Cultivating a technically savvy and diverse workforce is a challenge for all of government. Pay is often pointed to as the biggest reason agencies can’t compete with the private sector, though new research says there’s more to it.

In fact, previous research by the think tank Rand has said that pay gaps between the public and private sector are, on average, not that big when the data takes into consideration tenure or education levels. Factor in how men and women of different races are paid against each other, however, and considerable discrepancies appear, a May report said.

Within the Department of Defense’s 950,000 non-uniformed workforce, there remains a significant and inexplicable pay difference between white males and all other demographics, according to Rand. Researchers didn’t link that discrepancy to any one explanation in particular, though they acknowledged it’s possible that decision-making “biases,” either implicit or explicit, could be a factor.

That’s likely of concern to the Biden administration, which has pushed for diversity, equity and inclusion to be strengthened by its human relations arm via agency self assessments and task forces. Biden’s executive order from 2021 directs the Office of Personnel Management to specifically root out pay inequity.

The same administration also inherited an aging workforce that today is being asked to bring the U.S. to the technological level of its global adversaries and of private industry, so selling the federal sector as a place of viable work has been paramount.

Earlier this week, the Defense Department’s chief information officer said that while the department has a number of initiatives going forward to make it technologically sophisticated, “human beings have got to be the core of this.”

“The ‘why?’ is to have a workforce that looks like America with all the innovation, the surliness we bring to the fight from all corners of this great country,” said John Sherman before the TechNet Cyber conference on May 3.

With pay so often considered the panacea for recruiting and retention woes, the inclination for agencies may be to turn away from the underfunded General Schedule and spin out alternate pay plans that offer more money.

The best paying plan in the Pentagon is the Lab Demo closely followed by the AcqDemo plan, each with tens of thousands of STEM workers under them.

The danger, Rand’s data suggests, is such plans could impede diversity and equity goals.

“Demographic-group differences in compensation within the STEM workforce ... could work against broader U.S. government goals to improve diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the federal civilian workforce,” the report said.

White, male employees are overrepresented in demo pay plans that deviate from the GS and can pay more. This demographic also represents 70% of the top pay grades.

Asian or white men are more likely to be in an alternate pay plan, while Black employees of both gender and Hispanic women are overwhelmingly on the GS.

A case study of U.S. Navy civilian engineers, IT specialists and computer scientists revealed that Black women in a GS-12 IT management job in Virginia makes $5,185 less on average. White women in the same positions make $6,570 less than their male counterparts.

The flip side is that the General Schedule “does a far better job of avoiding pay discrimination by gender than private sector pay systems that allow broad discretion in pay-setting and pay adjustments,” a 2022 Defense Business Board report said.

To reconcile differences, the Pentagon was recommended to set a benchmark compensation for similarly qualified individuals across offices. One problem may be that there are STEM workers in one office that don’t have a demo pay plan, while workers doing similar work in a neighboring office might.

Personnel decisions are also frequently made locally, the report said, so low-level policies should be examined by individual offices and then report to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

“DoD should not consider STEM workers as a monolith, given their wide variety of educational and occupational backgrounds,” the report said.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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