The National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous Department of Energy agency in charge of safety, is amending its 15-year old pay plan to create another level of performance ratings that are tied to salary adjustments.

In 2007, NNSA got approval by the Office of Personnel Management to create a system that consolidates several General Schedule pay grades into bands that are grouped by career path, such as engineers versus technicians. The system also did away automatic pay raises inherent to the GS and replaced them with performance-based increases.

“The goals of this demonstration project are to improve hiring by allowing NNSA to compete more effectively for high quality employees through the judicious use of higher entry salaries [and] motivate and retain staff by providing faster pay progression for high-performing employees,” said the OPM in its original approval.

NNSA did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.

Employees of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program and those in the U.S. Department of the Navy who are assigned to the program participate in the demo plan.

In an effort to make HR management more flexible, OPM has given agencies the authority to experiment and test personnel policies that might use a different pay structure or performance rating system in order to tailor recruitment and retention to pay gaps, high-demand candidates or agency mission.

Under OPM’s authority, NNSA is currently the only active demo project that involves pay systems, a spokesperson for the office said.

NNSA is modifying its performance rating structure — which has four levels — to add a fifth category: “exceeds expectations.” When the pay plan was first created, the performance system reflected four tiers of evaluation: does not meet expectations, needs improvement, fully meets expectations and significantly exceeds expectations.

An OPM spokesperson told Federal Times that this system has worked over the years to help NNSA establish more objective performance reviews, though in 2020, NNSA found that it lacked granularity and needed to better tease out the difference between “fully” and “significantly” exceeding expectations.

The goal in adding a fifth level is to further sharpen performance metrics and motivate employees through faster career advancement.

The ratings also tie into how pay raises are administered, with only employees “fully meeting expectations” receiving pay adjustments and the best performers receiving the largest ones.

OPM said it approved these changes because they embody the purpose of demos: to be living projects that are responsive and adaptive to changing workforce needs.

When it first devised the project, NNSA said it has a hard time recruiting when a local, private sector employer can offer better pay and when vacancies present in locations that are in remote areas, where applicants are scarce.

“But despite these instances, NNSA has not experienced a general pattern of recruitment difficulty because NNSA’s important national security work has an intrinsic attraction to prospective candidates, and because NNSA makes selective good use of Government-wide recruitment incentives,” said in its 2007 memo.

NNSA consists of over 50,000 federal and contract employees at labs, plants and sites nationwide.

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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