Tapping into the hidden workforce to build a strong pipeline of diverse talent in the federal government
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Tapping into the hidden workforce to build a strong pipeline of diverse talent in the federal government

May 14, 2024

Hiding in plain sight is a gold mine of diverse talent that remains underused by the federal government: “hidden workers,” or individuals who are either unemployed or underemployed, including caregivers, individuals with disabilities, formerly incarcerated individuals, second-career employees and community college graduates.  

Though not intentionally discriminatory, traditional federal hiring practices often exclude these groups of talented candidates. By unlocking their potential, the federal government would strengthen the diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility of its workforce.  

Hiding in plain sight: How are hidden workers excluded from hiring processes?   

Describing this underused workforce as “hidden” may be slightly misleading. Contrary to what the name suggests, hidden workers are not intentionally concealing themselves; in fact, many actively and eagerly seek employment.  

However, the vast majority of hidden workers are automatically excluded from opportunities within the federal government because of specific education and credential requirements, limited on-the-job training and a lack of flexible work hours.  

Despite being willing and able to contribute to the workforce, hidden workers face some of the steepest barriers to federal employment. These obstacles not only exacerbate federal talent gaps, but also severely limit federal career opportunities for nontraditional candidates. 

Change in the making: Strategies for tapping into the hidden workforce   

Efforts to expand opportunities for hidden workers within the federal government are already underway.  

In June 2020, President Trump signed an executive order that called for the federal government to shift away from degree-based hiring and instead focus on applicants’ talents, skills and competencies. While this change did not eliminate educational requirements across the board, it helped open the federal government’s doors to far more nontraditional candidates, including hidden workers. 

These new standards were further reinforced in January 2023, when members of Congress introduced new legislation that called for federal hiring processes to adopt merit-based reforms. 

If passed, this bill would replace degree-based hiring with skills- and competency-based hiring, widening the scope of talent pools and lowering barriers to federal employment. This legislation holds immense promise for hidden workers given that many possess the necessary skills and competencies to perform government jobs yet lack specific degree requirements. 

Additionally, in March 2024, the Biden administration issued a new executive order to create more registered apprenticeships within the federal government and boost diversity. Unlike other government positions, apprenticeships typically lack four-year degree requirements and offer robust on-the-job training. Without high barriers to entry, apprenticeship programs can pave an equitable path toward federal employment for candidates who would otherwise be overlooked or disregarded.   

Investing in the hidden workforce: A DEIA strategy  

Through these types of reforms, it is possible for the federal government to help level the playing field for hidden workers.  

Because hidden workers represent a highly diverse talent pool, tapping into them holds great potential for strengthening DEIA efforts within the federal government, improving the federal workforce’s racial, gender and neurodiversity representation, and dismantling career barriers for historically underrepresented communities.

Nora Weiss is an intern on the Partnership’s Federal Workforce team.

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