Congress raised the ceiling for salaries for career federal employees on the General Schedule for 2020, which means that GS-15s can receive a maximum of $170,800 this year – up from $166,500 from 2019. Many federal workers may not be feeling particularly thankful for this raise, however, as a growing number of federal employees (those who have hit the pay ceiling) are left without the salary increase they may deserve.

This could be a particular problem for government agencies when it comes to keeping information technology (IT) and cybersecurity experts, as there is serious competition for talent in the private sector, which isn’t constrained by such pay ceilings.

“Top federal contractor talent hitting a pay ceiling is a common challenge with traditionally delivered contracts – i.e. labor hour based – and traditional contractor delivery models, i.e. solutions and people,” said James Christopher, executive vice president of operations and engineering at the 1901 Group.

“Top talent must be identified and nurtured, to include career planning, training, and certifications, as well as providing them with the right management and opportunities along the way,” Christopher told ClearanceJobs.

Government-Wide Issue

Worker retention is a growing problem across all sectors, with low unemployment and a significant number of job openings putting the power in the candidate’s hands.

“There is a lot of demand for cyber in the workforce right now, and there just aren’t enough people to go around,” warned Chaitra M. Hardison, Ph.D., senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation.

She has conducted research for the U.S. Air Force and has seen the constraints that the salary ceiling has created. “Those organizations outside of the government in the private sector are able to pay more money and attract more people than those who can’t offer more. If the agency has a pay cap that can make it more difficult to retain the talent than those working in the private sector where there may be no cap.”

Beyond general schedule increases, Hardison told ClearanceJobs that there are other ways to get around the salary caps – provided it has congressional approval.

“There can be special incentive career pay in certain fields,” said Hardison. “There are some levers that the military services and government agencies can pull. However, that is limited and constrained by what regulations exist for federal employees.”

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has laid out various incentives, which can include a recruitment incentive that “may be paid to an employee who is newly appointed to the Federal Government.” This would be the first appointment, regardless of tenure, as a government employee.

Keep Workers Satisfied

Another important factor that government agencies and the military face is that it isn’t always just money that’s the issue. In many cases promotions must result in a change of position. If you don’t want the new position, there is no promotion available.

In her study with the USAF, Hardison looked to understand how the military recruited and retained people and this included the individual’s level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with one’s current position. In focus groups it was found that a common source of dissatisfaction was that some individuals didn’t want more responsibility or a management level position.

“Many wanted to stay ‘on keyboard’ and continue to do with work they were doing, and this included those in IT or offensive and defensive cybersecurity operations,” she told ClearanceJobs.

The ability for cybersecurity workers to also take part in offensive actions was a factor that helped the USAF retain some individuals, while promotion to the next level was as much a factor in why some choose to move to the next opportunity.

“That is one of the things that could be a driver for leaving the military,” explained Hardison. “In the private sector, there is often a greater ability to increase the pay while still allowing the individual to do the work they loved. Another factor was that in leadership positions in the military, those individuals can’t always maintain the skills they loved. While in the private sector you’re not forced to move up to management if it isn’t what you want to do.”

Government vs. Private Sector – Weighing the Pros and Cons

The military and government also can’t generally provide the flexibility of the private sector. The military can’t easily allow time off during the day to pick up the kids from school, and the government typically doesn’t encourage working from home. Both of those are factors that the private sector can use, beyond salary.

The military and government agencies have advantages that the private sector can’t offer. With the government there may be less concern that positions could be eliminated, and IT and cybersecurity workers can feel confident in long term job security, even if the salary is capped.

For both government workers and service members, there is also the feeling of purpose and serving.

“One thing that the federal government and military can offer is work that is rewarding and you are protecting the country,” said Hardison. “There are very targeted threats today, and this is a reason why people joined up. The ability to serve and address these threats makes it more exciting.”

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.