Replacing the General Schedule: Some Facts

My last post on replacing the General Schedule addressed some of the common fallacies about the GS pay system. Among them is the idea that all Federal employees are over/underpaid (depending on the political bias and source of the study), that GS pay is truly based on labor costs by location, and that the GS system no longer covers most employees.

Today I’m addressing some facts about the General Schedule and the implications of what is happening to it. While I know there are many people who have no interest in changing the GS system, probably because of fear of what it could become, there are also many good reasons why it must be reformed. There are a lot of numbers here, but I think it is important to get a look at them to better understand the problems with the General Schedule.

Facts About the General Schedule

The number of people in the top 4 GS grades (GS-12 – 15) is going up much faster than the total number of employees. Grade inflation (the tendency of grades to go up without substantial changes in duties) has become more common in the Federal government. Here is a look at Federal employment numbers and the distribution of employees in the top General Schedule and Equivalent Grades (GSEG)*. In just 15 years, the number of employees in the top grades has increased by 29.4% and the percentage of GSEG employees in the top grades has increased from 39.0% to 49.1%. The numbers of GS-12, 13 and 14 positions have increased substantially more than the overall or GSEG workforce.

1998

2013

% Change

Federal Workforce

1,810,300

2,080,000

+14.9%

GSEG* Workforce

1,431,800

1,473,000

+2.9%

GSEG % of Workforce

79.1%

70.1%

-11.4%

GS-12

233,500

292,100

+25.1%

GS-13

179,875

248,567

+38.2%

GS-14

91,893

122,498

+33.3%

GS-15

53,156

61,566

+15.8%

Total 12-15

558,424

724,731

+29.8%

The number of GS-13s outside of DC, Maryland and Virginia and the number of GS-14s and GS-15s in DC, Maryland and Virginia have skyrocketed. The number of GS-13s outside of DC/MD/VA has increased by 41.8%. GS-14s are increasing everywhere, but have increased  far more in DC, Maryland and Virginia (55%). The data on GS-15s is remarkable – the number of GS-15 jobs has increased only marginally more than the percentage of the overall workforce (but more than 5 times as much as the GSEG workforce). However, the number of GS-15s outside of DC, Maryland and Virginia has actually gone down by 19.9%, while the number of GS-15s in DC/MD/VA has increased by 48.8%.

Grade

Location

1998

2013

% Change

GS-13

DC/MD/VA**

59,852

78,371

+30.9%

Everywhere Else

120,023

170,196

+41.8%

Total

179,875

248,567

+38.2%

GS-14

DC/MD/VA

40,998

63,340

+55.0%

Everywhere Else

50,895

59,158

+16.2%

Total

91,893

122,498

+33.3%

GS-15

DC/MD/VA

27,375

40,733

+48.8%

Everywhere Else

25,781

20,833

-19.9%

Total

53,156

61,566

+15.8%

Total GS High Grades

DC/MD/VA

128,225

182,444

+42.3%

Everywhere Else

196,699

250,187

+27.2%

Total

324,924

432,631

+33.2%

*GSEG = General Schedule and Equivalent Grades.  Source: OPM Fedscope Data

**The best data available is OPM’s Fedscope (a great resource for anyone interested in Federal employment data). Older Fedscope data shows data by metro area, but now it is state-by-state. I chose DC/MD/VA as the best surrogate for National Capital Region data.

The number of high grade employees ages 20 – 34 and over age 50 is increasing dramatically, while average length of service has dropped significantly. The average length of service for GS-14s has gone down from 20 years to 17.5 years. The average length of service for GS-13s has gone down even more – from 18.8 years to 15.9 years. That means we are seeing employees advance to high grades much more quickly than in the past and employees in high grades are increasingly becoming retirement-eligible. Here is a look at the age distribution of GS-13, 14 and 15 in 1998, compared to 2013. Numbers that have increased since 1998 are shown in green, those that have decreased are red.

Age and Length of Service Comparison

High Grade General Schedule Employees

1998 to 2013

 

GS-15

GS-14

GS-13

Age

1998

2013

1998

2013

1998

2013

20­–24

0

1

3

0

5

16

25–29

37

29

587

757

2,404

5,552

30–34

1,175

1,694

5,562

7,343

15,329

23,206

35–39

3,820

3,952

12,790

10,738

27,687

28,063

40–44

7,051

6,612

15,696

16,229

31,906

35,127

45–49

11,798

10,537

20,054

22,734

38,417

43,244

50–54

14,728

14,199

20,817

26,255

37,102

47,591

55–59

8,827

12,395

10,739

20,579

18,132

36,370

60–64

3,767

7,966

4,000

12,109

6,518

20,218

65 and over

1,953

4,185

1,645

5,754

2,375

9,179

Average Length of Service

21.0 years

19.2 years

20.0 years

17.5 years

18.8 years

15.9 years

Why Should We Care About The Numbers?

Some folks have asked me why we should care about these numbers. The reason is that they reveal a job classification system that has significant issues. Here are just a few:

Grade inflation makes career progression impossible. When the General Schedule was established by the Classification Act of 1949, employees in positions such as Budget Analysts, Contract Specialists, HR Specialists and other 2-grade interval jobs had full performance levels at GS-9 or GS-11. After a few years at the full performance level, an employee could become a team leader or individual contributor at the 11 or 12 level and could aspire to several more promotions in his/her career. Today, particularly in the National Capital Region, the full performance level is GS-12 or 13. An employee can rise to that level rapidly, then has only 1 or 2 possible promotions to look forward to. Because GS-15s comprise only 4% of the workforce, realistically a GS-13 can only look forward to one more promotion. A system that rapidly moves people to near the top of the pay range and then freezes their careers for 2 decades or more is not healthy. It stifles growth, creates nothing to aspire to, and creates morale issues that are difficult to address.

