As of this week, nearly all IT employees at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will receive an average salary increase of 17%, thanks to a new special pay rate designation that’s aimed to help close the gap between what technologists earn in the private and public sectors.

A year in the making, the pay raise, which works out to an average $18,000, aims to help the agency recruit and retain high-demand tech workers as VA modernizes its health benefits systems that process hundreds of thousands of claims related to toxic burn pit exposures and other issues.

Nathan Tierney, deputy chief information officer and chief people officer at the VA, said when he came into his position two years ago, the agency was struggling to hire for these kinds of roles while demands of cybersecurity and government technology were only growing. And that challenge was being felt by companies, too, who compete for this talent pool.

One of the pain points he identified in consulting focus group findings and employee surveys was pay.

“We were able to determine that there was as much of the gap as about 60% between the market rate and industry compared to the federal rate,” he said in an interview. “So that’s pretty alarming.”

According to the VA’s hiring dashboard last updated on July 28, IT professionals at the VA cited pay as among the top reasons for leaving the agency. The agency has met roughly 97% of its target to hire 2210 IT specialists, according to that data.

In July 2022, the proposed pay plan was submitted to the Office of Personnel Management for approval, and in January the following year, it was approved. Now, the VA is the first federal agency to implement it.

For other agencies who want to adopt the special salary rate for their IT workers, the next step is funding it. Tierney said the VA’s Office of Information and Technology was able to leverage authorities from the PACT Act to make payments beginning this pay period retroactive to July 16.

“Are you actually getting the cash into people’s pockets? We did that in under a year, so I’m really, really proud of that,” he said.

The legislation, signed into law last August, permits the secretary to “provide employees a critical skill incentive based on a high-demand skill or a skill that is at a shortage.”

Rate guarantees

That specific authority expires on Sept. 30, 2027, but the fact that OPM approved the rates guarantees federal agencies like VA have this as a long-term solution to skills gaps that are likely to become more necessary as artificial intelligence, automation and warding off cyber threats become routine business.

The rates will also help the agency recruit experts who can partner with contractors and have the technical understanding to manage their projects, which run the risk of overrunning on cost and time without proper oversight.

Tierney said whatever the next funding vehicle is should agency budgets fluctuate, he’s confident that the VA can prove the effectiveness of this initiative and be able to roll it over.

“Logic will prevail ... because it’s a compelling business case to begin with, otherwise, [OPM] wouldn’t have approved it,” he said. That’s the real long-term solution, he added.

The raise applies to all of the agency’s 2210 IT specialist workers except for about 1% — or about 60 upper-echelon workers — who are hitting their statutory pay caps on the General Schedule. But even for those employees, the agency can make use of critical skills or retention incentives or retentions.

That’s why the special rates are just one piece of an entire human capital strategy that the agency is developing long-term to ensure the vitality of the agency’s workforce and continuity of services for the more than 9 million veterans enrolled to receive care.

Tierney also pointed out that while this is a milestone moment, it’s not the end of the road.

The agency is rethinking the way it advertises job postings to be more interesting and reflective of what the VA’s IT workforce does.

“We’ve done some LinkedIn live events and stuff like that to try to debunk some of the myths about working in the federal government,” Tierney said.

And whereas HR services used to be handled by the Veterans Health Administration, now IT jobs have their own home where there are videos and resources specific to IT work.

Apprenticeship programs are also a focus for the agency, which allow veterans and others who might be early in their careers get job experience and skills with the VA.

“If they end up working for us, great,” Tierney said. “If not, they go back into society somewhere else and they have a great experience with serving ... the VA.”

Tierney said OIT can take a similar skilling approach as VA does with its medical professionals. Approximately 70% of all U.S. physicians complete at least part of their training in VA facilities.

“So why can’t we do that for tech?”

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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