Federal agencies are increasingly turning to payments aimed at helping their employees pay off student loans as a way to attract and keep valued employees, according to a new report.
In calendar 2014, 33 departments and independent agencies provided nearly 8,500 employees with more than $58.7 million in student loan repayment benefits, an average just above $6,900. That’s a 15 percent increase over 2013 in the number of employees receiving payments and an 11 percent increase in the amount.
Agencies may pay employees up to $10,000 per year, up to $60,000 lifetime, to pay off certain educational loans, in return for the employee committing to continue working for the government for three more years.
Before 2014, the payments had been dropping each year since peaking in 2010 when $85.7 million was paid out to nearly 11,400 employees, averaging nearly $7,100.
Concerns about the government’s ability to recruit and retain highly skilled employees have increased in recent years, especially regarding high-demand occupations such as cybersecurity and other so-called STEM (science, technical, engineering and math) fields. A related issue involves Uncle Sam’s difficulty in attracting and keeping younger workers, who are more likely to be carrying student loan debt and who would find that benefit especially valuable.
“Closing the skills gap in the STEM workforce is a key component in our efforts to deliver on the core mission of OPM: to recruit and retain a world-class workforce to serve the American people,” the report said. “Employees in STEM career fields are vital to the Federal Government’s mission, and OPM is committed to continue working with agencies to help them attract and retain talented professionals using student loan repayments and other human resources management flexibilities.”
As in prior years, payments were concentrated in certain occupations and in certain agencies. The Justice, Defense, State and Veterans Affairs departments, along with the Securities and Exchange Commission accounted for four-fifths of the total paid. At DoD, for example, two-thirds of the payments went to employees in various engineering occupations.
The report from the Office of Personnel Management comes days before a planned Senate subcommittee hearing on whether agencies have enough leeway to respond to special needs within a pay system that often is criticized as being overly rigid.
Salary rates were frozen in 2011-2013, raises of 1 percent were paid in 2014 and 2015, and employees are in line for an average 1.3 percent increase in 2016. In addition to those annual raises, many employees receive pay bumps when advancing up the steps of their pay grades or for other reasons such as promotion.
In addition to the student loan repayment authority, agencies may provide recruitment, retention and relocation incentive payments, which similarly tend to be concentrated in certain agencies and occupations. The most recent OPM report on those payments showed that in 2009, agencies paid nearly $350 million in those incentives to more than 43,000 employees.
OPM said it no longer produces an annual report on those payments because a prior mandate from Congress has expired.