This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
When today’s General Schedule was created by the Classification Act of 1949, most federal workers were clerks, with more than half of the workforce serving at grades GS-5 and below.
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Agencies had offices full of position classification specialists, most of whom were GS-9 and GS-11. The General Schedule ranged from GS-1 to GS-18. The “super grades” (GS-16, -17 and -18) were abolished by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 and replaced by the Senior Executive Service. The intent was to provide employees with equal pay for substantially equal work. It provided structure so the government could manage pay in a way that was fact-based and manageable.
In the 70 years since the Classification Act, the federal workforce has shifted dramatically. The clerks who made up more than half of the workforce are mostly gone. Just over 106,000 clerks remain in a workforce of 2.1 million. Only 129,000 employees are GS-5 and below. Most of the lower graded work has been eliminated by automation, while some has been outsourced. This clearly is not your father’s or grandmother’s civil service. As the work has shifted, grades have crept up to the point where traditional job classification is almost a thing of the past.
That’s a good thing, because finding a good classifier is next to impossible. Few people do classification work as their primary job. Those offices full of position classification specialists have been replaced by generalists who often have very little classification expertise. A 2011 Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) survey showed less than 3% of federal human resources specialists reported spending more than half their time on classification. In the past eight years that number has certainly gone down.
The demise of the position classifier is intertwined with the demise of classification as an art, and the lack of interest most agencies have in accurate classification. Like many of the negative aspects of the federal HR environment, this one can be traced back to the gutting of federal HR by the National Performance Review during the Clinton administration, and the misuse of automated tools that were supposed to assist rather than supplant the judgment of HR Specialists.
So what has been the result? A recent article in MSPB’s Issues of Merit asked “Are Federal Employee Position Descriptions Accurate?” MSPB cited a 2016 study where 30% of federal workers said their job descriptions were not accurate. I think even that number is low. Employees get concerned about the accuracy of their job descriptions when they believe their job is under-graded. MSPB reported that much of the inaccuracy stems from agency overuse of standard job descriptions. While standard position descriptions are very useful when agencies have large numbers of substantially similar jobs, overusing them can result in job descriptions that are a mix of fantasy and reality.
MSPB cited a second problem, lack of adequate classification advice, as another cause of inaccurate job descriptions. MSPB said ”… only 58% of agency leaders said they received assistance in classifying positions from their servicing HR office to a moderate or great extent, while 17% said they did not receive such assistance at all.”
A third problem that MSPB did not address was deliberate overgrading. Agencies rely on mis-classification of jobs to compete for talent. The national capital region is a great example of how rampant overgrading is driven by the completion for talent. The District of Columbia alone has 140,000 federal workers, with 90,000 at grades GS-12, GS-13, GS-14 and GS-15. There are more than 47,000 GS-14s and GS-15s. Some people look at that and assume that it is that way because this is the seat of government and the classification system was designed that way.
Sounds good, but it is not true. Take a look at the statutory (5 U. S. Code 5104) descriptions of those grades:
We do not have 47,000 jobs in the District of Columbia that fit those descriptions. What we have is a labor market where people have to overgrade the jobs to compete for talent.
Take human resources work as an example. During the 1950s and 1960s, HR specialists in the field were mostly GS-9s, while those in the national capital region were GS-11. Then they went up to GS-11 in the field and GS-12 in the region. Now more than half of HR specialists in the District of Columbia are GS-13 and GS-14. One in 10 are GS-15. The work has not changed so much that it supports those grades, but try classifying most of your HR specialists at GS-12 and see how long you can hold on to them.
The same has happened in other occupations as well. Competition for talent drove agencies to not care about either the accuracy of job descriptions or job classifications that actually match the classification standards and the law. The public position of most senior HR executives is that they classify jobs accurately. The private response is acceptance of the need to compete and doing what it takes to allow them to hire the talent they need.
At the same time, OPM cannot keep classification standards up to date because they lack the resources to do it, and most agencies are wasting money on a process where they pretend to accurately classify the jobs. Is it any wonder federal workers doubt the HR system is working? If we no longer have fact-based classification, how can it be managed properly? How can the government determine what levels of pay are competitive with the private sector if much of the data is based on bogus job descriptions? What is comparable pay? It is clear that the system is not working. Or maybe it works, but only by breaking the rules.
Clearly it is time to rewrite those rules. If we want accurate job descriptions and pay that conforms to the law, and we want some basis for comparing federal pay with the private sector, agencies need a functioning classification process that is rooted in reality rather than in the inflexible approach our parents and grandparents used in 1949 for a workforce that no longer exists.