COMMENTARY

The barriers to market pay for the federal IT workforce

Howard Risher, a private consultant, was the managing consultant for the studies that led to pay reform in the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990.

Federal technology specialists would benefit most from a market-sensitive salary system, but several barriers make that occupational group the least prepared for the change.

A central problem is the use of a single 204-page classification standard for all 75,000-plus IT specialists. That standard, along with the General Schedule salary system and the Central Personnel Data File (CPDF), are barriers to adopting a market-sensitive system.

The problems are inherent in the requirements of Title 5 of the U.S. Code, which outlines the roles of government employees. First, the GS grades force IT specialists into a rigid, multirung career ladder. Second, the classification system treats all IT jobs the same. The problems are compounded by the mandated titling system with its parenthetical phrases. Third, all of this makes any job matching with survey benchmark jobs suspect. Fourth, the GS grade structure makes it impossible to align federal salaries with pay levels in the dynamic IT talent market. Finally, the steady, predictable career progression makes it impossible for star performers to earn the rewards available in the private sector.

A market-sensitive salary system relies on tracking market trends and practices. The analyses are based on matching or comparing federal jobs and pay levels with survey jobs that involve the same basic function and skill levels. It’s a credible, transparent strategy. But it is impossible with CPDF data because the abbreviations of the parenthetical titles impede efforts to group jobs by specialty for headcounts. That is basic to market analysis. Moreover, the 11 specialty titles miss benchmark jobs common in salary surveys.

The pace of change in technology management makes it virtually impossible for the Office of Personnel Management to stay current. The standard for the 2200 occupational group is a prime example. It replaced one that was issued a decade earlier. Additional years were required to draft revisions in 2003 and 2008. Recently, OPM took 18 months to develop a laundry list of competencies for cybersecurity specialists. All of that would be alien to technology companies.

The GS system assumes that IT jobs with similar functions are basically the same. But this is a labor market that pays for individual skills, not the job description. Federal IT operations range from unique state-of-the-art systems to legacy systems that require almost-forgotten skills to maintain. Therefore, the operating environment requires a workforce with highly diverse skill sets. In a market-sensitive system, those differences would be reflected in salaries, but it’s precluded under Title 5.

In the Washington, D.C., area, the most highly regarded survey, conducted by the local human resources association, includes pay data from 341 employers, including more than 100 federal contractors. Some years ago, OPM matched federal jobs with the survey jobs, thus providing a basis for comparing pay levels. A number of the benchmark jobs are in technology.

The comparisons are striking. The lowest pay among selected federal technology jobs is 20 percent below market, while the highest is 27 percent above the market level. The comparisons are all over the place, which is not surprising because federal salaries have never been aligned with market levels.

Switching to a market-sensitive salary system would benefit both agencies and employees. The alternative is an increasingly heavy reliance on contractors to perform those jobs.

About the Author

Howard Risher is a private consultant who specializes in pay and performance.

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