U.S. to Test New Pay Plan For Scientists

GAITHERSBURG, MD—The government could attract and retain a greater share of top-quality scientists and engineers if it could offer them more competitive salaries, hire them more quickly, and award raises and promotions on individual performance. That belief, held by research administrators both inside and outside government, is the driving force behind a five-year experiment at the National Bureau of Standards. Responding to a successful demonstration project begun in 1980 at two Navy work

By | March 23, 1987

GAITHERSBURG, MD—The government could attract and retain a greater share of top-quality scientists and engineers if it could offer them more competitive salaries, hire them more quickly, and award raises and promotions on individual performance.

That belief, held by research administrators both inside and outside government, is the driving force behind a five-year experiment at the National Bureau of Standards. Responding to a successful demonstration project begun in 1980 at two Navy work sites—the Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego and the Naval Weapons Center in China Lake, Calif.—Congress last fall told the Bureau to start a similar program by January 1988.

"The whole scheme is borrowed from industry," said John Lyons, director of the National Engineering Laboratory at NBS and the leader of a team responsible for developing the new system. "The concepts are straightforward and old."

Part of the problem with attracting and keeping scientists is the disparity in pay between government and private industry. Begin-fling scientists and engineers who enter government earn salaries half the size of their peers in the private sector, according to a 1984 survey by the Government Accounting Office. A survey by the Bureau found its starting salaries for doctoral-level scientists were $10,000 lower than what industry was offering.

But a lack of dollars isn't the only obstacle for prospective employees. The government's ponderous system of hiring, rewarding and promoting worthy employees turns off many candidates.

The new system will redistribute the current 18 government grade levels into six broad pay bands, and replace rigid and cumbersome position descriptions with generic job descriptions that managers can tailor to individual employees. The result is expected to be a more responsive system of classification and pay.

"Under the old civil service system," explained Carl Schaniel, head of the fuze and sensors department at the Naval Weapons Center, "a person can flounder for up to a year getting a position description approved to hire somebody. And managers fighting with the personnel department over a position description is nonproductive."

Added John Silva, program director for technology at the Ocean Systems Center, "in terms of paperwork, now I can hire someone in a day. And when we recruit at the universities, the demonstration project allows us to adjust the starting salaries and improve our chances of attracting people."

Performance Rewarded

The advantages of the new system have not been lost on employees. "I had another offer from private industry but I chose the government," said Claudia Barton, a physicist at the Ocean Systems Center who previously had taught at a university, been employed by small and large industrial firms, and worked as a private consultant. She was hired six weeks after she attended a jobs fair, and after 18 months with the software quality assurance program she has no regrets about her decision.

"This system encourages people who have initiative and who want to do well," she remarked. "I want to perform, and I know I will be rewarded [for my work]."

Managers in the project will work with each employee on a performance plan for the coming year. The plan will be reviewed at midyear and can be modified. A year-end appraisal, in which employees are given one of five ratings, determines their salary for the next year. Under the present civil service system, raises beyond cost-of-living adjustments require managers to reclassify jobs with new position descriptions approved by the personnel office. The Bureau also hopes to offer retention bonuses, a feature not in the naval demonstration projects, to certain scientists in high demand.

Although supervisors must in-vest more time creating performance plans in the new appraisal system, performance-based pay gives them a way to stimulate less productive workers. "Now we can send messages via the paycheck," said Silva. "The message gets there, and people do turn around." Since the program began, Silva has dealt with five unsatisfactory employees; four of them improved their ratings significantly and the fifth left.

Congress ordered the Bureau to spend no more money for salaries under the new system than it did under the old system. Costs have risen by an average of 1 percent annually during the naval demonstration projects, according to the Office for Personnel Management, but Lyons foresees several ways to hold down the budget.

"We can spread out the distribution of salaries, keeping the mean salary the same," he explained. "We can also move up the mean salary by shrinking the staff." Lyons said some of the 3,500 employees at the Bureau will resign voluntarily or retire during the experiment, but he does not expect that any layoffs will be necessary.

Lloyd is a freelance science writer in Vienna, Va.

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