Federal employees need attention

A lot of important issues have been neglected — or avoided — by both sides during this presidential campaign. Two recent news articles reminded me of one of them.

The first article relayed the good news that American David Wineland won the Nobel Prize for Physics. Wineland is a federal employee who works at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He won the award “for ground breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems.”

If that sounds arcane, think again. As NIST Director Patrick Gallagher said,

One of the many amazing things about Dave and his work is that while he is at the absolute frontier of research in quantum mechanics, all his work is directly applicable to innovations and technologies that are regularly used, or will be in the future. For example, Dave’s work is leading to much more accurate atomic clocks. Atomic clocks are crucial for applications such as GPS (now in every smartphone), telecommunications, electric power distribution and many other areas. Dave’s work is helping pave the way for quantum computers, which will… make computers vastly more powerful than today’s best supercomputers.

David Wineland is one of many federal scientists whose work is crucial to maintaining U.S. leadership in technological innovation. And that work is often directly relevant to your life today. The next time your GPS saves you from getting lost, remember to thank the very smart government employee who made that technology possible.

The second news story wasn’t good news at all. It cited a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that said white-collar federal employees like David Wineland are now being paid, on average, 35 percent less than employees in the private sector. The differential increased from 26 percent last year.

Perhaps that surprises you, because some politicians have been loudly complaining about overpaid government workers for a long time. When they do, they are always comparing apples to oranges. The BLS report carefully compares salaries position by position.

Federal employees make up one of the most highly educated workforces in America. Fifty-one percent hold a college degree and many hold graduate degrees. In fact, more than 93 percent of federal jobs are non-clerical.

The major cause of the increased pay differential in the past year is no doubt the freeze in federal pay that has been in effect for the last two years. Even though no employee, whether in the private or public sector, likes a pay freeze, I think most federal employees understand they are helping to resolve a horrific financial crisis. But the unintended consequence of the widening pay gap is that the federal government will have a harder time remaining competitive with the private sector in attracting high-quality employees.

I have always been puzzled by those who argued that we had to maintain the high salaries and bonuses paid by Wall Street banks during and after the financial crisis because we could not afford to let them lose talented employees. Yet the same people refuse to face the reality that uncompetitive low pay for federal employees will not allow us to keep the experts we need to keep the federal government functioning.

Not that money is the most important motivator for most of the federal employees I have met and worked with. Most are there because they believe they can make a difference. The very best examples of this are the federal employees in the military. No one I met, military or non-military, on my trips to Iraq and Afghanistan was there because of the pay. But, ultimately, whether they are in the Army or the State Department, like all of us they have obligations to provide for their families.

To complicate matters even further, 25 percent of all federal employees are now eligible for retirement. Many of these are long-term employees who have technical and other very specialized experiences and skills and are in the leadership of their departments. Finding their replacements will be almost impossible with this widening pay discrepancy.

The words of President John Kennedy are as true today as they were 50 years ago: “The success of this government, and thus the success of our nation, depends in the last analysis upon the quality of our career services.” Maintaining that quality will be one of the major challenges facing whomever is sworn in as president next January.

Originally published 31 October 2012 on huffingtonpost.com