Workplace flexibilities are key to attracting and keeping high-performing employees in many organizations, experts say.

Workplace flexibilities are key to attracting and keeping high-performing employees in many organizations, experts say. Shutterstock.com

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How to Recruit the Next Generation of Feds: Better Pay, Benefits

Young people are increasingly looking for work-life balance measures like paid family leave and telework, stakeholders and experts said Wednesday.

Lawmakers and federal workforce advocacy groups on Wednesday all seemed to agree that in order to improve the government’s ability to recruit and retain employees, agencies must do a better job of compensating high performers and providing workplace flexibilities.

The House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on government operations held a hearing entitled NextGen Feds: Recruiting the Next Generation of Public Servants, seeking input on how to cope with the looming and long-feared retirement wave. But as always, there was disagreement over the best way to effect change, with conservatives favoring a wholesale overhaul of the General Schedule system in favor of performance based pay, and federal employee unions and Democrats advocating for better use of—and training for managers to use—existing authorities.

“With 99.9% of employees all receiving pay raises, a greater emphasis should be placed on truly performance-based raises, and limit the appeals process to within-agency appeals,” said Rachel Greszler, a research fellow for the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Some of the savings from that can then go toward increasing the pay for high-demand positions, in addition to special payments, signing bonuses and superior quality appointments.”

But National Treasury Employees Union National President Tony Reardon said there are avenues in the existing pay structure, but that a significant decrease in funding for the training of supervisors has left managers without the skills needed to utilize them. He cited an example at the Internal Revenue Service, where the training budget was cut by 85% in one year during the Obama administration.

“If you look at the IRS, up until 2014 I believe it was, 14% of bargaining unit employees received a quality step increase [instead of a regular step increase],” he said. “So instead of being a Grade 12 Step 9, you became a Step 10, or whatever, you got an additional step. The only way someone gets that is if the agency determines they are a high performer and are deserving of it. Right now, I believe the last numbers I saw, it was 3% or 4%. So I don’t believe we’re utilizing the tools that are already there.”

Greszler also suggested that, particularly for millennials who wish to be more “mobile” in their career over the years and may stay long enough to vest in defined benefit retirement programs, the government could allow new hires to opt to send pension contributions to direct pay or their Thrift Savings Plan accounts. Subcommittee Chairman Gerry Connolly, D-Va., seemed willing to entertain the notion.

“That’s a good point, we could at least be flexible about it,” he said. “Although you’d be amazed how quickly you approach retirement, so it’s good to start early.”

Another key to recruiting younger workers into the federal workforce, particularly in high demand fields like information technology and cybersecurity, is improving the non-salary benefits package. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., urged continued support of her bill that would provide 12 weeks of paid leave to men and women for the birth or adoption of a child, as well as to care for sick relatives or for a personal medical issue. That bill was included as part of the House version of the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, and is one of the provisions up for negotiation in conference committee.

“The federal workforce is aging and the economy is changing,” Maloney said. “Women are working more and more because they have to, because it takes two incomes to keep a family alive. More broadly, women serve as the sole or primary breadwinners in 40% of households with children under 18, and two-thirds of families depend on the wages of working moms . . . It’s an important and long overdue step to make the federal workforce better positioned to serve the American people today and into the future.”

Greszler said that the Heritage Foundation supports the establishment of paid family leave at federal agencies, but suggested it should be offset by getting rid of other forms of sick leave already available to federal workers.

“Companies like Target, Walmart, Starbucks and Lowes all provide paid family leave,” she said. “It makes sense for the federal government to provide paid family leave to workers, but it should replace the existing de facto paid leave system with unlimited sick leave accumulation as well as six weeks of advance sick leave.”

Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, said agencies must do a better job of implementing telework, which is increasingly becoming a key benefit that prospective employees look for in a job.

“While agencies may struggle to offer competitive salaries in certain labor markets, they can leverage telework and other robust work-life balance programs to meet workers’ needs for employment flexibility,” he said.

Despite repeated affirmation from the Office of Personnel Management that telework not only improves employee morale but increases productivity, several agencies under the Trump administration have severely rolled back the practice, particularly at the Agriculture, Education and Interior departments.

“Stats demonstrate that in agencies where telework is implemented in an aggressive and sustained way, this notion [where managers say], ‘If I can’t see you are you working?’ goes out the window, because they tend to be some of the most productive places to work,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md. “When that culture of productivity takes hold, often spurred by telework, it spreads to the entire workforce whether they’re teleworking or not.”