VA, Education reap benefits of hiring reforms

Tuesday - 2/7/2012, 5:44pm EST

Tom Shoop, the editor-in-chief of Government Executive, discussed the event on In Depth with Francis Rose

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By Sean McCalley
Federal News Radio

Despite the slow economy and tightened federal budgets, the size of the workforces of the departments of Education and Veterans Affairs has remained stable. In fact, both agencies have increased the number of their employees and plan to keep growing.

The departments' chief human capital officers (CHCO) said improvements to training and employee retention are major reasons for the growth. The two highlighted a focus on retention rates, a restructured training process and quicker hiring as saving millions of dollars and a building a larger workforce.

"We're making great progress maintaining a high level of morale," said John Sepulveda, VA's CHCO, during an event Tuesday in Washington sponsored by Government Executive.

The VA employs about 300,000 people, having added 50,000 employees since 2009.

And despite still having the worst retention rate of all departments, efforts to increase it has saved more than $200 million, Sepulveda said.

Emphasis on training, development

Agencies are taking advantage of a faster hiring process to keep their ranks full. In response to President Barack Obama's executive order to streamline hiring practices, Sepulveda said the VA sped its application process by about a month, to an average of 80 days. Furthermore, now it only takes a few weeks to hire veterans, who receive preference.

Sepulveda said improving the hiring process has helped address the challenge of hiring good employees before they fall off the job market. And the good hires are staying in the ranks longer, for which he credited a restructured training program.

"We can't cut back on training and developing our employees," he said. "It's the worst thing we could do."

The VA has invested $300 million in a new "competency-based training agenda," where a series of pretests evaluate skills of employees and provide insight into what needs improvement.

Also, employees receive specified training to climb the General Schedule ladder. VA's training resulted in better performance, a greater sense of project involvement and a stronger sense of a career path, Sepulveda said.

Robert Buggs, Education's CHCO, said he's seeing a similar trend. Since the executive order, Education averages about 85 days to process and hire. Last year, the agency hired 600 people. Buggs expects to add another 350 this year, mostly in program offices.

However, the new hires are offset by two rounds of buyouts that Education started in August.

"We did not offer buyouts because of budgetary reasons," Buggs said.

He added it was an effort at modernizing the workforce. However, more than 110 people accepted, and Buggs said Education could not fill every vacancy.

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