Federal statute offers a variety of avenues under which agency employees can be hired, many of which are designed to give agencies more flexibilities to attract top talent.
But, according to testimony at a July 30 Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing, working within those authorities to meet the vacancies the agency faces, while also adhering to regulation, has caused problems for hiring and retaining talent.
“You have been more than gracious with the authorities that you’ve given the federal government for hiring, but they’re really, really difficult,” said Daniel Sitterly, assistant secretary for human resources and administration at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“When I worked at the Department of Defense, I thought Title 5, Title 10, Title 38 [hiring authorities] were difficult to manage with part-time, full-time, reserve guard. It is even more complicated in the VA between Title 5, Title 38, hybrid 38.”
Title 5 of U.S. Code covers General Schedule and Executive Schedule positions within the federal government and what kind of compensation those positions offer, while other hiring authorities enable agency HR offices to divert from that framework when hiring for certain positions or kinds of employees.
According to Sitterly, Title 38 — which covers medical professionals — enables the agency to hire and offer compensation based on the individual employee’s skill and education level, whereas Title 5 restricts the agency to offering only the compensation that is allocated by that position’s classification on the General Schedule.
“In a perfect world, the entire [Veterans Health Administration] would be in Title 38,” said Sitterly. “We can’t continue competing using old pay scales. Throw away the GS system as the proxy for pay and compensation.”
And not all agencies have access to all hiring authorities. Although the Bureau of Prisons hires medical staff to look after inmates, they are not able to use Title 38 authorities for those positions and therefore struggle to compete with other federal agencies for talent.
“There are over 100 different hiring authorities out there, but almost every agency that comes to us says, ‘We want direct hiring authority,’” said Sen James Lankford, R-Okla.
Witnesses testified that a moratorium on hiring authorities would help the problem, while Congress figures out how to collapse and condense what already exists.
“Please don’t give us any more hiring authorities, we just don’t need any more. What we really need is to boil this all down,” said Angela Bailey, chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security, adding that removing authorities could cut six to eight weeks from the time it takes to hire.
According to research done by the Government Accountability Office, agencies will need that increased speed to address the number of employees that are likely to retire from federal service in the near future.
“Skills gaps affect individual agencies, but also cut across the entire federal workforce in areas such as cybersecurity and providing healthcare. Insufficient numbers of staff with critical skills can also be due to staff retirements, and if not carefully managed, anticipated retirements could widen skills gaps or open new ones,” said GAO’s Director of the Strategic Issues Team Yvonne Jones.
She added that nearly one-third of federal employees will become eligible to retire by the end of 2022.
Hiring authorities in the federal government are most often created for two reasons: to address a critical skills gap or to increase diversity in the federal workforce.
But, according to Bailey, those authorities may not be doing much for diversity anyway.
“We’ve got all these hiring authorities, we have this incredibly complicated system, and we’re not that diverse anyhow. So we ought to try something new and see if it’s going to work,” she said.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.