Why It's Easier to Find a Job in Pennsylvania

The state has made a number of key reforms to streamline its recruiting and hiring. One big change? Using plain English.
by | April 8, 2019 AT 5:00 AM
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In late 2016, the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue advertised to fill the position of director of lottery sales. Seventy-one applications flowed in from around the U.S., including from three individuals who had held that job in other states.

This usually high response rate was the result of a new technique in the Keystone State: using clear words and plain English to advertise vacant job positions.

Previously, the Department of Revenue would have filled the lottery sales post from a list of candidates who had applied to the position of “Administrative Officer 5.” From the applicant’s perspective, “you wouldn’t know what the job was or where the job was,” says Reid Walsh, deputy secretary for human resources and management.

With Pennsylvania’s new “vacancy-based posting” system, fully implemented for non-civil service jobs in April 2017 and for civil service positions a year later, bureaucratic titles have been evolving. Instead of seeking an “IT manager 3,” the state advertised for what it wanted: “Director of the office of data and digital technology.” Similarly, when the state was looking for a new enterprise recruitment manager, that’s exactly what it asked for, and not, as it had in the past, for a “Human Resources Analyst 4.”

Though a growing number of state and local governments are working on changing the way they post job vacancies and how they describe jobs, this is still only an emerging approach. In a study released at the end of last month by the National Association of State Chief Administrators, only 18 percent of chief administrators said their state had updated and modernized “job descriptions, roles and classifications” to a “great extent” or a “very great extent.” 

Successful efforts to increase the number of qualified applicants for public sector jobs are critical. We’ve written repeatedly about the difficulties in hiring at a time of low unemployment, noting in our March 25 Governing column that while job postings in state government went up by 11 percent between 2013 and 2017, the number of job applicants dropped by 24 percent.                     

 

Part of a Broader Effort

This is hardly the only step Pennsylvania has taken to increase its applicant pool. In the past, the state has been quagmired in a number of now-antiquated approaches to hiring. Today, it’s in a leadership position in terms of the number and speed of initiatives it’s undertaking.

The state has rebuilt its recruiting office, improved its use of social media, begun work on a new branding initiative to sell the state as a good place to work, launched new internships (including one specifically geared toward people with disabilities), and started to analyze data from its applicant tracking system.

But the biggest changes have been aimed at the state’s 1960s-era civil service system, which we described in a February 2016 Governing feature as among the most stringent in the country. In 2016, the Pennsylvania legislature began to act to make its civil service system less rigid, not through a wholesale civil service reform, but in an effort to retain civil service protections while making the system more workable.

One significant change lets agencies decide whether a written exam given alongside other applicants in a classroom setting could be replaced with an evaluation of “experience and training” -- information garnered from an application that can be filled out remotely. “We still call it an exam, and the candidate still receives a score,” says Jason Swarthout, director of the state’s talent management office. “But it’s easier for them and more like a regular job application process and it removes barriers.”

Since April 2018, 300 written exams have been dropped. Another 400 exams, mostly for less-common positions, are still in place, according to the Office of Administration.

One of the biggest advances in Pennsylvania’s hiring occurred last summer, when the legislature passed a bill to bring all hiring responsibilities under the Office of Administration. Prior to that, only 30 percent of hires fell under the jurisdiction of that office; the rest were overseen by the Civil Service Commission.

This was a contentious move. Civil Service Commission Chair Bryan Lentz argued that placing civil service hiring under an executive branch agency would bring back patronage-based political hiring -- the kind of thing that civil service historically was meant to wipe out. But arguments voiced by executive branch officials, combined with numerous complaints from state and county agencies and job seekers, won the day.

In oral and written testimony, then-Secretary of Administration Sharon Minnich said the split hiring system created a confusing situation for job seekers who were faced with two different Pennsylvania systems for posting jobs, two separate job websites, two processes for applicants to understand and navigate, and from the agency side, two different hiring offices with which to work.

From the Office of Administration’s point of view, the bill did not alter merit hiring principles. It only changed who administered them. As Minnich told senators in an April 2018 hearing, “duplication and inefficiency aren’t necessary to enforce the law.”

 

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