Nuclear agency seeks to fill hundreds of jobs

The National Nuclear Security Administration has drafted a proposal to fill up to 300 jobs at the agency as part of its plan to recruit and retain more employees, agency officials said Wednesday. NNSA Administrator John Gordon, testifying before a House Armed Services subcommittee, said he circulated the proposal for the hiring campaign and other changes within the agency for final comment last week. The proposed policy includes a pay-for-performance feature and pay banding for 300 scientific, engineering and technical positions. The 300 NNSA jobs are "excepted service" positions, meaning they are excluded from competitive civil service procedures. Under pay banding, General Schedule steps are replaced with simplified three-, four- or five-tier pay systems. Upon hiring or promotion, employee pay may be set at levels in the pay band matching the person's qualifications, education, training and experience. Managers have more control over pay levels for their employees because employees typically progress through the pay band if they get good performance ratings, rather than progressing by steps based on time in the grade. "Our interim policy is designed to provide NNSA managers with sufficient flexibility to attract and retain [the] key personnel we need to meet our demanding mission, while ensuring that NNSA uses this special authority with due regard for the merit systems principles of federal personnel management," said Gordon, who last month announced an agency reorganization. In 1999, Congress created the NNSA in response to allegations that inadequate security at the Energy Department and nuclear weapons laboratories contributed to the theft of nuclear secrets. Congress authorized the agency in the fiscal 2000 Defense Authorization Act to establish up to 300 scientific, engineering, and technical positions and set appropriate pay levels for those jobs. Approximately 1,700 people currently work at NNSA. Gordon said NNSA plans to implement the new personnel policy by the beginning of July. Robert A. Robinson, managing director of natural resources and environment at the General Accounting Office, praised NNSA for its reorganization efforts, but said many challenges remain, including recruitment and retention practices. Robinson said that as many as 800 NNSA positions could qualify as scientific, technical, or engineering jobs, but the law only provides for 300 positions. "If only some NNSA positions are converted to excepted service, with its pay banding, pay-for-performance, and bonus provisions, NNSA federal employees doing the same work could receive significantly different levels of compensation," said Robinson. He also said labor unions generally oppose the use of excepted service flexibilities. Still, Robinson lauded the agency's successes over the past year, including the elimination of "dual-hatting," or filling key positions at NNSA with Energy Department officials. Critics of the process were concerned that having the same officials serve simultaneously in similar positions at Energy and NNSA undermined NNSA's independence. Gordon acknowledged that morale among the NNSA workforce is not as high as it should be. Employees have sharply criticized the use of lie detector tests by the government in the wake of multiple security breaches. Allegations of Chinese espionage at the Los Alamos nuclear labs in 1999 prompted then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to require several lab employees to submit to polygraph examinations. Although random polygraph testing of employees is routine at many federal agencies, including the FBI and the CIA, NNSA employees are still skeptical about the veracity of lie detector tests, according to Gordon. "We have yet to convince the current workforce of the validity of the polygraph test as a screening tool," said Gordon. Gordon said scientists and security personnel must work together and "see themselves on the same team."
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