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Strengthening the Federal Workforce: Knowing the Difference Between Novices and Experts

Now hiringStrengthening the federal workforce requires hiring talented individuals and fostering their development into successful public administrators. Effective organizations recruit, hire and develop talented individuals to achieve agency goals. Doing so is gaining more importance as baby boomers retire en masse over the coming decade taking with them skills and talents proven through years of experience.

Agencies are faced with the question of whether new hires with experience (experts) or recent graduates directly out of school with limited or no field training (novices) best fit their needs. We intuitively know that training and education alone cannot replace experience. However, it is not altogether clear what advantage agencies get when hiring experienced individuals. New research in the public administration literature assesses the accuracy of managers’ assumptions about the value of experience, the gaps in novices’ understanding of public service and potential means of quickly advancing novices to developing the expertise necessary to excel in the federal workforce.

We assume human resource specialists and line managers have an intuitive sense of the relative value of education and experience on job performance. This is why job announcements include minimum qualifications for education and years of experience. The relative costs and benefits of hiring novices or experts will be increasingly important as the baby boomer generation exits the public workforce. Simply put, there will likely be fewer experienced workers to fill government and nonprofit positions. Novices will likely be less expensive in terms of salary demands, but more expensive in terms of training and professional development. The question for managers then becomes what an organization gets when they hire someone with experience, an expert. The literature is just now identifying those assumptions and testing their validity.

 

First, managers revealed their assumptions…

Managers were asked to describe the characteristics and benefits they expect when hiring experienced employees. Qualitative analysis identified four themes in their responses.

  1. First, respondents expect experts to know and/or be able to learn the basics of the organization’s administrative systems quickly. The assumption is that they are familiar with how organizations run and can extrapolate from previous experience. The key benefit assumed with administrative familiarity is that experienced hires will be able to “make a bigger impact on the organization more quickly” than novices.
  2. Managers assume experts will have demonstrated the ability to work in groups and teams. The expectation is that experts have either learned from experience or been trained by others to be part of something bigger and proactively put the goals of the group above their own. A related benefit is that experts bring access to their networks resulting in more creative solutions and additional resources to bear on problems.
  3. The third theme is the ability of experts to creatively problem solve when faced with complex problems. Managers assume their organizations will benefit from previous experience working on complex problems in public settings due to a deep understanding of problems and systems.
  4. Finally, experts understand factors unique to the public sector, such as attention to minority views, moderate and balanced responses to politically charged problems, and the ability to work with stakeholders, other agencies, and other levels of government to solve problems. Public sector knowledge and proven public service motivation are key benefits of hiring experienced individuals.

 

Then we tested their assumptions…

Managers’ assumptions were tested by asking experts and novices to solve a problem. The results suggest managers’ assumptions are largely accurate. In the political realm, novices presented simple arguments and factual information while experts had a clearer understanding of organization and political processes and a longer term perspective on individual projects. As expected, experts exhibited greater understanding of how public organizations work and more creative problem solving skills. Interestingly, there were no differences in how experts and novices related to stakeholders.

 

Things to Consider for Practitioners

These findings lead to a number of suggestions to strengthen the federal workforce:

  1. Agencies need to carefully consider the level of experience necessary and the urgency of need for expertise when filling positions. Current research suggests this is often done too casually.
  2. Training for novices needs to familiarize them with all organizational routines and the relative importance of political, stakeholder and operational concerns within the organization’s policy space. Training for experts should compare their previous experiences with their new agency’s needs.
  3. Highlight and expand mentorship programs that provide novices access to experienced managers. Experienced managers can guide novices in understanding what skills and knowledge are needed to be effective public administrators and provide schema to help solve problems.

 

Things to Consider for Educators

Educators can also help inexperienced students understand the context and relative importance of factual information. This can be done by:

  1. The continued use of case studies and problem solving exercises as mechanisms to give novices exposure to realistic problems and strategies for solving them. Emphasis should be placed on the political aspects of cases with an eye toward making sure creative mechanisms for leveraging civic resources are explored. Experts can benefit by attempting to place their known schema and strategies in new settings.
  2. Leverage the knowledge and experiences of expert students in the classroom by including alumni and students with experience in classroom projects.
  3. Make internships and capstone projects useful and realistic. Students completing an internship in a human resource office can be given questions to consider and theoretical frameworks to learn and observe organizational functions and behaviors. Capstone projects where students act as consultants to real clients provide realistic lessons in context, organization routines and complex problem solving.

Each of these suggestions will strengthen the federal workforce as baby boomers retire. Experts should be hired when agencies need new hires to make an immediate impact. When hiring a novice is appropriate, they should be given every opportunity to move quickly to a high level of expertise.

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Author(s): George W. Dougherty, Jr., Ph.D., is an assistant professor, MPPM Director and Public Service Degree Coordinator in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Meagan Van Gelder, Ed.D, is the Academic Program Coordinator in the School of Public Administration at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Image courtesy of http://www.freeenterprise.com/the-new-world-of-hiring.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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