White House prioritizes skills-based federal hiring in executive order

The order will allow agencies to vet "candidates using assessment methods that more directly determine whether job seekers possess the knowledge, skills and abilities to do the job they're applying for," said Michael Rigas.
Michael Rigas delivers a keynote at FedScoop's 2019 Workforce Summit. (FedScoop)

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect President Trump signing the executive order.

President Trump signed an executive order Friday allowing federal agencies to prioritize skills-based hiring in addition to traditional educational-based requirements.

Michael Rigas, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, said in a press call that OPM will set new ground rules for agencies to “shift from vetting candidates based largely on educational credentials and written questionnaires to using assessment methods that more directly determine whether job seekers possess the knowledge, skills and abilities to do the job they’re applying for.”

Many in the federal IT community have been critical of the pre-existing educational requirements for hiring talented technologists, as many of the most eligible candidates increasingly receive non-traditional educations and other training. Without a college degree, applying for IT jobs and others, like “laboratory scientists to law enforcement officers and everything in between,” is pretty much a nonstarter, Rigas said.


“Today, as you may know, a college degree or a graduate degree is necessary to work in many of these occupations for many other fields, so those without a degree are at a major disadvantage in the federal hiring process,” he said on the call. “While education credentials are critical in many lines of work, such as the medical and legal field, necessity is far less clear in other areas. The federal job classification and qualification framework was put in place decades ago, well before the onset of the 21st century. And as you know, a lot has changed since then — education has changed, the nature of work itself changed, but federal hiring has been largely unchanged.”

To be clear, educational experience will still be on the table as a way agencies can evaluate applicants. But now, there will be competency-based alternatives for vetting them as well. These include online tests or having subject matter experts participate in an interview instead of a candidate self-assessing their skills, which is the current process.

“Unnecessary degree requirements exclude otherwise qualified Americans from Federal employment, impose the expense of college on prospective workers, and disproportionately harm low-income Americans,” says a White House release. “As a result of this reform, talented individuals with apprenticeships, technical training, and apt backgrounds will have greater opportunity to pursue careers in the Federal civil service.”

The hope is this will better balance the weight of actual skills with education in job postings, as often applicants meet the educational requirements and over-rate themselves in a self-assessment for a job but don’t have experience in that field, which causes an abundance of unqualified applicants. Rigas said this model is already used successfully in the private sector.

“For instance, if someone is applying for a job in information technology, presently, they can just self-assess on a questionnaire to rate themselves more highly qualified in all the categories that an agency is seeking,” said a senior administration official. “And the result of that is today about 40% of [jobs] go completely unfilled. No one is hired for them because the assessment is a self-assessment. By having qualified subject matter experts assess candidates first and then put them into the pool for further interviewing, you really reduce the amount of unqualified candidates that are getting through the process right now.”


The Federal CIO Council recently issued recommendations for such skills-based hiring reform and including subject matter experts in hiring decisions in its recent study on the needs of the federal IT workforce.

“Employment and advancement based on ability is the underlying principle of the civil service. Hiring based on the skills and competencies of job seekers, the civil service will create a more merit-based system,” said Rigas. “So I’m very eager to pursue the directive of the president will sign today. I will overhaul federal job qualification standards where they are limiting opportunities for those with diverse job backgrounds. And I will work to ensure they have a fair chance to demonstrate all they have to offer to federal hiring managers.”

Trump will sign the executive order in conjunction with a meeting of the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board at the White House.

Billy Mitchell

Written by Billy Mitchell

Billy Mitchell is Senior Vice President and Executive Editor of Scoop News Group's editorial brands. He oversees operations, strategy and growth of SNG's award-winning tech publications, FedScoop, StateScoop, CyberScoop, EdScoop and DefenseScoop. After earning his journalism degree at Virginia Tech and winning the school's Excellence in Print Journalism award, Billy received his master's degree from New York University in magazine writing while interning at publications like Rolling Stone.

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