Spending money to save money


Say you're a struggling Western freelance writer. In a quest for some dependable cash, you apply to work on trail crew for a summer with the Forest Service -- a great way to be in the mountains and make money. You call up the local USFS office and get assurance that yes, you're qualified, and they'd like to hire you, but you need to apply through the standardized application system.

You wade through a tedious online application process and wait to hear back. And wait. And wait. Summer approaches and you need work, so you get a coffee shop gig instead. A year later, you decide to apply once more for trail crew. After spending 30 minutes tracking down your password (a required eight characters with uppercase characters, a number, and a symbol), you log back in to the hiring site. Once there, you stumble upon a note attached to your old application informing you that, according to the computer system that sorts applications, you are deemed unqualified for trail crew -- even though folks on the ground were ready to hire you. You were never notified, though. Surprised and frustrated, you shrug. What can you expect? It's the government -- inefficient and nonsensical.

Except it isn't the government. The system that arbitrarily disqualified you, deeming you unsuited to remove deadfall and construct erosion barriers, belongs to a private contractor. Welcome to Avue.

Avue contracts with the government for a variety of digital services. In anticipation of budget cuts, they put out this announcement.
In the early 2000s, the U.S. Forest Service, caught up in the Bush-era mandates to centralize and outsource operations to save money, contracted with Avue to manage its hiring. This meant that applicants had to use Avue's system to apply, and those doing the hiring had to trust its automated screening to sort applicants into "qualified" and "unqualified."  The problem: A lot of the time, the system didn't work, say Forest Service employees.

These difficulties help explain why a big cheer went up late last year, ($34 million dollars later) when the agency decided not to renew its Avue Digital Services contract. "HALLELUJAH!!!!!" wrote a user on the online forum WildlandFire.com, hearing of the switch. "To be honest, if we were required to use a 1972 typewriter and mail the application on one of those Wells Fargo stagecoaches, that would be better than AVUE. Anything would be better than AVUE."

Yet the switch comes with its own set of costly hassles -- and questions about the value of government outsourcing meant to save money. While the Forest Service won't comment on the decision to switch to eRecruit, a service offered by an Australian company NGA.net, or on its dealings with Avue, employees within the agency currently aren't able to access any data from Avue, including thousands of job descriptions it needs to populate the new system. (Known as position descriptions, or PDs, these are key for matching applicants with jobs.) And not only are are Forest Service employees unable to access old data. If they have downloaded copies of position descriptions from Avue, they aren't allowed to use those either. An agency memo lays it out:

"In no event … can you use a PD (position description) from the Avue system, in whole or in part, to create a new or modified PD in the new eRecruit system." The Forest Service is also in ongoing negotiations with Avue about accessing that old data, but won't comment on that either.

Linda Rix, CEO of Avue Digital Services, says the focus on the missing position descriptions misses the point, though. She says eRecruit isn't able to do many of the complex tasks that Avue did, and that is partly why the transition has been difficult. "What eRecruit is doing for the Forest Service is about 40 percent of what we were doing for the Forest Service."

And despite the difficulties of using Avue, its complexity had a purpose, she adds. When the Forest Service contracted with Avue, says Rix, it was at pains to implement a system where "you can definitely show that you are not practicing discriminatory hiring." Avue's system does this, she says, because it "auto-calculates" matches based on specific job and legal criteria like the Fair Labor Standards Act, matching people -- regardless of race or gender -- based on the position needs and their own skill set. The new system, says Rix, lacks these capabilities.

Forest Service employees might argue that the auto-calculation was precisely what they wanted to get rid of. Avue's automated application screening process, according to a 2011 GAO report, "frequently result(ed) in situations where highly qualified candidates were wrongly eliminated from consideration or unqualified candidates were listed along with qualified candidates." Employees, particularly those in the wildfire program, complained about these baseless disqualifications as well as the overall difficulty of the application process.

