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Veteran preference in federal hiring: The ‘third rail of civil service reform,’ expert says

June 27, 2016
In The News

With an effort in Congress to scale back veteran preference in federal hiring awaiting action by a House-Senate conference committee, a former top personnel official says there’s a better plan.

Jeffrey Neal, who was in charge of hiring for the Department of Homeland Security until he retired in 2011, says a Senate proposal to limit veteran preference to a single use is flawed because it does not take into account former service members’ high job turnover.

[Senate votes to scale back hiring preference for veterans]

The Senate version of this year’s defense bill includes language that would give veterans one shot at going to the head of the hiring line: when they apply for a permanent federal job. Once they are working in government, they would not get the extra points they get now for other federal jobs.

But Neal, who also led human resources for the Defense Logistics Agency and is now a senior vice president for ICF International, wrote last week on his blog,, that many veterans take a while to find an agency that’s a good match for them. This is particularly true of millennials:

Virtually any study of new hires in government or the private sector shows that turnover in the first 2 years with an organization is much higher than in following years. A Partnership for Public Service study showed that turnover for employees under 30 was also high, as is turnover for employees in entry-level jobs. This approach to veteran preference could have an adverse impact on veterans who get a job and learn that it is not a good match for them, or those who need to relocate (e.g., to accompany a spouse). The effect could be particularly pronounced for younger veterans who are still searching for the right career. Young veterans have higher unemployment rates than the population as a whole. It is not in our society’s interests for those young men and women to serve and then have no job when they complete their service.

[American Legion: Pentagon officials ‘turned their backs’ on veterans to get around hiring them]

If Congress wants to prevent veterans from going to the head of the line over and over, Neal says, a better strategy would be to restrict the benefit to those in full-time permanent positions.

That way, someone on probation, or working part time, could get extra points twice or even three times. But the approach “does not punish the veteran who finds s/he accepted a job that isn’t working out, or who needs to relocate and must look for another job,” Neal writes.

Neal calls veterans preference a “third rail of civil service reform.”

Almost 1 in 2 people hired to a permanent federal job is a veteran, with former service members making up 47.4 percent of new hires to full-time positions in fiscal 2014, the last year for which the government has provided data. Starting in 2009, President Obama boosted the extra credit veterans get to give them a greater edge in getting federal jobs, setting hiring goals for veterans at each agency and directing managers to be graded on how many former service members they bring aboard.

The Senate plan, the first change to the Obama administration’s high-profile push to hire veterans into the federal government, has generated controversy. Veterans service organizations oppose it as an effort to chip away at a benefit that helps reintegrate those who served into the workforce.

[Military retirees have a revolving door to civilian jobs. The Senate voted to shut it.]

But top Defense Department officials pressed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, for the change, to ensure that qualified non-veterans are considered equally with veterans for specialized, hard-to-fill positions. Limiting preference to one use would apply government-wide, but defense officials have told lawmakers that in some cases, veteran preference is blocking them from hiring more-qualified candidates who did not serve.

The plan now has a bill opposing it, sponsored by Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) a Marine Corps veteran. Last week, Gallego introduced an amendment to a financial-services spending bill that would bar federal money from being used to revise policy to alter preferences for veterans in federal hiring.

The amendment is co-sponsored by Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) and Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and has been endorsed by major veterans groups.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated Neal’s argument. He says the Senate proposal does not factor in high turnover.