NSF facing gov’t branding challenge in hiring reform

By Katie Howard
Federal News Radio

In a hiring pool where the National Science Foundation has to compete with academia and high-profile companies for staff from the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, branding is everything, particularly the brand name of NSF and the federal government, said Gene Hubbard, NSF’s Chief Human Capital Officer. Hubbard spoke with Federal News Radio at the Human Capital Management Federal (HCMF) Training Event in Arlington, Va.

However, a climate of “federal government bashing” poses challenges in hiring for the agency, Hubbard said.

Then, add the announcements of salary freezes and workforce cuts to the mix.


“So, you know, if I’m sitting on the outside, I’m thinking why would anyone want to come and work for the federal government? But overall we do offer a good job, a valuable job that not only gives value to the individual but allows the individual to give back to the community — in the case of NSF back to basic science and research that has global implications for the future on some of the research we fund,” Hubbard said. That is the agency’s branding strategy to nab STEM workforce and bypass some of negative aspects surrounding federal civil service.

But NSF has seen progress, particularly in making the process more streamlined. Before hiring reform at the agency, it was “typical of the federal government as taking over 100 days to hire somebody” but now the agency has a goal of 80 to 90 days, Hubbard said.

“We’re right about there now so rather than taking six months to hire somebody, you know, we’re taking maybe two or three. And, I think, as we get more and more used to the process and more and more into it, we will continue to shrink that timeframe for getting someone on board,” he said.

Recruit Kindergarteners

Another challenge of hiring at NSF is competing with its sister and “cool agency” NASA for talent, Hubbard joked.

“You could be in a first grade or second grade classroom and they know NASA (think astronauts and Mars rovers). They’ve never heard of the National Science Foundation. So, we are trying to get that brand out there and encourage them.”

At NSF through grants, “We actually are trying to encourage starting at kindergarten all the way through college and post degrees (masters and doctorates) for people to get into the STEM fields.” So if the future goes and works for NASA, Hubbard said, “that’s great” but if they come to NSF “that’s even better for us.”

Keeping up with the increase in applications

While the agency has seen an increase in applications, it seeks to keep up with the progress from the HR perspective.

“We are looking at a lot of technology solutions for assessment of some of the applications that come in. We use a lot of other tools. We are very involved in hiring veterans and disabled employees. But to narrow down the applicants it’s primarily looking at how to leverage technology to reduce some of that workload on HR but yet still ensure that the pool that we end up with are the highly qualified candidates,” Hubbard said.

“If we can give a hiring manager 10 to 30 really highly qualified candidates, they can narrow it down further based on what they want. The other thing we do is partner very much with the actual hiring manager.

CHCO Council moving hiring reforms forward?

Hubbard, who serves on the CHCO Council, said the council is currently focused on “letting some things run and see how they work. Are the current initiatives making a difference?”

The CHCO Council is also looking at critical skills gaps. It’s identified five areas where there are workforce holes and the sixth one which is the STEM workforce. He said the council has broken up into working groups on each of the areas and he is looking forward to their results on how to improve the gaps government-wide.


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