GAO: Agencies Have Untapped Tricks to Fill Tech Jobs


Special payment programs can help close the salary gap between private- and public-sector tech jobs.

Agencies often can’t pay as much as private sector companies to fill top STEM positions, but there are other incentives they should use to hire the best of the best, a congressional watchdog found.

Most large agencies have seven special payment authorities at their disposal, but less than six percent of employees received any extra benefits, according to the Government Accountability Office. If agencies better understood the how incentives affect employee retention and applicant quality, auditors said, the programs could help close the talent gap in government STEM jobs.

The Office of Personnel Management collects data on the number of employees at Chief Human Capital Officer Council agencies who receive incentives but has no method for measuring the effectiveness of the programs.

“OPM may be missing opportunities to promote strategic use by providing guidance and tools on assessing effectiveness,” auditors said. “Without tracking data and providing guidance to help agencies assess effectiveness, OPM will be unable to determine whether use of special payment authorities helps agencies to improve recruitment and retention.”

More than 77,000 federal employees receive special rates incentives in fiscal 2016, which boost their basic pay schedule. While special rates is the most commonly used payment authority, GAO found usage declined steadily from 10 years ago, when more than 139,000 feds received such incentives.

Agencies spent roughly $805 million on recruitment, relocation and retention incentives, and student loan repayment programs between fiscal 2014 and 2016. Of the 26 agencies analyzed by the GAO, 21 use superior qualifications and critical position authorities to fill short-staffed, mission-critical roles in STEM and cybersecurity.

The government has historically faced a tough time attracting top talent in tech fields. As of September 2017, the number of employees age 60 or older in the federal IT workforce is more than quadruple the number of specialists under the age of 30.

GAO said special payment authorities could help make government tech jobs more attractive for current and future employees, especially as the workforce ages and budgets shrink.

“By providing guidance on assessing effectiveness of these authorities, OPM and CHCO agencies could be better positioned to know whether use of the authorities is improving recruitment and retention or what changes might be needed to improve their effectiveness,” auditors said.