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USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service iOptimas AwardM.i Winner for Managing Change

Competing against the private sector for veterinarians and other science professionals, the agency transforms HR to get desperately needed talent.

October 24, 2008
Related Topics: Compensation Design and Communication, Candidate Sourcing, Telecommuting
At first glance, working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service may not be that compelling an option for a newly minted veterinarian.

    Taking a job at a slaughterhouse to assess the health of cattle destined for America’s kitchen tables and restaurants sometimes requires relocating to remote locations. Work conditions are nowhere near as comfortable as those of a suburban pet clinic.

    But working at the agency also has a lot to offer as its mission evolves from conducting technical inspections to a broader public health mandate that includes food defense and security.

    "Knowing that you can contribute to the safety of the consumer and public health in our country is a wonderful mission," says Dan Burkard, director of HR policy for the inspection service. "People want to make a difference."

    Getting that message across four years ago was difficult due to HR delays and inefficiencies. The shortcomings prevented the agency from keeping positions filled at 6,000 locations.

    Vacancies produce major ripple effects because each meat-, poultry- and egg-processing plant requires USDA personnel to be on hand for it to operate.

    Competing against the private sector and other parts of the federal government for risk assessment and microbiology professionals as well as veterinarians and food inspectors required an overhaul of the agency’s HR function.

    The recruitment process has been transformed since 2004. The agency improved its ability to find and attract talent by tapping its own staff to make the sale. Now 100 employees have been trained to serve as recruiters in addition to their regular jobs.

    They visit more than 50 colleges and universities annually, providing a detailed and more passionate illustration of the duties of an inspector or support scientist than an HR recruiter could. The initiative also multiplies the effect of headquarters HR.

    "It saves us time and money," Burkard says.

    The initiative lowered the amount of time that an opening goes unfilled. The agency has shaved more than five days off of its average hiring time over the past five years.

    One group that has been given more hiring clout is veterinarians. To combat a dearth of applicants for this mission-critical job and to prepare for projected retirement increases, veterinarians can now hire new talent directly.

    Not only can they bypass the normal bureaucratic process, they have new recruiting weapons to battle the private sector. The agency raised the entry-level salary for veterinarians and instituted a hiring incentive equal to 25 percent of base salary per year over four years for positions in hard-to-fill locations.

    The vet shortage has narrowed by 50 percent. In two of the past four years, the agency has hired 100 vets each year, which represents a historic high.

    Other agency initiatives include increasing the use of telework and flexible work schedules, linking employee performance to the agency’s mission and allowing high-level managers more autonomy to manage and classify jobs.

    It’s all part of an effort to give each employee a role in HR activities. "The entire agency has a stake in human capital management," Burkard says.

    For overhauling its HR system to fulfill an evolving mission and compete with the private sector for talent, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service is the winner of the 2008 Optimas Award for Managing Change.

Headquartered in Washington, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service has a workforce of more than 9,000 employees, including more than 7,500 inspection personnel stationed in approximately 6,000 federally inspected meat-, poultry- and egg-production plants.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service is the public health agency in the Department of Agriculture. Its veterinarians and consumer safety and food inspectors are responsible for ensuring that the nation's commercial supply of meat, poultry and egg products are safe, wholesome and correctly labeled and packaged.

   Workforce Management, October 20, 2008, p. 26 --Subscribe Now!

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