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Hidden workers: Growing federal agencies’ talent pool


May 4, 2022

A mom who left paid work for a decade to raise young children – but who also spent those years in multiple volunteer leadership roles for nonprofits. An experienced claims processor who took significant time off due to health concerns. A retail worker with deep experience in customer service but no college degree.

Each of these individuals has different reasons for being unemployed or underemployed. Each also represents untapped talent for employers — including federal agencies.

Accenture and the Harvard Business School’s Project on Managing the Future of Work recently studied this “hidden worker” phenomenon. The research identified some 24.7 million hidden workers in the U.S. who fall into three segments:

  1. Missing hours — part-time workers who want to work more hours
  2. Missing from work — those who are long-term unemployed but actively seeking work
  3. Missing from the workforce — those who opted out after years of not finding work but could be interested in returning to work under the right circumstances

The research affirmed that diverse factors lead to unemployment and underemployment. Employers need equally diverse solutions for finding, recruiting, and retaining these workers. Doing so can help the federal government fill an increased number of open roles, while promoting inclusion and diversity within their workforce.

    Diverse factors lead to unemployment and underemployment. Employers need equally diverse solutions for finding, recruiting, and retaining these workers.

    The inclusion imperative

    As the largest employer in the United States, the federal government is well-poised to set an example for workforce policies across the country by hiring and supporting hidden workers.

    Already, many commercial organizations are adopting hiring practices that aim to support hidden workers. For example, CVS Health’s Abilities In Abundance program helps break down barriers to employment for persons with disabilities through job coaching, support, and mentoring. As part of the program, the company operates mock CVS Pharmacy locations, providing a controlled environment for classroom and hands-on training to prepare participants for their roles.

    At Accenture, which employs nearly 700,000 people worldwide, less than half (43%) of open IT job postings require college degrees.

    Federal agencies have another imperative: two recent Executive Orders.

    The June 2020 Executive Order on Modernizing and Reforming the Assessment and Hiring of Federal Job Candidates called for a greater focus on candidates’ skills and competencies rather than relying on college degrees as a qualification. Since then, some agencies have been taking more advantage of hiring paths, which tap into unique talent pools, and modifying their minimum qualifications to emphasize skills over educational requirements where possible.

    More recently, the Biden Administration issued the Executive Order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce. The June 2021 order noted that the federal government “must be a model for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.”

    By engaging hidden workers, federal employers can address the Executive Orders while securing needed talent and skills. According to our research, companies hiring the most hidden workers were 36% less likely to face talent and skills shortages, and 35% less likely to face challenges meeting diversity quotas.

    Hidden workers’ barriers to entry

    Hidden workers are often discouraged or disqualified by certain traditional recruiting practices. For example, hidden workers identified the following criteria as the top five stopping them from finding work/working more hours:


    Years of experience


    Employment gaps in resume (e.g., 7-month period without work)


    Academic performance (e.g., level of attainment)


    Professional/vocational credentials (e.g., cybersecurity certification)


    Career progression (e.g., previous job titles and/or employers)

    The pandemic only exacerbated many hidden workers' challenges. More than half (54%) said the pandemic made it harder to find work opportunities, and 45% said that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the barriers to finding work/working more hours have become more difficult.

    We have identified three key strategies federal agencies can adopt to better recruit and retain hidden workers:

    1. Shift your recruiting from reactive to proactive

    Hidden workers may not realize the many benefits of a public-sector career. They may assume that working for the federal government is out of their reach, or not know where to look for relevant job postings.

    To engage hidden workers, agencies must adopt a proactive, marketing-driven approach to their recruiting that emphasizes seeking out and supporting applicants – not simply posting a position and hoping for the best.

    For example, agencies can reconsider how they use their ecosystem to attract talent, partnering with existing employees, state and local organizations, and nonprofits to spread knowledge and encourage action. To support large-scale change, agencies can forge relationships with local workforce centers and other diverse community-based organizations — including nonprofits focused on military spouses, individuals with disabilities, and/or parents returning to the workforce.

    Accenture Federal Services is using this strategy to support national recruiting for a law enforcement agency. Through email campaigns, the team has helped reach out to more than 43,000 community-serving organizations. Furthermore, using digital ads, we’re gaining visibility with the audiences of established diversity and inclusion publications, and geotargeting specific audiences with organic and paid social media posts.

    2. Filter in, not out

    Too often, recruitment processes focus on narrowing the list of candidates. Often achieved via an Applicant Tracking System (ATS)/Recruiting Management System (RMS), the goal is to evaluate each candidate’s resume against a list of requirements. For a myriad of reasons, this approach is inherently inequitable.

    A better approach? Ensure a candidate is evaluated based on their knowledge, skills, and abilities rather than only educational attainments or experience on a resume.

    Someone who has spent a decade in the service industry may lack a college degree but have the right skills and experience for a customer service role.

    Someone preparing to retire from the military may not have years of experience with an application development platform, but they may have the aptitude and work ethic to upskill in a new technology platform and contribute quickly.

    Identify core skills and competencies and factor those into minimum qualifications, instead of heavily favoring educational requirements and existing certifications only.

    Furthermore, in today’s ever-changing technology environment, workers will increasingly need to upskill. Hire with an emphasis on those willing and able to acquire new skills – not just those who already have them.

    3. Champion hidden workers’ potential across the agency

    In the survey, a significant number of employers voiced concerns about the impact of hiring hidden workers on business operations. Would hiring these workers make them less productive, or increase their exposure to risk?

    The research revealed that these concerns are largely unfounded. In fact, hiring hidden workers isn’t just beneficial to the applicants; it’s also beneficial to their employers. For example, our commercial research found that nearly two-thirds of executives hiring hidden workers reported that their new recruits were performing “significantly better” than average in key areas like attitude, work ethic, productivity, work quality, engagement, attendance, and innovation.

    Agencies can see similar results but must challenge traditional ways of thinking about recruiting to do so. Federal leaders can build support for hidden workers by evangelizing their potential, and the unique skills, life experiences, and motivation they bring to the table. This mindset shift must be adopted throughout the agency to succeed, with senior leadership and hiring managers understanding and championing the value hidden workers bring to the organization.

    Is the talent you need hiding in plain sight?

    To best execute on their complex missions, federal agencies need to continue growing their available talent pool to hire for job postings across a wide spectrum of roles.

    By orienting their recruiting and hiring to better assess applicants’ knowledge, skills, and abilities – not just their education and experience – agencies can tear down obstacles that keep tens of millions of unemployed and underemployed workers “hidden.” New hiring practices can help agencies evaluate an applicant’s ability to learn and execute in a job, not just whether their resume matches a job description.

    By engaging hidden workers, agencies can fill open roles and ultimately work toward a stronger and more diverse federal workforce.

    Thank you to Sarah Berger (Manager – Accenture Research, Public Service) for her contributions to this content.


    Britaini Carroll

    Managing Director – Accenture Federal Services, Human Capital Capability Lead