Rethinking Compensation in Federal Hiring


As many of us know, the hiring process within the federal government is filled with problems and shortcomings. There are companies that cater to individuals who want to get into the government by offering resume writing and other services. My co-worker and I are starting a company to help those already in the government find other federal employment by utilizing the often forgotten “lateral” process. Finally, DHS is getting recognition for its innovative way for hiring Cyber and IT professionals later this month.

These are just three examples of how companies and agencies are trying to help those who want a new federal job. Since there are thousands of individuals who are applying to government jobs, little thought is given to the millions of highly qualified individuals who have absolutely no interest in working for the federal government. One reason some of them give is that the government simply doesn’t pay enough money.

For most of the government, employees are on what is called the General Schedule (GS) pay scale. The grade is determined by the skill level of your job, and the steps are your tenure, that is how many years you’ve been at that grade level. The GS pay scale ends at a Grade 15, Step 10, which in 2016 is $152,593, not adjusted for locality. Those on the executive scale will move to another similar pay scale with only four levels.

It is important to note that some agencies management starts at a GS-14, others at a GS-15. Most professional staff are GS-12s or GS-13s ($71K-$110K, not adjusted for locality). For many analysts, the pay is comfortable for a job security and reasonable work-life balance.  However, for those who are highly skilled professionals who would get paid more in private sector (lawyers, doctors, developers, etc.), the rigidity of the government pay scale is simply a non-starter. This is because they make more than the GS pay scale can accommodate.

I’d argue that a component to the government recruitment and retention strategy should be compensation, with a focus on how to attract top talent that expects top dollar. To do that, there will need to be a fundamental shift in how government compensates specific positions in the government.

  • Update Laws and Existing Regulations: The federal government needs to be given the flexibility to hire and compensate highly trained and in-demand staff at levels comparable or better than what they can get paid in the private sector (including federal contracting). Not only does this include determining a dollar amount to pay them, but increasing the flexibility in determining which job series or types would qualify for an amended compensation package. For instance, there is a shortage of good SharePoint developers and administrators. We should be able to hire the best at a competitive rate. However, in 15 years when the government is no longer using SharePoint and has moved on to the next big system, then we don’t need to have the flexibility for SharePoint professional but will need it for professionals trained to work on the new system.
  • Change attitudes: It is often ingrained in many federal employee’s psyche that title equates to where they are in the pay scale (“Oh, she’s a 15” is translated to “She’s a Director”), so paying non-supervisory staff the same or more than supervisory staff can make many, including leadership, uncomfortable. An easy step that we all can do is to  stop equating positions with their position on the GS scale. They are a Director, Sr. Advisor, or CIO, not a GS-15, GS-14, or SES, respectively. In addition, managers should realize that having staff that is getting paid as much or more than them doesn’t make them less of a manager. The job of the manager is to build and maintain a high-functioning team. Why limit the capacity of the team by hiring people who are willing to work for less than what the manager makes? Managers can take the added step of bumping their new-to-the-government staff to a step on the GS scale that represents the years of experience they have at that grade level. For example, if hiring from the outside, you have the option of starting them at a step 2 or 10, you just need to work with your HR staff.

By changing the laws governing recruitment and attitudes about compensation, the government may stand a chance of attracting and retaining highly trained and in-demand professionals as federal employees.

Shivani Sharma is a career Federal employee who has an interest in the role in networking plays in career development and advancement. Throughout her career, she has served as a both a formal and informal mentor at work and has volunteered in career mentorship programs. In 2010 she spearheaded a summer career mentorship program for college students, which is still active today. Finally, this interest has lead to founding a new startup (Lateral-Me, launching Summer 2016) that will increase lateral career opportunities in the Federal government.

She is also part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Shivani Sharma

Interestingly, FEDManager wrote a piece about how the IRS did have authority to pay its cyber security and IT professionals more in order to attract top talent. IRS CTO Terry Milholland stated in his testimony before the House, “The loss of streamlined critical pay authority has created major challenges to our ability to retain employees with the necessary high-caliber expertise in IT and other specialized areas. In fact, out of the many expert leaders and IT executives hired under streamlined critical pay authority, there are only nine IT experts remaining at the IRS and we anticipate there will be no staff left under this authority by this time next year.”