“The Perfect Storm”: Applying for Federal Employment (Part II)

The job summary section should focus on summarizing the job to be filled–not descriptions of how the agency is saving the world. Agencies will ultimately suffer the consequences if well-qualified potential applicants spurn the opportunity to compete for federal jobs.

(Editor’s Note: This is Part II of the article on “The Perfect Storm.”

Building, or re-building, credibility with Federal employees will require a long-term effort by agency management, so I will take the easy way out and focus here on what OPM and the other agencies might be able to do to improve the application process. They may want to start by going “Back to the Future.” By that I mean that many agencies were doing a good job of developing vacancy announcements, identifying relevant knowledges, skills and abilities (KSAs) and devising crediting plans before USAJobs was a glimmer in the eye of its creator(s).

Instead of putting applicants through the current torturous application process, agencies should once again focus on creating accurate, concise vacancy announcements and should only ask candidates to provide the information that is most critical to successful performance in the position being filled.

Timothy Cannon’s article talked about a seven-page vacancy announcement, with applicants having to sift through a ton of extraneous information before finding out what the job is about and what skills the agency is seeking. I ran across several vacancy announcements that were nine pages long, so I don’t think his example is overstated at all. And in terms of extraneous information, I would cite the following lead paragraph under “Job Summary” in a recent vacancy announcement: “Take a journey to challenge your mind and develop your career. The quality of our lives, shapes of our communities, and productivity of our Nation’s economy depend on our transportation systems. We recognize and value the importance of our workforce and the diversity of backgrounds and ideas that each employee brings. So we invite you to join us in shaping the future of our organization and meeting the challenges of the 21st Century, while advancing the best transportation system in the world.” Say what???

With job summaries like this one, is it any wonder candidates are confused and dismayed? Lots of employers provide similar esoteric sidebars in an effort to pique the interest of applicants, but, as an old-fashioned HR-type, I believe that the job summary section should focus on summarizing the job to be filled.

In the not-too-distant past, agencies would often issue vacancy announcements that consisted of two pages, printed back-to-back on a single document. That kind of space limitation forced agencies to be concise, and to refer applicants to other sources, such as OPM.gov, for more specific information about qualification requirements, etc. Today’s lengthier electronic vacancy announcements are obviously designed to be self-contained, but it is too much of a good thing for many applicants. I would like to see Federal agencies trim those announcements down to “minimalist” levels, preferably no more than two pages. They could provide a link for those applicants who wanted more information about the position, the agency, etc., along with a reference to OPM.gov for more general information about qualifications, classification, pay, etc.

To illustrate my point I will make up an HR Officer vacancy at the regional level. I would start with the following job summary:

“Manages a full-service HR program which includes position classification and position management; staffing, including affirmative employment programs; employee relations, including performance management, conduct & discipline and benefits; and employee development & training. Supervises a staff of 20-25 HR specialists, technicians and support staff engaged in providing HR services to 1,500 employees scattered over a six-state region. Provides authoritative HR advice and guidance to managers and supervisors; serves as the final technical authority for all HR matters in the region. Is considered a key part of the regional management team. The incumbent will be required to travel up to 25% of the time.”

Then I would address the KSAs, as follows: “Applicants are encouraged to explain how their experience, education and training address the following knowledges, skills and abilities (KSAs), which have been identified as important to successful performance on-the-job. Please limit your responses to no more than one page per KSA.


1. Demonstrated ability to effectively manage a program.

2. Demonstrated ability to effectively supervise employees.

3. Working knowledge of all or most of the major functions that are found in a typical Federal HR office, as reflected in the job summary section of this announcement.

4. Demonstrated ability to communicate effectively orally and in writing.

5. Demonstrated ability to develop and maintain effective working relationships with serviced organizations and with other offices, agency headquarters, OPM and other agencies, etc.”

I’m sure there are many other ways of making the Federal vacancy announcement process more user-friendly. In fact, I’ll bet many of the readers who responded to Timothy Cannon’s article would have some very concrete ideas for improving it. And where better for OPM and other Federal agencies to start than by asking applicants – from both inside and outside the government – for their opinions?

I’ve seen vacancy announcements published by city and state government entities and by private sector firms in which they specifically request feedback on the candidate’s experience in applying for the job. OPM and the other agencies could not build a feedback mechanism into the electronic vacancy announcement process.

Given the overwhelming response to Timothy Cannon’s article, it would appear that OPM and other Federal agencies have been “tone deaf” on this issue, quite possibly at the expense of losing many good applicants who just couldn’t deal with such an unwieldy system. The MSPB Special Report provided OPM with some excellent suggestions. Perhaps an avalanche of letters, e-mails and phone calls from readers of FedSmith.com would help create a sense of urgency.

If Federal agencies don’t make significant improvement to the current job application system, many applicants will continue to be frustrated and some will simply search elsewhere for employment, but it is the agencies themselves that will ultimately suffer the consequences if well-qualified potential applicants spurn the opportunity to compete for Federal employment.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.