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Merit Board Offers Advice to Fix Reskilling Program That Hasn't Translated to Any New Job Placements

A pilot program to train some non-IT workers with technology skills has not resulted in anyone switching jobs, largely because participants would have needed to take a pay cut.

The Merit Systems Protections Board last week offered up a potential solution to the problem plaguing the Trump administration’s cyber reskilling pilot program, which led to zero federal workers transferring to new jobs.

In 2018, Federal Chief Information Officer Suzette Kent announced the establishment of a Federal Reskilling Academy, designed to train non-IT employees in the federal government as cyber defense analysts who could then be transferred to IT-specific positions. At the end of the first 13-week course in August 2019, participants reported that the training changed how they see technology and their current jobs, but the program did not lead to them shifting to new positions as envisioned.

The problem stemmed not from the quality of the training program, but with how the federal government classifies jobs. Although the employees who participated in the reskilling program were in the middle of their careers, the IT-related jobs for which they became qualified were entry-level and lower on the General Schedule, meaning they would pay significantly less than their current jobs.

In MSPB’s monthly newsletter, “Issues of Merit,” the agency’s director for policy and evaluation, James Read, said making an exception to allow reskilling program graduates to take new IT jobs without a decrease in pay could prove difficult.

“The principle of pay equity is deeply ingrained in the federal personnel system,” Read wrote. “[The] tenet of equal pay for equal work is put into operation by classifying positions in ‘grades’ according to their ‘duties, responsibilities and qualification requirements,’ and then establishing rates of pay for each grade in what is known as the General Schedule. Such a scheme, where compensation is tightly linked to the nature of the work associated with a job, is sometimes referred to as a rank-in-position system.”

By contrast, in order to accommodate reskilling initiatives, officials would have to adopt a “rank-in-person” system, MSPB said. Elements of "rank-in-person" systems already are in use by the military, the Senior Executive Service and Foreign Service, but such a system, which takes into account an employee’s skills, experience, performance and seniority in addition to the work being performed, comes with its own complications.

“These three corps differ from GS employees insofar as the leadership of an organization has greater discretion to redeploy individuals according to the organization’s needs; these specialized workforces are structured to be more agile than GS employees,” Read said. “While this means that senior executives, Foreign Service Officers, and members of the military have less control over their responsibilities, duty stations and overall career trajectories than their GS counterparts have, in most instances they will not suffer a decrease in pay when they are redeployed to meet the needs of the organization.”

The GS system does allow for a temporary waiver to reduced income as a result of taking a new job during a reduction in force, but that does not apply to those who volunteer for reskilling.

“A rank-in-position system—or at least, the current GS system—is not designed to allow voluntary movement of a mid-career employee into a new field with no loss of compensation after completion of a basic training program, even if it results in new skills and certifications,” Read wrote. “The administration will need to address this barrier if it hopes to achieve the full potential of these reskilling and redeployment programs.”