Getting to the top of Uncle Sam’s career ladder, the Senior Executive Service, can be more trouble than it’s worth.

Add recruitment hassles to an SES with more than half its 7,000 members eligible to retire and the result is a leadership corps with a daunting future.

Those and other issues — including diversity, training and pay — facing senior executives in the federal government will be examined during a hearing of the Senate’s federal workforce subcommittee Tuesday.

“Many top-notch candidates do not want to apply to the SES,” subcommittee Chairman Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) plans to tell the hearing in his opening statement. “For years, this Subcommittee has been working to fix the broken Federal hiring process, and we have made quite a bit of progress working closely with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). But the process for senior executive jobs is even more complicated and longer than other jobs.”

That complicated hiring process may be one reason SES diversity numbers are bad, but it’s no excuse. Only 31 percent of the executives are women, 9.4 percent are African American and 3.8 percent are Hispanic, according to OPM.

Akaka and Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), when he was chairman of the House federal workforce subcommittee in 2008, held a joint hearing on SES diversity and introduced legislation to improve it. “There has been slow progress,” Akaka said as he praised the Obama administration for creating the OPM Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Another big problem is pay.

Some civil servants who might join the SES, those classified as GS-14s and GS-15s, are reluctant to make a move that could mean longer hours and more stress for less money. In some cases, executive level employees make less than the staff members they supervise.

The reason is that pay for General Schedule positions had been increasing annually, although federal workers now are in a two-year pay freeze. SES pay, however, is tied to congressional pay. Over the years, GS salaries have increased more than SES wages, resulting in some GS-14s and GS-15s being paid more than lower-level executives.

Senior executive salaries in the Washington area, for example, start at $119,554, OPM data indicate. That’s $4,000 less than the beginning rate for a GS-15.

“In recent years, the Senior Executives Association (SEA) has heard numerous concerns about a declining interest by GS-14 and GS-15 employees in serving in senior career positions in the federal government,” said a survey released last year by the association and Avue Technologies.

They found that many in SES feeder positions think that the difference in pay is not matched by the amount of work a promotion would bring: “Although the opportunity to contribute more fully to the mission of my agency as an SES member is very attractive, the total lack of work/life balance will keep me from applying for any SES candidate development program while I have children at home,” one unnamed GS-14 told the survey. The negatives, another said, “far outweigh any positive benefits of serving in the SES.”

Yet once hired, performance bonuses are almost guaranteed. More than 99 percent of SES members earned a performance award in fiscal 2009, according to OPM’s annual report on SES pay. Only 0.2 percent, who were rated “unacceptable” or “minimally successful,” points one and two on a five-point scale, did not get a bonus.

A confusing situation involving the pay of Energy Department SES members won’t win the service any converts. In a case of what Sam giveth he can taketh away, first reported by Federal News Radio, the department has revoked pay raises given to SES members because the increases violated federal regulations.

Federal employees can get only one pay raise in a calendar year and those given to the Energy executives in December followed raises given in January, according to the SEA.

“The 19 December 2010 pay adjustment will be cancelled effective 27 March 2011 and you will be returned to your prior pay of 18 December 2010,” according to an Energy Department memo provided by the association. “You will NOT be required to repay the debt, as a waiver for repayment will be requested.

At least the handful of federal employees affected — about 220 at Energy and perhaps two dozen at other agencies — had three months of an increase that other federal workers didn’t get, although they’re understandably upset at having their pay cut.

“All Senior Executives are in a pay for performance system, and many did feel as though it would have been fair to recognize their performance last year,” said association President Carol Bonosaro. “Unfortunately, the ‘one pay adjustment per year’ rule made that impossible.”

Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this column. The SES survey and OPM’s annual report on SES pay can be found with this column at www.washingtonpost.com/fedpage.