Her current residence may technically be the back of a Ford F-150, but Utah’s rugged canyon country is where she has made her career and home.
After spending nine years as a commercial raft guide and several seasons as a National Park Service ranger, her resume highlights those skills: a familiarity with remote wilderness travel, technical search and rescue experience, and the ability to row a raft through whitewater rapids, to name a few.
But this year, when the ranger was applying for seasonal jobs with the Interior Department along with thousands of hopeful candidates across the United States, her application was ranked by a new metric: her ability to complete complex logic and reading comprehension problems on a timed, online multiple-choice test.
For the first time in her career with the federal government, the river ranger, who asked not to be named so she could speak freely about the ongoing hiring process, didn’t even land an interview for jobs she previously was deemed qualified to perform. She believes the tests are to blame.
“I am a good employee who has done well, and I’m not getting referred for the position that I did [last year],” she said. “This is insane.”
Using competency assessments to rank job candidates is hardly new to the federal government, but it’s growing quickly. Last summer, then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order that mandated federal agencies, including Interior, expand the use of assessments when hiring.
Trump’s order argues assessment tools like the tests, which are administered through a website called USA Hire and designed by a private company that recently signed a $210.7 million contract with the federal government, will reduce hiring officials’ reliance on educational attainment when sorting job applicants and help them find the most-qualified candidates.
But since the order took effect in December, USA Hire assessments have been upending the process used to hire entry-level employees to Interior’s 70,000-person workforce, which oversees more than a dozen national park sites in Utah, hundreds more across the U.S. and millions of acres of public lands.
Why some say the hiring tests are failing
Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks — Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, Bryce and Capitol Reef — see tens of millions of visitors a year. All the parks rely on seasonal workers to patrol trails, develop interpretive programs, facilitate visitor safety and manage campgrounds. Additionally, nearly 40% of Utah’s land is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, which uses the tests to hire park rangers and certain other nonsupervisory employees.
The Salt Lake Tribune conducted interviews with a dozen current and former Interior employees and reviewed hundreds of comments about the USA Hire program posted on social media. An overwhelming consensus emerged among hiring officials and job applicants: The competency assessments fail to identify the most-qualified candidates for many public lands positions.
In an open letter sent to a high-ranking Interior official last month, the Association of National Park Rangers highlighted many of the common concerns. “The new ... assessment is likely to screen out qualified applicants for reasons that have little or nothing to do with measuring job-related competence,” wrote Paul Anderson, the organization’s president.
“This assessment,” he added, “is more of a generic standardized cognitive test instead of one that measures specific relevant skills [or] competencies of the job.”
In addition to reading and reasoning tests, personality questionnaires are also being used to rank candidates, which Anderson said raises “discrimination” concerns.
Civil service exams were used to hire for federal jobs in the mid-20th century, but they were largely eliminated in the 1970s after a series of lawsuits alleged the exams favored white applicants. The tests started making a comeback under the Obama administration, however, as hiring officials complained of being swamped by hundreds of applications for a single position. USA Hire tests, which were first used in 2011, were seen as a way to help thin the applicant pool.
The trend accelerated under Trump, who created the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board — which was co-led by his daughter Ivanka Trump and included leaders of various Fortune 500 companies. Citing the advisory board’s recommendations, Trump signed an executive order last June that gave the director of the Office of Personnel Management 180 days to work with all federal agencies to implement a “multiple hurdle process” and to “expand the use of valid, competency-based assessments and narrow the use of educational qualifications in the federal hiring process.”
In 2013, two years after USA Hire was created, fewer than 1,300 assessments were completed by job applicants across the entire federal government. In 2019, that number swelled to over half a million. Trump’s order is expected to bring the 2021 number even higher, according to a recent USA Hire presentation.
How much the testing program costs
The USA Hire program has proved lucrative for a private, Virginia-based company — Personnel Decisions Research Institutes — which partnered with the federal government to help build the automated assessments. The online tests, which are available in proctored and unproctored formats, are adaptive, meaning a correct answer leads to a harder series of questions.
PDRI has entered into a number of contracts with the federal government, including the recent $210.7 million contract awarded Jan. 29 and runs for eight years. It states PDRI will provide support for the USA Hire program, which is used by 45 federal agencies from NASA to Border Patrol. The USA Hire program is available to federal agencies on a “fee-for-service basis,” according to PDRI’s website.
PDRI spent $30,000 last year to lobby lawmakers on the “assessment and hiring of federal government employees,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics. A spokesperson for PDRI directed questions to the Office of Personnel Management.
