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DeCA Cuts Red Tape of Hiring Cashiers

By Bonnie Powell
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORT LEE, Va., Aug. 16, 1996 – "Cashiers needed, apply within."

You might not see this sign hanging in your local commissary yet, but it's getting closer. The Midwest Region of the Defense Commissary Agency has been testing a pilot program that allows potential store cashiers to apply for jobs by simply picking up the phone.

"We're playing TAPS here, but in this case, it's a good thing!" said Patricia Harrison, the region's personnel management specialist. TAPS stands for Telephone Application Processing System, and Harrison said the combination of TAPS and centralizing cashier recruitment at region headquarters results in dramatic time reductions filling positions.

In the past, a cumbersome application and rating process has meant a wait of 60 days or more to get cashiers on board, said Vickie Harrison, also of the Midwest office. She said that's a problem when turnover rates are typically up to 60 percent and unfilled positions can affect customer service.

The move to quickly, efficiently hire workers comes at a time when the agency is preparing to become a performance-based organization by Oct. 1. As one of eight government agencies nominated for this program, the agency is adopting some characteristics of private sector companies. This includes obtaining procedural waivers that will allow it to operate more efficiently.

The region's test began April 29. By late July, the region hired over 140 cashiers at stores from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

"The average time to select an applicant for a vacant position has dropped to nine days, and it's going to get better," said Harrison. In some cases, it's already better. "We recently had an applicant use TAPS on a Friday, and we were able to offer a position on Monday," said Vicki Carrier, the Midwest region's personnel manager.

During the test, anyone interested in a commissary cashier position in the Midwest region can use TAPS to apply. They simply call a phone number on the application (not toll-free) and use the telephone keypad to complete a simple application. The regional office evaluates the information and places applicants on an Office of Personnel Management list of eligible candidates.

Commissary officers send recruitment requests to the region headquarters and Carrier fills the openings from the list. "It's much easier for me to do it all here," she said. Previously, the agency could only accept written applications and those were sent to the Defense Logistics Agency personnel office at Fort Belvoir, Va. -- the contracted agency for DeCA hiring.

"We were experiencing very long fill times," said Kristen Ogden, the commissary agency's staffing and career management chief. "And despite good efforts by DLA, there was just too much paperwork involved."

The commissary agency was already having success in streamlining management hiring by working with the Office of Personnel Management, said Ogden. It was time to streamline hiring store personnel. Midwest region volunteered to be the guinea pig.

One key to the success of the program has been the opportunity for people to apply for store positions by phone. When a military transfer is involved, the new system can shorten the time it takes for family members to start work in a new location.

Lackland cashier Debra Clark, a military family member, was one of the first to make use of TAPS. "It was pretty easy and quick," she said. "I had a call back in a couple of weeks." Many other military family members already work in commissaries.

"We've reinvented the process and achieved a paperless application procedure with a much faster turnaround," said Ogden. "We had the broad concept, but they [Midwest region] did the lion's share of the detail work." Ogden also credited the Defense Logistics Agency with being flexible in cooperating with the commissaries, including getting new employees on the payroll more quickly.

"I think the test has been a resounding success," says Wynn Hasty, the commissary agency's personnel and training director. "Potential employees can get evaluated and referred in a much shorter time, sometimes within 24 hours." Through teamwork between the Office of Personnel Management and the region, the process of hiring -- from time of application until the employee reports to work -- has gone from 75 days to 21 days or less.

"It's still a pilot project, but I don't think we can turn back now," said Harrison. The Midwest experiment is expanding to include meat cutters and store workers. Cashiers, meat cutters and store workers make up about 90 percent of store employees.

"We're still looking at costs overall to see if we can expand the process within DeCA," said Ogden. "So far, it's been money well spent."

She said a recent test of new fax application technology in the agency's European region also looks promising. "The entire automated process requires modification to address differences in hiring rules and methods in Europe," she said, adding the agency and European region are discussing plans for a full test there.

Marguerite Brace, European region personnel specialist, said they deal with over 30 different personnel offices in Europe. She said it is not unusual to take three to six months to fill a checker position. Meanwhile, stores are understaffed and customers can be subjected to needless waiting.

"Any program such as TAPS which could simplify or shorten our process would be unbelievably welcome," she said.

(Bonnie Powell writes for the Defense Commissary Agency at Fort Lee, Va.)

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