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What’s in a Name? Everything That’s Wrong With Job Classification

Title and grade inflation undermine government’s ability to compete for talent.

The Merit Systems Protection Board’s latest newsletter highlights a costly government problem that has been ignored for years. It’s the reality of position classification, the decision process for assigning jobs to salary grades. MSPB did not directly argue that the process is broken, but that’s the clear message.

It’s easy to forget the logic of position classification is mandated by statute—the 1949 Classification Act. If this was any other law, the courts would step in and require better administration.

In concept, position classification defines and assures “internal equity,” although what it really delivers is the continuation of the status quo. Position classification is a barrier to change and to competing for people with high-demand job skills.

But as the MSPB column points out, government is no longer willing to commit the resources needed to administer the classification system: “A 2014 GAO report found that OPM had only six full-time specialists maintaining classification standards, compared to 16 in 2001 and many more in the 1980s.”

Those specialists are becoming extinct in other agencies as well. A 2011 MSPB survey found only 3 percent of human resources staff spent more than half their time on classification. Almost three-quarters spent no time. HR offices no doubt spend even less time today.

The column is silent on the time managers and employees have to spend on classification issues. It’s surprising, but for a process that is time-intensive that cost has apparently never been studied. With current workloads it’s a burden that is difficult to justify.

The column goes on to say “about 30 percent of white-collar occupational standards . . . have not been updated since 1990; some have not been updated since the 1970s.” It’s been documented that OPM can take years to update a standard—and given the ongoing impact technology has on many occupations, even recently issued standards could need revision.

MSPB is correct; OPM also is correct. Position classification is an antiquated process that government can no longer afford.

OPM and agencies now rely on more generalized classification standards (e.g., standard 2210— “information technology management”—is used to classify 12 different Standard Occupational Classification specialties). Agencies also rely on more generalized job descriptions. The practice reduces the hours needed to document job-specific duties and knowledge. But the practice also makes it more difficult to deal with specialized skills and hold incumbents accountable for assigned tasks.

Today it’s safe to say traditional position classification is dead. There is no reason to think agencies will ever revert to those old time-intensive practices. OPM at one time policed the accuracy of agency classification actions. That process was known as a desk audit, but it’s been more than 25 years since OPM’s last audit.

Does all of this matter? It does to anyone concerned with the reliability of grades under the General Schedule. Realistically no one knows or can even guess what percentage of jobs are accurately graded. Managers and employees know it’s now much easier to have a job reclassified to a higher grade. In the current climate that is the best strategy to move to a higher salary. There is no record, however, of the number of jobs that have been reclassified.

All that we know is that the percentage of jobs at higher grade levels has increased steadily. Some contend that is because there are fewer low-level jobs. That’s no doubt true, but it says nothing about the validity of grades at any level. The grade inflation or grade creep undermines the GS system’s credibility.

Grade inflation weakens and obfuscates the argument that jobs are underpaid relative to market levels. Contrary to a widely held understanding, the annual gap analysis does not compare the salaries of nonfederal jobs with comparable federal jobs. That is the common practice in other sectors. The gap analysis actually is based on classifying the nonfederal jobs to a GS grade. The analysis is valid only when both federal and nonfederal jobs are assigned to correct grades.

More importantly, the classification system is central to the problem of competing for cybersecurity and related technology talent. Classification is, of course, only one aspect of the problem. In the private sector the answer to high-demand, high-pay jobs is simply to assign them to a higher grade—that’s market pricing. Corporate employers also have the flexibility to start a new hire above the minimum salary. Plus private sector pay increases recognize an individual’s performance regardless of age and job tenure.

The MSPB argument was frankly surprising, at least to this writer, but is solidly consistent with the agency’s stated vision: "A highly qualified, diverse federal workforce that is fairly and effectively managed." It’s all too clear government has an immediate need to strengthen its technology workforce, but that will not happen as long as badly antiquated practices are used to manage compensation. Those practices should not be an obstacle to decisions that benefit the country.

(Image via Zerbor/Shutterstock.com)

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