Federal employee pay is not based on market conditions, so it will remain a political football. Federal employee pay has become such a political issue in the last 25 years or so that having an adult discussion about it seems to be impossible. Regardless of their beliefs about the proper size of government, most reasonable people agree that Federal employees should receive fair compensation for their work. Until Federal pay is based upon real data for real occupations in real places, and kept up to date based upon such data, we will continue to hear the pro and anti government camps arguing about whether Federal employees should receive no pay increases or 1% raises like they got this year. Defining “fair” is a challenge that I will address in my next post on this issue.

The age distribution shows three changes that could be cause for concern.

  1. The number of younger and less experienced high grade employees is increasing. While new ideas and youthful enthusiasm can be a great asset, the overall reduction in experience can create problems with workforce capabilities.
  2. The number of high grade GSEG employees over age 55 has increased 122%, from 57,956 to 128,755. That means the number of retirement-eligible employees in the highest grade levels is exceptionally high at the same time the numbers of mid-career GS-15 employees has decreased. While I believe fears of an across-the-board retirement wave are overstated, the retirement eligibility numbers at the highest grade levels are cause for concern.
  3. The average length of service is decreasing significantly at high grades. Combined with the increasing age of the workforce and likelihood of high grade retirements, the government faces talent shortages that could become severe.

Either (a) the position classification process is broken, resulting in grade inflation that breaks the system, or (b) Federal jobs really have become so complex that most of the employees should be in the top 3 or 4 grades of a 15-grade system. Regardless of which is true, the system must be changed to correct it. If it is a classification problem, fixing the classification process when high grades have become so pervasive can only be done if the pay issues and the government’s ability to compete in the labor market are addressed. Doing that means fixing the pay system, and that means overhauling the General Schedule. If the problem really is that the General Schedule was designed for a mostly clerical and low-grade level workforce that no longer exists, then the General Schedule has to be overhauled. 

In my next post, I will outline some ideas for replacing the General Schedule with something more suitable for today’s workforce, while protecting both the right of Federal employees to receive competitive pay for their work and the government’s ability to compete for talent.

Supporting STEM Leaders: 5 Things We Need to Do

A few years into my career I had the opportunity to work at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). NRL is an amazing research facility that has produced a wealth of scientific knowledge since it was conceived by Thomas Edison in the 1920s. One of the great lessons I took from NRL was the unique challenge of recruiting, developing, retaining and leading employees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) positions. Trying to hire a truly world class physicist who may be one of a handful of people on the planet who can do what s/he does is hard enough. Providing leadership to such a scientist and helping him/her become a more effective leader is even harder. NRL found it was a challenge just to find staff who were interested in taking on leadership roles. Many of their key researchers were so focused on doing good science that being a manager was the last thing they wanted to do.

Flash forward 25 years and the situation has only become more pressing. I spoke with several of my ICF colleagues recently regarding a white paper they prepared for the National Science Foundation (NSF). NSF asked us to conduct a literature review on the subject of STEM leadership. Because NSF’s mission is to promote the progress of science and to keep the United States on the leading edge of discovery, STEM leadership is a subject they take seriously. What we learned is that the profile of a STEM leader is very different from that of the general workforce.

The STEM Leader Profile*

  • On average, the individual STEM professional profile tends towards cognitive—not interpersonal—strengths.
  • Interpersonal relations and self-awareness are common developmental needs.
  • Despite difficulties leading and understanding subtle dynamics within project teams, STEM leaders have a high capacity and strong motivation to learn.
  • STEM leaders are tough critics and are less likely to be satisfied with their own accomplishments than other professionals.
  • STEM leaders require empirically sound data to demonstrate benefits and utility of approaches, especially non-technical initiatives such as leadership development.

The STEM leader profile clearly shows the STEM leader is unlikely to be effectively served by traditional leader development programs. There are several actions we can take now to address the specific needs of the STEM leader.

What We Need to Do to Support STEM Leaders

  • Developmental approaches need to be synchronized among federal agencies, academic institutions and private companies.
  • STEM leaders must tailor leadership approaches to various situations, including research project phases, program funding negotiations, and strategic discussions regarding research portfolios.
  • Building a strong learning goal orientation within project teams and among STEM leader peers can strengthen an organization’s climate for development.
  • Achieving traction with developmental efforts can occur when senior STEM leaders place expectations on more junior STEM leaders to set and pursue developmental goals.
  • Structured opportunities to practice giving and receiving feedback are vital for STEM leaders to build managerial capacity.

The human capital challenges of the STEM workforce are different in many ways from those of the general workforce. Because the STEM workforce requires a higher level and more specific type of education than many other occupations, it has unique issues. For example, many STEM leaders come from academia. The employment model in academia is shifting toward more contingent faculty, leading to a generation of STEM leaders who may have less organizational experience. The issues facing women in STEM leadership are also different, in part because significantly fewer women are in the STEM workforce (24%) versus the general workforce (48%).**

The issue is of such importance to the STEM community that on the morning of February 13, 2014, NSF and ICF are hosting a panel discussion at NSF on key challenges faced in—and proven strategies for—preparing and sustaining scientist-leaders in the Federal Government. More information regarding the event is available at http://www.icfi.com/events/conferences-and-trade-shows/2014/02/stem-leader-development.

 *Sources: Cohen and Cohen, 2012; Parker and Welch, 2013; Sansone and Schreiber, 2006

** Source: Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation, 2011; US Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration