Veterans Affairs officials say they’ve found a way to dramatically increase the number of applicants for some open department benefits posts: explain what the job is in simple, direct language.

“Our claims processor positions, they have been typically posted in a way that I don’t think necessarily makes them attractive to people,” Aaron Lee, Director of Leadership and Professional Development at the Veterans Benefits Administration, told reporters on Tuesday.

“So we’ve found new ways to start marketing so people understand what the real function of the job is, and the connection back to veterans … Before, we would typically get a few hundred applicants for these positions. Now, we’re getting on average between 3,000 and 5,000.”

The plain-language job ads are just one of a host of personnel hiring changes at VA in recent months, spurred by a combination of new legislative authorities and a push from department leaders to improve their human resources operations.

Officials detailed several of the moves during the department’s monthly press conference this week, in advance of a daylong “onboarding surge” for human resources specialists and medical center leaders scheduled for next month.

That event is designed to help VA staff find ways to streamline the federal hiring process, which typically includes cumbersome background checks and pre-work requirements that can take weeks or months to complete.

VA employs more than 400,000 federal workers. Department officials said that in the Veterans Health Administration alone, leaders need to hire about 50,000 new recruits in coming years to keep up with the demand for veterans services and care.

To help with that demand, Congress last spring passed the Retention and Income Security Enhancement (RAISE) Act, which provided new pay and bonus regulations for certain department employees.

Jessica Bonjorni, Chief Human Capital Management at the Veterans Health Administration, said through that legislation, department officials have already boosted pay for about 10,000 nurses and physician assistants through the new authorities.

The law also boosts additional recruiting and retention incentives, including increased student loan repayment offerings up to $100,000. The department is also implementing new child care and vacation incentives.

“It’s never been a better time to work for the VA,” Bonjorni said. “We hired over 47,000 new staff into VHA last year, which set a new record for us, despite the incredibly tight labor market.”

VA Secretary Denis McDonough has emphasized in recent months the need to improve hiring practices and department recruiting, especially given the workload ahead.

In August, President Joe Biden signed into law the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (better known as the PACT Act), sweeping new military toxic exposure legislation which will offer new benefits or medical care to as many as one in five veterans nationwide in coming years.

The department is also still working to recover from a host of postponed appointments and partially shuttered from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re about halfway through implementing these new policies,” McDonough said on Tuesday. “And God willing, we’re gonna see outcomes that relate to retaining professionals, recruiting new ones, and — most importantly — increased access and improved health outcomes for our events.”

Lee said in response to the increased surge of job applications, officials are working with the Office of Personnel Management on ways to better automate how those resumes can be sorted and reviewed. The results of that work could not only improve hiring efforts at VA, but potentially across the federal workforce.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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