This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of the Soil and Water Conservation Society Conservogram newsletter.
From the Leadership: Finding the Win-Win in Revamping Federal Hiring Practices
By Colby Moorberg
As a faculty advisor to students in agronomy, soils, and environmental science, one of the most rewarding parts of my job is seeing students excited to begin their first job out of college. In the agronomy profession recent graduates have been blessed with a sustained job market, which has alleviated some job search-related stress. However, for students who wish to follow a career path into conservation of soil, water, and other natural resources, the hiring process is far more cumbersome and uncertain than necessary.
Currently, hiring practices for positions in federal agencies such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) have resulted in a lose-lose situation for both the agency, and for the students wishing to pursue careers in conservation through civil service. The problems are numerous, and begin with the recruitment process itself. For students graduating in the spring, the best students usually have been offered and have accepted positions around February of their senior year. However, federal agencies competing for these same students rarely take student schedules into consideration, greatly shrinking the pool of well-qualified candidates to recruit. Once a position is listed on usajobs.gov, oftentimes it will be listed for less than two weeks, and in extreme cases only for one day! Should a student be lucky enough to find a job listing that interests them, there are no knowledgeable technical staff available to answer questions regarding details of the position, such as how much time they will spend in the field or office, what the primary job duties will be, how much travel will be involved, etc. Once a candidate does apply, they encounter a lack of consistency regarding general schedule (GS) classifications, with two seemingly identical positions being listed at two different classifications, and thus different starting salaries. They also encounter qualification questions that may or may not be relevant to the position, and that have no mechanism for follow-up to determine if candidates were truthful in their answer. Once an application is submitted, results or feedback related to their application is slow-to-come with little guidance, if any, from informed staff. To make things worse for government agencies wishing to hire the best graduates, the current and increasing shortage of college graduates in agricultural science and engineering disciplines, combined with increasing competition from industry, has driven starting salaries higher and higher.
All of these issues described above, combined with the drastic difference in hiring procedures between federal agencies and industry, has resulted in decreased competitiveness of government agencies for top-notch talent. As a result, the best and brightest students are forgoing conservation-focused careers in the public sector, and are instead pursuing careers in industry. Further, under current hiring practices, federal agencies are left with small, potentially underqualified pools of candidates from which non-technical staff are making hiring decisions for technical positions. This is the definition of a lose-lose scenario for both the candidates and the federal agencies wishing to hire them.
I encourage government agencies, particularly those related to soil and water conservation, to reevaluate and revamp their hiring practices. The win-win scenario for both the agencies and the candidates starts with modeling federal hiring practices after that of industry. This can be done by i) increasing involvement of technical staff in the hiring process, ii) allowing immediate supervisors to make final hiring decisions, iii) increasing job posting windows to at least one month (and longer if possible), iv) improve user-friendliness of the application and hiring process, and v) begin recruiting students on the same hiring schedule as all other potential employers. These changes will facilitate the hiring of the most qualified students to most effectively carry out the missions of government agencies.
If you’re reading this as a student who would like to become a civil servant in the soil and water conservation field, then I have a two suggestions. First, be aware that the current federal hiring process is very different from that of industry; but if that is your goal, have patience. Also, do everything in your power to get your foot in the door early, such as volunteering with your local soil and water conservation district or getting a position as a student trainee with the NRCS.
Colby Moorberg is an assistant professor of soil science in the Kansas State University Department of Agronomy. He teaches soils, soil and water conservation, and other soil science courses in addition to serving as a faculty advisor and conducting research. He is a former member of the SWCS Board of Directors and currently serves as the chair of the SWCS Professional Development Committee.