Hiring, firing, pay and training -- it all needs fixing, says panel

Shutterstock image: urban workforce.

The federal workforce has some serious problems.

Federal employees feel pressure to take on managerial roles to boost their pay, whether they’re suited for management or not, and then those managers have to make hiring decisions about employees who are still really in their training phases.

Make a poor hiring choice based on limited information and you’re stuck, with firing a difficult proposition, and all the while many of these civil servants feel they’re not being paid enough.

Those workforce issues were front and center at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management Subcommittee hearing May 20, in which experts spoke to issues that leave cybersecurity and other critical positions understaffed or unfilled.

“If you have to go into the management and supervisory roles to increase your pay, whether you feel you’re suited for that or whether you really want to do that or not, I think it does a disservice to our technicians and to our managers,” testified Patricia Niehaus, national president of the Federal Managers Association.

Niehaus was not alone in criticizing the inflexibility of the General Schedule (GS) classification and pay system.

Noting how the GS incentivizes employees to pursue supervisory roles when they may be better off pursuing technical positions, panel Chairman  James Lankford (R-Okla.) said, “We’ve got to ask ourselves, ‘Is this the right way to do this?’”

The expert panel offered a few suggestions for improvements.

“Management should be a profession within the federal government rather than an additional duty,” said Niehaus.

Dan Blair, president of the National Academy of Public Administration, advocated extended probationary periods in hiring.

“When managers … have to make a decision about whether or not to retain an employee, many of [the new employees] are still in training,” Blair noted. He recommended that one-year probationary periods begin only after training has been completed.

“Let them show that they can do the job, rather than have a supervisor guess,” he said.

Pushing back against some suggestions was American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox.

He warned against a “one size fits all” probation policy – though he noted Veterans Affairs nurses and others face a two-year probationary period, which he deemed “fair” – and in his strongly worded written testimony he pushed hard for higher federal employee pay.

He cited Office of Personnel Management analysis showing federal employees’ salaries are an average of 35 percent lower than private-sector employees doing similar work (other studies that include the value of benefits have shown federal employees earn more than their private-sector counterparts, including a 2012 Congressional Budget office analysis showing feds make 16 percent more in total compensation and a 2011 study by two scholars at the conservative American Enterprise Institute showing a 61 percent federal compensation premium).

While panelists Blair and Niehaus recommended tying federal pay more to performance to attract talent and incentivize current employees, Cox made the case that federal workers need higher pay across the board and that sequestration needs to be ended.

Cox also asserted that when it came to bad employees, “The provisions are there to move in a very timely process.”

He blamed conflict-averse managers for the scourge of do-little federal employees hanging around inside government.

Others recommended a more flexible compensation system that can keep pace with the private sector in critical areas, including IT and cybersecurity.

“The current system promotes a workforce based on longevity rather than performance,” said Niehaus. “The highest performing employees should be rewarded with the highest rates of pay.”

About the Author

Zach Noble is a staff writer covering digital citizen services, workforce issues and a range of civilian federal agencies.

Before joining FCW in 2015, Noble served as assistant editor at the viral news site TheBlaze, where he wrote a mix of business, political and breaking news stories and managed weekend news coverage. He has also written for online and print publications including The Washington Free Beacon, The Santa Barbara News-Press, The Federalist and Washington Technology.

Noble is a graduate of Saint Vincent College, where he studied English, economics and mathematics.

Click here for previous articles by Noble, or connect with him on Twitter: @thezachnoble.


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