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MANAGEMENT UPDATE.

MODERNIZING HR: FIXING A “LABOR INTENSIVE, LENGTHY AND DIFFICULT” SYSTEM

Starting out with a blunt statement that the current administration inherited an “Executive Branch that had been gutted and chronically understaffed for nearly a decade,” a January 2024 Maryland task force report presents multiple ideas for modernizing hiring within the state personnel system, and delves deeply into the roots of the state’s problems. 


The report is powerful and is worthwhile reading for other states and local governments, but it’s worth noting that many recommendations, “will only be successful with additional resources and support for current agency staff.” 



The problems cited will sound familiar to public sector HR officials around the US. With HR staff facing “rotating responsibilities and multiple levels of approval and review,” the task force reported that bottlenecks in hiring occur at every stage. That problem is heightened by the fact that HR employees often wear many different hats with their attention pulled away by a variety of tasks – employee-supervisor conflicts, internal vacancies, various workforce crises, and disciplinary issues. 


One familiar problem cited in the report is the excessive length of time it takes to fill a vacancy – 127 days as of August 2023 for Maryland state government. The process in that state is described as “labor intensive, lengthy, and difficult for applicants.”  Ideally, the report posits that the hiring time could be halved to a potential 56 to 70 days – still slower than is possible in the private sector, given continued adherence to a competitive selection process that promotes equity and fairness.

Recommendations for improving hiring time include:


  • The establishment of continuous applicant ratings during the hiring process rather than waiting until the job posting closes.

  • Using Service Level Agreements to ensure that the different players in the hiring process have committed – and are held responsible – for getting the job done at an agreed-upon pace,

  • Creating a dedicated staff to “take ownership” of the hiring process, including attention to recruitment.


Throughout the report there are candid assessments of the problems that need to be solved. One example is the difficulty in attracting younger employees. A survey of applicant data provided to the task force by the Department of Budget and Management found that during the survey period -- from January 1, 2023 to October 5, 2023 -- applicants between 44 and 58 made up the top demographic in terms of applicant ages. 


Another problem frequently cited in the report was the lack of flexibility involved with Maryland hiring; other issues include the siloed nature of agency hiring, the continued use of uninspired or uncommunicative job postings, shortcomings in training, outdated job requirements and the lack of a matching process that could take a solid but rejected candidate for one job and steer them to another opening within the state. Solving that last problem requires an improved technical ability to track, save and match applicants to potential jobs, and a cultural shift that would require agencies to act in less siloed fashion and increase cross-agency collaboration.


There are separate recommendations in each area, as well as an acknowledgement of promising new practices that are already in place such as one-day hiring events for especially tough staffing areas such as corrections. Not all recommendations require additional funding, and some may be easier to implement such as the use of descriptive job titles in job postings rather than the use of uninformative classification job titles like “Administrator II”.


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