Every once in a while, our eyes are drawn to a list of help-wanted ads from cities and states. It's not that we want those jobs, but then we also read obituaries, and we're certainly not interested in applying for those positions, either.

We fully understand that we haven't been trained to hold many government jobs. But we have devoted a dozen years or so to understanding such aspects of city and state management as personnel and financial management. So, it seems irrational that we hardly ever qualify for any of these positions--except occasionally for entry- level jobs as clerical workers.

The reason is simple: Historically, governments have used applicants' educational and professional backgrounds as gatekeepers in looking for new employees. Once applicants cleared those initial requirements, they were tested and test scores were used to help make the final selection.

Take the ad placed by Columbus, Ohio, for a "help-desk technician," who, we gathered, will help employees understand how to use various computer applications. One requirement is that applicants have "six months prior experience on a help desk." That would keep a friend of ours--a woman who writes manuals for computer applications--from applying.

There are any number of reasons the credential-oriented approach doesn't work well. It makes it difficult for people to break into new fields within government and tends to exclude younger people from the work force. In Indiana, the average age of a new hire for the state is 35, largely because many younger men and women haven't been deemed qualified for jobs. "Our minimum qualification system alone did a lot to screen out the younger portion of the work force," says Eric Scroggins, the state's deputy personnel director.

Here's the good news. These problems have led a number of states, including Indiana, to make an important shift to so-called "competency-based" systems. The concept is simplicity itself: Credentials may be important, but skills, abilities, knowledge and behavior are at least equally so.

For instance, previously in a finance position, a minimum qualification might have been a four-year degree from a business school. But a competency-based approach would ask how familiar the applicant is with balance statements: Is he or she able to analyze statistical ratios? It might also ask whether the candidate is able to withstand the inevitable pressures of long days around budget time.

In years past, of course, it was difficult to match a set of skills with a job opening. But new technology makes such a screening process far simpler. "You just couldn't have done all the matches in the old days," Scroggins says.

But now, in states with adequate information technology systems, applicants will be able to self-evaluate online whether they have the competencies for a job. If a person doesn't get the job, his application stays in the system. Then, another manager can search through applications on file when looking to fill other jobs, matching the competencies needed for that job with what is available among the state's past applicants.

But wait a second. It was easy to verify job history or academic credentials. Won't job applicants just lie about their skills? Maybe. But only a self-destructive person would risk being hired for a job for which he or she was incompetent. The key, of course, is making sure that the state or city has a long enough probation period during which a person can be fired without a time-consuming appeals process. Of course, managers also have to have the guts to fire incompetents during that probation period.

A state's ability to move to competencies requires a careful look at each of its job titles, with an eye toward understanding the abilities and behaviors each requires. This is a huge job, and so the move toward competency-based hiring generally goes hand in hand with a reduction in the number of job titles. That's what we call a very nice fringe benefit.

Some states have turned to the federal government for help here. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management has its own list of occupational groups and competencies that is very useful.

A number of states, such as Indiana, Iowa and Montana, are marching down this road. The results? With the competition for applicants increasing, it makes it easier to come up with well-populated applicant pools. And although states may have to spend more on training, they should have more productive employees down the line. What's more, once governments know the abilities and behaviors necessary for a job, they can use that information for better performance appraisals and more targeted training.

It's too early to know for sure whether this is the Holy Grail of personnel. But it's one of the management shifts that's rooted in such common sense that even though there may be obstacles, it feels like an inevitable trend.