VA counts on 17% average pay raise to compete with industry for tech workers

The VA is offering a perk that's unmatched across the federal civilian government. Its Office of Information and Technology last month implemented a historic 17...

The Department of Veterans Affairs is calling on a new generation of in-demand tech workers to consider a stint — if not an entire career — in the federal workforce.

The VA is offering a perk that’s unmatched across the federal civilian government. Its Office of Information and Technology last month implemented a historic 17% average pay raise for its IT and cybersecurity workforce.

VA Deputy Chief Information Officer and Chief People Officer Nathan Tierney told VA employees and prospective job-seekers on Thursday that VA OIT employees received, on average, a $18,000 pay bump, once the Special Salary Rate went into effect on July 16.

The VA is counting on the SSR to narrow — but not completely close — an estimated 66% pay gap between similar roles in industry and government.

“We know that there is a gap in pay between industry and government for tech talent. Well, we’ve closed that gap with the Special Salary Rate, so that we are competitive,” Tierney said in a webinar Thursday.

VA estimates the Special Salary Rate significantly raised the salaries of more than 7,000 VA OIT personnel nationwide.

Employees receiving the SSR can also receive critical skills and retention incentives, as long as they qualify. VA OIT employees cannot exceed a $183,500 salary cap. The SSR will expire in September 2027.

Tierney said the SSR will also count toward the “high three” calculation for a federal retiree’s pension benefits. The Office of Personnel Management normally counts the highest three years of an employee’s base salary when calculating pensions.

The VA is the first department to roll out the new pay model for its tech workforce, and has been advocating for the SSR to go into effect governmentwide since late 2022.

OPM approved the SSR to go into effect governmentwide, but then placed the SSR on hold, pending additional implementation guidance.

Some agencies are struggling to make room in their budgets to implement the SSR, after the Biden administration struck a debt-ceiling deal with congressional Republicans to strictly limit nondefense discretionary spending over the next two fiscal years.

Despite this uncertainty among other agencies, the VA implemented the SSR by using its new authority to establish special rates under the PACT Act.

The PACT Act, signed into law last summer, expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits and toxic substances during their military service.

Tierney said the VA prioritized the SSR in its budget, after department journey maps showed compensation stood out as a “top attraction and attrition driver for people in tech.”

“We listened to your voice,” Tierney said. “[We] gathered the data, built the business case, built a coalition, made the pitch in under a year,” he said. “For those of you that think government moves slow, not on my watch. We’re ready to move fast to deliver an outstanding employee experience.”

The SSR, as authorized under the PACT Act, is set to expire on Sept. 30, 2027. But Tierney said there is an option under the PACT Act to extend the SSR for an additional two years.

Beyond that timeline, Tierney said VA may be able to continue offering the Special Salary Rate that was approved governmentwide by OPM.

“As we sort through that and the funding for the other agencies, my vision, in my opinion, would be that we would just have that natural transition to the OPM [authorization] to be able to continue to use it,” Tierney said.

Beyond the substantial increase in pay, VA OIT is also pitching itself as a place where tech employees can develop new skills and advance into new roles.

“I want to recruit and retain the top-tier talent to come on board, join the team, and help us deliver better products and services to the veterans that we care about, and their family members,” Tierney said.

Tierney said VA OIT offers rotational programs that give employees exposure to different jobs and an opportunity to develop new skills.

VA OIT is also pitching itself as an IT shop with a unique mission – supporting the technology that 19 million veterans rely on to receive health care and benefits each year.

The VA claims to have the second largest IT footprint in the federal government — with the Defense Department holding the largest overall footprint.

More than half of VA OIT’s employees are veterans. About 30% of the VA’s employees are veterans.

“If you want to be part of a team that gets a touch everything — whether it’s financial, educational health care and other cutting-edge technologies — this is the place to be,” Tierney said.

Tierney said VA OIT’s employee headcount is currently at about 92% of the workforce that Congress authorized funding for.

VA officials throughout the SSR approval process said the department planned its budget to account for the special rates.

“We have a very good understanding of what it takes to deliver IT products and services. And that’s why we need highly talented people on board to make that happen.”

The VA is also in the process of launching its cybersecurity apprenticeship program, meant to help veterans “learn while they earn,” and develop valuable tech skills on the job.

Tierney said VA OIT partnered with the Labor Department to launch the cyber apprenticeship program last November and is looking at the program as another way for the VA to grow its cyber workforce.  He said the VA is about to bring in its first cohort.

“You can come in, learn some high-tech cyber skills, right, work with us on some cutting-edge technologies,” Tierney said. “Our hope would be [that] maybe you’d want to stick with us — we have openings. But if you don’t, you learn something new, and you’re able to take that out into industry.”

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