the first time as part of the required experience.

Questions 28-35 focus on the applicant’s experience in analyzing HR situations with experience in qualitative data and analytical tools in problem solving, rational decision making, facilitation of the organizations goals and objectives, preparing analysis of HR problems and issues to senior management officials. You might as well throw in the kitchen sink.

Questions 36-48 focus on writing an explanation and repeating the experiences in problem solving, mediating and facilitation experience as asked in questions 28 through 35 and throws in writing experience in drafting proposed legislation on staffing issues. Looking for consistency?

This vacancy announcement I am afraid is not unlike the thousands of others out there advertised by other federal agencies. Unless there is “menu change” Vacancy Announcements like this one will remain barriers to any applicant regardless if they are applying for their first federal job or are a career federal professional seeking greater opportunity and advancement.

It reminded me of my mom’s Irish Burgoo. I hope my mom does not read this article. Her rice crispy treats are heavenly.


This article is not written as the opinion of the Library of Congress or its management and reflects the author’s personal views and not those of the agency