How the Small Business Administration successfully launched a hiring surge during the COVID-19 pandemic
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How the Small Business Administration successfully launched a hiring surge during the COVID-19 pandemic

March 5, 2021 | Updated on July 14, 2021
Will Butler

The Small Business Administration more than doubled its number of employees in 2020. The need for this hiring surge arose when the agency was tasked with administering the $350 billion Paycheck Protection Program amid a rapidly spreading pandemic in late March. At the time, the SBA only had about 4,200 employees. The agency required a larger staff to manage the program effectively and provide small businesses with the relief they needed. 

The SBA used various methods to implement a successful hiring surge including: 

  • Tapping other hiring authorities—like Schedule A, which permits agencies to hire people with disabilities through a noncompetitive process—to fill positions more quickly. 
  • Targeting specific populations for recruitment. 
  • Creating a hiring toolkit and related training for staff on how to best use hiring options. 

The SBA’s success in expanding its workforce led the agency to identify a set of general best practices for federal surge hiring: 

Communication and collaboration are key 

According to Elias Hernandez, the SBA’s chief human capital officer, “Open communication allowed the agency to identify potential barriers or bottlenecks early in the process, pivot when new efficiencies were identified and share resources to improve strategic operations.” For example, the SBA’s Office of Human Resources Solutions and the Office of the Chief Information Officer worked collaboratively to send computers and other equipment to new staff who onboarded remotely.  

The SBA also recommended that human resources offices develop and implement hiring strategies in collaboration with key agency leaders and stakeholders. Their input is critical for agencies to identify hiring needs, barriers and resources. Additionally, the SBA noted that continuously communicating to staff through various means, from email alerts to agencywide meetings, would help make hiring surges successful.  

Be flexible and provide training to help with change 

Massive hiring surges require flexibility. Agency leaders and staff should be willing to shift internal resources and evolve processes to hire staff more quickly, even if it means disregarding institutional norms. The SBA recommended that agencies should also provide training for supervisors and hiring managers that enable them to help staff adapt and implement changes necessary for effective surge hiring.  

Leverage technology 

The SBA used existing technologies, such as government hiring websites, to overcome the challenge of launching and coordinating a hiring surge. Additionally, the agency conducted virtual information sessions with agency partners, and shifted onboarding and orientation sessions online to create a more efficient hiring process and solve logistical challenges presented by the pandemic. 

Seek staff feedback 

The SBA also found that it is essential for those leading a hiring surge to seek feedback from HR specialists, hiring managers and other stakeholders about how to make the process more efficient and avoid potential roadblocks. Increased communication—through agencywide “town hall” meetings or smaller communities of practice like “HR cafes,” for example—has helped the SBA gain staff feedback on surge hiring initiatives. 

The SBA’s hiring surge arose from highly specific circumstances, but the agency’s advice could apply to any federal department—even after the pandemic subsides. Government leaders can use SBA strategies to quickly address staff shortages, and vastly improve the federal hiring and recruiting process. 

For more details about the SBA’s hiring methods—along with other stories of how federal agencies used surge hiring to meet the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic—read the Partnership’s research report, “Rapid Reinforcements: Strategies for Federal Surge Hiring.” 

Will Butler is a former intern on the Partnership’s Communications team.