A spokesperson for OPM said Monday that there is no published fee schedule for USA Hire services.
“Pricing is customized for each federal [agency] depending on their specific assessment needs,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “However, OPM is able to achieve economies of scale by centrally hosting the USA Hire program for the federal government and maintaining ... shared assessment content that can be used for assessing the full range of federal occupations.”
OPM added that USA Hire assessments are not mandatory for all federal agencies and are “one of many options available.”
A December Interior Department memo, which was issued in response to Trump’s executive order, mandated the use of USA Hire assessments when hiring for Interior jobs that meet certain qualifications, but it’s unclear how many positions are affected since many of this year’s seasonal positions were filled before that date. A department spokesperson declined to comment.
The USA Hire assessments, according to PDRI’s website, offer tools to accurately identify “best-fit candidates” while providing “efficient management and processing of very large applicant pools.”
The Office of Personnel Management makes a similar case for expanded use of the USA Hire program.
“What is the goal of an assessment?” Dianna Saxman, deputy associate director for the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Staffing Center, asked in a November webinar. “Fundamentally it is to predict successful job performance … through a standardized mechanism.”
Are qualified candidates being bypassed?
But, as the river ranger’s case appears to illustrate, the assessments may also block qualified candidates from positions they’ve already successfully held, at least within Interior.
“It just seems to me astounding that the government would choose this kind of an instrument ... for trying to assess applicants,” said another longtime National Park Service employee who holds a doctorate and asked not to be named since she is actively searching for a new job. “Clearly, they’re discriminatory.
“At almost 61,” the employee added, “I recently had to take some of these assessments, reading comprehension and logic, and I would guess that I did pretty poorly. That’s not because I don’t have a reasonable vocabulary or I no longer am able to comprehend what I read; it’s because I haven’t taken a multiple-choice test in decades.”
She noted that test preparation companies offer trainings for USA Hire assessments, indicating that the exams are a “learned skill,” not a genuine measure of competency.
Most critics of the USA Hire assessments acknowledge there were problems with Interior’s hiring system before the tests were added.
“Hiring officials are getting inundated with applications,” said Rebecca Harriett, the government affairs board member for the Association of National Park Rangers who recently retired after 38 years with the National Park Service. “When you’re trying to hire for, say, 50 seasonals, and you’ve got 500 applications, that’s a huge workload.”
Interior currently employs 600 human resources staffers to assist its 13,000 supervisors to help pare down applicant pools through various means.
Skills assessments, which have long been used to rank candidates for federal jobs, ask applicants to rate themselves in a questionnaire, but savvy candidates are incentivized to always select the highest ratings for themselves, often exaggerating their own qualifications, Harriett said.
“Everybody wants there to be another layer of scrutiny,” she added. “That’s not the problem.”
But the USA Hire tests, Harriett believes, may be violating Interior’s own guidelines for assessing applications, including a requirement that “a candidate’s success or failure on any assessment tool ... should be indicative of their actual ability to perform the work of the position.”
“The bottom line is [USA Hire tests are] not going to get hiring officials the qualified people they want for their jobs,” she said. “You’re just putting up barriers for people trying to come into the service.”
Critics of the USA Hire program also noted problems with its rollout at Interior. Candidates for public lands positions were not told the test scores would account for 50% of how their applications would be weighted. And test takers have said they cannot see their scores, even upon request.
What’s more, the scores stand for one year.
“Seasonals can apply for 25, 50 jobs a season,” Harriett said. “If they take this test one time and they blow it, it stays with them for a year with no opportunity to retake it. That has messed them up not just for that one job, but for all these other jobs that they’re putting in for.”
The tests, which can take three to four hours, have to be done at a computer with an internet connection within 48 hours of a job application window closing, which can pose difficulties for seasonal and backcountry workers.
All of these hurdles may add up. If land management agencies have to pick candidates from a less-qualified pool, it could mean more time spent training new hires and a loss of institutional knowledge held by returning candidates. Several seasonal workers also told The Tribune that the competency assessment could drive would-be public servants away from the federal workforce for good.
“The American people deserve a great, diverse workforce,” the park service employee with the doctorate said. “Many of us are very dedicated to public service. I just don’t see how these exams are going to help the public get what they deserve.”
Correction • March 7, 2021, 8:05 a.m.: Personnel Decisions Research Institutes is headquartered in Virginia. A previous version gave an incorrect location. This story also has been updated to include a response from the Office of Personnel Management.
Editor’s note • The author of this article previously worked as a seasonal park ranger for the Bureau of Land Management.
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.