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The Government Accountability Office says the Office of Personnel Management needs to take a hard look at its classification system for federal employment, but OPM said it doesn’t fully concur with any of GAO's recommendations.

A July GAO report found the system is particularly ineffective for IT and STEM-related fields.

“In terms of getting people with IT skills into government, the classification system is problematic because it is outdated and not applicable to current jobs and work, so defining a job and determining the appropriate pay is difficult,” said Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues at GAO.

This is especially true in the cybersecurity field, a position in high demand but undefined by those classifications, Goldenkoff said.

That leaves agencies with a demand for cyber professionals to use alternative hiring and classification measures. They’re finding “work-arounds,” but Goldenkoff noted that constantly patching the system is not an effective way to do business.

“OPM needs to go in there and develop a strategy to track and prioritize its updates to its occupational standards,” he said. “It’s doing it to an extent, but not in a strategic way. “

The current hiring system consists of a standardized set of 420 occupations, grouped in 23 occupational families and a 15-level grading system. OPM’s occupational standards have largely been unaltered in the last 10 years, while the same span has seen technology revolutionize the way government work is done.

At a July 15 hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and the Census, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta acknowledged that the 65-year-old GS system was in need of reform and called for a holistic approach that includes working with academia, members of Congress and labor relations experts.

Since 2003, OPM has established 14 new occupations and revised 20 percent of occupational standards, according to GAO, but there has been no published review of 124 occupations since 1990.

“Although OPM has taken steps to streamline federal hiring, it's still not clear that it is meeting the needs of job seekers or agencies,” Goldenkoff said.

The classification system also inhibits agencies from being competitive in the labor market, Goldenkoff said, in part because the categories don’t match up with the evolution of private sector job descriptions.

In a statement to FCW, OPM said it is planning to work with the Chief Human Capitol Officers Council and other stakeholders, like the Office of Management and Budget, on developing a strategy to overhaul the system. But the focus is likely to be on pay rather than classification.

“OPM is partnering with agencies to address challenges related to specific occupational areas, (e.g., information technology), position management, training and certification,” OPM said. “While the demonstration projects and alternative personnel system studies include design features that are alternatives to the GS System, they focus on pay flexibility rather than position classification.”

GAO laid out eight attributes of a modern and effective classification system, and recommended that instead of starting from scratch, OPM work with other stakeholders to look at lessons learned from studies and alternative systems, and then move forward from there.

“OPM is responsible for administering and overseeing the general schedule,” Goldenkoff said. “The fact is that the current schedule is out of date, outmoded and not effective in helping agencies meet their skill needs. Now it’s about figuring out what they’re going to do about it.”

Looking beyond the labels

When it comes to fixing the federal hiring process, modernizing the classification system is only one piece of the puzzle, and other challenges add to the problem of competing in the labor market for top IT talent.

GAO found that having so many narrowly defined occupation standards has also been an obstacle, especially with classifying occupations and developing position descriptions in the General Schedule system. (The guidelines for jobs classified as information technology-related run more than 200 pages.) Managers are required to have an understanding of every unique position and what differentiates them from other similar positions.

“Without this understanding, the transparency and internal equity of the system may be inhibited, as agency officials may not be classifying positions consistently, comparable employees may not be treated equitably, and the system may seem unpredictable,” GAO said in its report.

Goldenkoff also cited another, less formal, problem agency hiring officials encounter.

“Some agencies rely on passive recruiting strategies. For example, they do not aggressively market themselves to prospective candidates through active campus and other recruitment programs,” Goldenkoff said. “Some agencies also need to do a better job of developing, engaging and retaining employees once they are hired.”

OPM said it has taken steps recently to address some the problems cited by Goldenkoff.

Last week, OPM announced it would be forming two working groups that will team with the SocialGov community to address hiring. The first group will work on building a government-wide digital recognition team, while the second will explore how agencies are using social media to recruit and hire, according to a blog post on the DigitalGov site.

The effort is meant to develop ways for government to use social media to recognize civil servants, and also to recruit and hire new talent.

The agency has also held interagency sessions focused on helping “untie the knots” with their hiring process and will continue to work with agencies to develop action plans and workgroups to find solutions, according to OPM.

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