Flexing in the face of competition

Changes to how agencies recruit and retain workers are essential if the

government is to remain competitive, congressional and agency officials

said last week.

Greater flexibility and bigger budgets to recruit and retain workers — especially information technology workers — will make it easier for agencies

to find and keep the right people in today's tight labor market, said NASA Inspector

General Roberta Gross, testifying at a Senate hearing.

For example, Gross said she would like the ability to conduct pay banding,

which would enable NASA to offer a range of salaries to high-performing

employees within a certain level, such as GS-11. The Office of Personnel

Management is developing legislation to give agencies authority to design

a pay banding system.

In addition, the government's lengthy hiring process means that agencies

are losing potential candidates, Gross said. IT security, criminal investigators

and auditors are particularly in high demand, but often take months to hire.

NASA's Computer Crime Division is staffed with skilled employees, particularly

because NASA offers higher grades and salaries under federal personnel guidelines,

Gross said. But "we have lost potential candidates and some on-board staff

to the lure of the private sector, with its higher salaries, more lucrative

benefits and greater flexibility to balance work and private life," Gross

said in her testimony before the Senate Oversight of Government Management,

Restructuring and the District of Columbia Subcommittee.

As computer crime increases, so will the demands for more resources, such

as more people, more training and sophisticated hardware, Gross said. "All

of these efforts will cost more money," she said. If these resources are

not provided, "we will inevitably lose more ground to the malicious and

criminal side of the information technology world."

More money would go a long way in helping agencies deal with the recruitment

and retention problem and encourage agencies to use incentives such as recruitment

bonuses and retention allowances more often. NASA's Office of Inspector

General has $75,000 in bonuses to spread across 200 people, which is not

enough, Gross said.

In general, agencies do not use incentives often, said Henry Romero,

associate director for work force compensation and performance at the Office

of Personnel Management. However, OPM is looking at making the use of incentives

more flexible to encourage agencies to use them, he said.

Agencies are partly to blame for not making work force issues a budget

priority, said Michael Brostek, associate director for federal management

and work force issues at the General Accounting Office's General Government

Division. Agencies should assess how well their current system is working,

he said. "How often [have you] seen in a budget submission that they need

more money to offer retention bonuses?" Brostek asked at the hearing. "Agencies

have frequently not included analysis on what they need" to recruit and

retain workers.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), chairman of the subcommittee, asked OPM

to look into what changes could be made to future budgets so that requirements

such as incentive and training programs are given the attention they need.

By 2004, 32 percent of federal employees will be eligible for regular

retirement, and 21 percent more will be eligible for early retirement, Voinovich

said in his testimony. And, as the baby boomers leave government, it will

be increasingly harder to hire skilled IT workers. "This will require a

much greater investment in pay and benefits than federal employees currently

receive, if the government hopes to compete with the private sector," he

said.

But the most important step to attract and keep workers might be to

fully implement the 1994 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act (FEPCA),

which called for closing the public/private pay gap in 10 years, testified

Colleen Kelley, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

Public pay lags far behind private pay for similar work, she said.

"Frankly, a decision to fully implement FEPCA would do more to address

recruitment and retention in the federal government than all remaining incentive

programs combined," Kelley said.

The law also authorized several other programs geared toward helping

agencies recruit and retain employees, including a provision to offer retention

allowances of up to 25 percent and one-time recruitment bonuses of up to

25 percent of base pay.

However, Kelley agreed that budgetary constraints and prolonged hiring

freezes are the main reasons agencies are not taking advantage of the tools

available to them. "Until Congress provides adequate discretionary funding

to federal agencies, these problems will remain," she said.

Financial incentives alone will not make government a competitive employer,

Kelley said. Agencies will need realistic pay rates, competitive retirement

and health benefits and private-sector compensation practices. "While we

continue to believe that salary remains the most effective tool in attracting

quality employees, family-friendly incentives" such as child care facilities

and telecommuting options "have proven effective," she said.

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