VA’s IT shop boosts retention through higher pay, more flexible schedules

The Department of Veterans Affairs is leading a governmentwide push to bring more private-sector tech experts into public service.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is leading a governmentwide push to bring more private-sector tech experts into public service.

So far, the VA, tapping into special pay authorities, is meeting its hiring and retention goals for its IT workforce.

The VA’s Office of Information and Technology in late 2023 reduced attrition by nearly 10%, compared to the previous year, while also making 1,000 new hires.

Nathan Tierney, VA’s deputy chief information officer and its chief people officer, said VA OIT’s “people-first strategy” is paying off.

“It’s a focus on people, and having real conversations about why do you want to come work for us,” Tierney said on Nov. 16 during a VA OIT webinar. “Why do you want to stay with us? And then showing a commitment, taking your voices, your feedback, and then making adjustments to make it a better experience.”

“If we can improve that employee experience, it ultimately leads to better support for the veterans with whom we serve,” he added.

The VA began its push to bring private-sector tech workers into government in late 2022.

That hiring surge, however, is expected to increase across government, following President Joe Biden’s recent executive order calling on agencies to step up their use of artificial intelligence tools.

While the government can’t match what the private sector can pay in-demand tech experts, the VA is trying to narrow that pay gap.

The VA in July implemented a Special Salary Rate for its IT and cybersecurity employees. Employees eligible for SSR received a 17% average pay raise — worth about $18,000 on average.

The VA, working with other federal agencies, found about a 66% pay gap between what tech professionals were making in the private sector compared to the government.

Beyond the SSR, Tierney said VA OIT offers a special contribution award to employees who “go above and beyond.”

In addition to getting new hires into its tech workforce,  the VA is taking steps to retain these employees.

Tierney said employee development is a make-or-break opportunity for most organizations, and that it’s a top driver of employee retention — or employees seeking a job somewhere.

“We don’t just look at employees as the masses. We look at you, meet you where you are, and help you get where you want to be with your career,” he said.

VA OIT recently created a coaching and mentoring program to help employees with their career development.

“There’s plenty of pathways to move up in grade, as part of that career development,” Tierney said.

VA OIT is also looking at ways to improve work-life balance for its employees.

Tierney said VA OIT is allowing employees to work a compressed work schedule. Under the system, employees can opt to put in longer hours, but only work four days a week.

“It helps us by helping you in your work-life balance so that you can be more productive, more efficient, have more time with your families, but also be able to contribute to the VA mission by delivering quality IT products and services that help veterans, their families and caregivers,” he said.

The Office of Personnel Management co-led several virtual job fairs in 2023, along with several other public-sector organizations, with a focus on targeting tech workers affected by across-the-board layoffs at companies like Twitter, Meta, Amazon and Microsoft.

Meanwhile, VA OIT is also reaching out to military spouses.

“If you’re a military spouse, we have a lot of flexibility for you,” Tierney said. “So as your loved one is transferred or moved, we can work with you to accommodate that move. So you don’t have to seek other employment.

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