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Editorial: Agencies should follow VA, take hard look at job classifications

Jun. 17, 2012 - 02:09PM   |  
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Hundreds of union members rallied at the Veterans Affairs Department headquarters last week to protest the downgrading of their jobs. VA is reviewing thousands of positions across the department — jobs ranging from medical support assistants to housekeepers, building maintenance workers and more — to standardize descriptions and grades throughout the agency.

In many cases, employees are seeing their grade levels lowered by one or two full grades. No one will suffer a pay cut as a result of this review, but the long-term implications for pay increases, promotions and pensions are significant, and that’s what has employees up in arms. Nevertheless, VA should be applauded for trying to bring order and discipline to its chaotic job classification system.

Indeed, VA is doing something that should happen routinely in all agencies: redefining and updating job classifications to be consistent with the rest of the agency, the federal government as a whole and, ultimately, to be competitive in the overall employment market. Inflated grades and the higher salaries that come with them sap billions of dollars from government coffers that would be better used on other priorities. At VA, pay can differ wildly from one hospital to another, because each of the agency’s 150-plus hospitals has had autonomy in classifying and compensating staff. So instead of running an efficient nationwide hospital network, VA has essentially been running a coalition of 150 independent hospitals.

There’s just no efficiency in that.

Now VA is reviewing more than 6,000 job descriptions, with a goal of narrowing down to an approved list of 1,200 for the entire agency.

A Federal Times analysis last year showed that since 1998, the percentage of employees in grades 12 to 15 — the highest four grades before reaching the executive ranks — increased from 48 percent to nearly 64 percent.

One reason for this “grade creep” may be the increasingly complex and technical nature of many jobs; the number of federal jobs now requiring a master’s degree, for example, has also increased in recent years. But it’s also likely that as human resources departments have been downsized, and managers have taken on more responsibility for crafting job descriptions, many have abused the system.

Defining jobs at higher grades makes the job easier to fill and may take care of an employee who has already topped out at his or her present grade. But that doesn’t make it right.

Kudos to VA for beginning this process. Reviewing and regrading jobs may be an onerous process, but it will yield real dividends later on. All agency leaders should follow the lead of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and apply a fresh set of eyes and metrics to existing job classifications.

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