Agencies should promote existing workplace flexibilities in federal AI hiring, OPM says

Agencies should offer pay bonuses, faster leave accrual and telework flexibilities, OPM said in new federal AI hiring guidance.

As agencies ramp up recruitment of federal AI professionals, the Office of Personnel Management is highlighting existing workplace flexibilities that can ease the process.

Incentives such as pay bonuses, faster leave accrual, student loan repayments, and telework and remote work can all help agencies more effectively hire AI specialists, OPM said in new federal AI hiring guidance, published Tuesday.

Agencies can extend most — but not all — of the workplace flexibilities to incoming federal AI experts without first needing to get approval from OPM.

“For the few flexibilities that require OPM approval — special rates, critical pay and waivers of the recruitment, relocation and retention incentive payment limits — we stand ready to assist agencies and respond to their requests for enhanced compensation tools,” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said in the guidance.

Flexibility in pay rates, incentives

To more easily hire experienced AI professionals, OPM said agencies should use pay incentives based on recruitment, relocation and retention.

To incentivize employees to stay, agencies can offer an annual bonus of 25% of an employee’s base pay for up to four years.

The pay bonuses are reserved for feds in difficult-to-fill jobs, or those who have to relocate. But OPM’s recent approval of direct hire authority for AI-related positions is sufficient — with no further evidence needed — for agencies to consider AI jobs difficult to fill, and therefore eligible for the bonuses.

For employees “likely to leave federal service,” OPM said agencies can offer 25% individual bonuses, or a 10% group incentive. An employee doesn’t need to have another job offer in hand to qualify for the bonus. Instead, agencies can show the likeliness of feds to leave their jobs through other factors. That can include employment trends, or the relative success of recruitment efforts for similar positions.

Additionally, agencies can offer student loan repayment options to employees. The repayments can be up to $10,000 annually for a single fed but cannot exceed $60,000 in total. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF) is another incentive agencies can highlight when trying to recruit employees in AI.

Many of the incentives are available to agencies without OPM’s approval. But certain pay-related flexibilities do require a thumbs-up from OPM. Offering higher pay rates by way of a Special Salary Rate (SSR) or Critical Pay Authority, for instance, requires OPM’s approval. With a green light from OPM, agencies can also offer up to 50% pay incentives annually for up to two years.

Accrual of paid leave for federal AI roles

Aside from pay, there are other ways agencies can try to encourage recruitment and retention into federal AI jobs. Specifically, agencies should look for ways to speed up accrual of paid leave, OPM said. In some cases, incoming federal employees can count previous non-federal or active-duty military experience toward their annual leave accrual after entering the civil service.

Agencies can also ask for OPM’s authorization of a faster rate of leave accrual — of one day per two-week pay period — for certain categories of employees. The leave accrual rate is the same as that of employees in the Senior Executive Service (SES), or in Senior-Level (SL) and Scientific and Professional (ST) positions.

And without the need for OPM’s approval, agencies can offer more flexible alternative work schedules for employees — outside the traditional five-day, 40-hour work week. With more flexibility in when employees put in their work hours, agencies may be able to incentivize a broader pool of job candidates.

Telework and remote work options

Along with pay and benefits flexibilities, agencies can look at offering telework and remote work too. Telework and remote work improves employee satisfaction, supports federal retention and attracts more diverse job applicants, OPM said.

“Remote work can allow agencies to recruit and retain high-quality talent from geographically dispersed labor markets, reduce costs associated with real estate, and optimize performance and productivity,” OPM said.

OPM’s new guidance comes in response to the executive order on AI that President Joe Biden signed in October 2023. The order called on agencies to rapidly ramp up recruitment of federal AI professionals. As part of the order, OPM received a mandate to detail flexibilities that could help recruit and retain employees in federal AI, AI-enabling and key technical positions.

The new guidance also comes shortly after OPM approved direct hire authority for agencies recruiting AI specialists as part of the AI executive order.

Some agencies have already started outlining their AI recruitment goals. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, plans to create an “AI corps,” comprising 50 AI officials.

To try to meet its goal, DHS plans to use direct hire authority and other incentives. DHS is recruiting more senior-level AI professionals, often to remote jobs, and offering salaries up to $191,900.

In many cases, it’s not as much as AI experts can make in the private sector. But DHS CIO and chief AI officer Eric Hysen said DHS’s mission will draw in potential candidates.

Similarly, OPM said emphasizing other flexibilities beyond just a position’s salary may help encourage better recruitment and retention for federal AI-related positions — and beyond.

“These flexibilities may also be used by agencies to recruit and retain talent more broadly, and may therefore be used for other positions of need within agencies,” Ahuja said.

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