Admittedly, it's not easy to be a giant federal agency, with thousands of applications for seasonal openings needing to be evaluated every year. Yet, by 2013, one would hope that the U.S. Forest Service would have figured it out. The Bureau of Land Management, NOAA and a number of other agencies use jobs giant Monster.com, but instead of joining that system, the Forest Service's jump to eRecruit is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's overall shift to a comprehensive human resources management program called "OneUSA," which aims to provide a simpler way for the whole Agriculture Department to hire qualified candidates.

We'll see. I'm just glad I'm not looking to join a trail crew this summer.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn was the online editor at High Country News. She recently moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a climate science reporter. Reach her on Twitter @spogburn.

Duane Poslusny
Duane Poslusny Subscriber
Feb 19, 2013 11:30 AM
Why doesn't the USFS use usajobs.gov like the rest of the federal government? Usajobs, though not perfect, is far superior to Avue.
Mike Welch
Mike Welch Subscriber
Feb 19, 2013 03:44 PM
To Duane, the USFS does indeed use USAjobs now, the problem is that so far its proving just as bad---if not worse---than avue. Yes, the USFS heard a lot of complaints about avue so beginning this season all temp. employees started using usajobs and the hiring officials some program called "e-recruit". Now, the problem I am hearing about this new system is that, unlike with avue where applicants could only select (9) duty locations, usajobs and e-recruit are allowing applicants to select as many places as they wish. As a result hiring officials are pulling referral lists with 400-500 names on em' for usually only 1-3 openings or so per district. Crazyness. And to Stephanie, if you REALLY wanted to work on a trail crew with the usfs I am willing to bet that you would have found a way had you knocked down all the doors and talked to all the right people. These jobs are super hard to get and it often takes extreme relentlessness on the behalf of applicants to land these jobs. The person who goes to the district with resume in hand, meets people on the ground (which it sounds like you did), AND follows up with frequent phone calls and emails to said people (and I mean frequent calls and emails starting in November all the way up until a job offer comes in March or April), will usually get a seasonal gig---whether on a trail crew, fire crew, timber crew, wildlife crew, whatever. That is how the game is played and it has been played this way for quite a number of years. Until someone can come up with a better system (good luck with that) I don’t see any getting around this. Just think about the number of seasonal employees the USFS hires each spring, and think about the number of applicants that apply each year (I don’t have exact numbers but for fire alone it is somewhere around 20,000). Now who do you think will land the job: the person who shows up once and waits to hear back after their application is sent out, or the person who shows up hands out a resume, calls, emails, and continues to do so from fall to spring until a job offer comes? I don’t know it worked for me, and it was always the advice given to me from those who were already on “the inside”.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Feb 19, 2013 04:25 PM
This kind of problem -- trying to outsource and centralize -- isn't a new one to the Forest Service. Anyone remember Data General? The DG system cost millions and was ultimately scrapped as unworkable. The decisions seem to be largely made by lobbying key purchasing personnel who then carry the torch for the next great idea to save us money, but sadly never does.
John Pawson
John Pawson
Feb 19, 2013 07:52 PM
They should look at how they recruit with the Park Service. Specifically Yosemite NP. The Forest Service could learn a lot from the Park Service.. I got a trail crew job w/ no great hassle.. And they're both federal agencies!
Kurt Stagner
Kurt Stagner
Feb 22, 2013 01:42 PM
No offence, but I have not had problems submitting applications and qualifying for positions on either Avue or USAJobs(eRecruit). In fact, Avue alerts applicants if they have tentatively passed the basic qualifications when the application is submitted based on the minimum qualification assessment questions. No doubt, the original transition from local unit hiring to Avue and the centralized Albuquerque Service Center was an unwanted change by many within the agency; as is the transition to yet another application system. However I can attest, as one formerly tasked with recruiting and hiring seasonal employees for field crews, that if an applicant cannot succeed in filling out the application and navigating the recruitment platform, the prospects for a successful season of arduous field work are grim indeed. All the best.