Federal Government, Excluding the Postal Service
The Federal Government is an organization formed to produce public services. We use some of these services every day, such as streets and sidewalks, police to maintain order, and parks, to name a few.
Goods and services. The Federal Governments essential duties include defending the United States from foreign aggression and terrorism, representing U.S. interests abroad, enforcing laws and regulations, and administering domestic programs and agencies. U.S. citizens are particularly aware of the Federal Government when they pay their income taxes each year, but they usually do not consider the governments role when they watch a weather forecast, purchase fresh and uncontaminated groceries, travel by highway or air, or make a deposit at their bank. Workers employed by the Federal Government play a vital role in these and many other aspects of our daily lives. (While career opportunities in the U.S. Postal Service and the Armed Forces are not covered here, both are described in the 2008-09 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook. See the Handbook statements on Postal Service workers and job opportunities in the Armed Forces.)
Industry organization. More than 200 years ago, the founders of the United States gathered in Philadelphia, PA, to create a constitution for a new national government and lay the foundation for self-governance. The Constitution of the United States, ratified by the last of the 13 original States in 1791, created the three branches of the Federal Government and granted certain powers and responsibilities to each. The legislative, judicial, and executive branches were created with equal powers but very different responsibilities that act to keep their powers in balance.
The legislative branch is responsible for forming and amending the legal structure of the Nation. Its largest component is Congress, the primary U.S. legislative body, which is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives. This body includes senators, representatives, their staffs, and various support workers. The legislative branch employs only about one percent of Federal workers, nearly all of whom work in the Washington, DC area.
The judicial branch is responsible for interpreting the laws that the legislative branch enacts. The Supreme Court, the Nations definitive judicial body, makes the highest rulings. Its decisions usually follow the appeal of a decision made by the one of the regional Courts of Appeal, which hear cases appealed from U.S. District Courts, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, or State Supreme Courts. U.S. District Courts are located in each State and are the first to hear most cases under Federal jurisdiction. The judicial branch employs more than one percent of Federal workers; unlike the legislative branch, its offices and employees are dispersed throughout the country.
Of the three branches, the executive branchthrough the power vested by the Constitution in the office of the Presidenthas the widest range of responsibilities. Consequently, it employed about 98 percent of all Federal civilian employees (excluding Postal Service workers) in 2005. The executive branch is composed of the Executive Office of the President, 15 executive Cabinet departmentsincluding the newly created Department of Homeland Securityand nearly 90 independent agencies, each of which has clearly defined duties. The Executive Office of the President is composed of several offices and councils that aid the President in policy decisions. These include the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the administration of the Federal budget; the National Security Council, which advises the President on matters of national defense; and the Council of Economic Advisers, which makes economic policy recommendations.
Each of the 15 executive Cabinet departments administers programs that oversee an aspect of life in the United States. The highest departmental official of each Cabinet department, the Secretary, is a member of the Presidents Cabinet. Each, listed by employment size, is described below and in table 1.
Numerous independent agencies perform tasks that fall between the jurisdictions of the executive departments are more efficiently executed by an autonomous agency. Some smaller, but well- known, independent agencies include the Peace Corps, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission. Although the majority of these agencies are fairly small, employing fewer than 1,000 workers (many employ fewer than 100 workers), some are quite large. The largest independent agencies are:
Hours. The vast majority of Federal employees work full time; some work on flexible or flexi-time schedules that allow workers more control over their work schedules. Some agencies also offer telecommuting or flexi-place programs, which allow selected workers to perform some job duties at home or from regional centers.
Work environment. Some Federal workers spend much of their time away from the offices in which they are based. For example, inspectors or compliance officers often visit businesses and worksites to ensure that laws and regulations are obeyed. Some Federal workers frequently travel long distances, spending days or weeks away from home. Auditors, for example, may spend weeks at a time in distant locations.
Because of the wide range of Federal jobs, working conditions are equally variable. Most Federal employees work in office buildings, hospitals, or laboratories; but a large number also can be found at border crossings, airports, shipyards, military bases, construction sites, and national parks. Work environments vary from comfortable and relaxed to hazardous and stressful, such as those experienced by law enforcement officers, astronauts, and air traffic controllers.
In January 2007, the Federal Government, excluding the Postal Service employed about 1.8 million civilian workers. The Federal Government is the Nations single largest employer. Because data on employment in certain agencies cannot be released to the public for national security reasons, this total does not include employment for the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and National Imagery and Mapping Agency.
The Federal Government makes an effort to have a workforce as diverse as the Nations civilian labor force. The Federal Government serves as a model for all employers in abiding by equal employment opportunity legislation, which protects current and potential employees from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or age. The Federal Government also makes a special effort to recruit and accommodate persons with disabilities.
Even though the headquarters of most Federal departments and agencies are based in the Washington, DC, area, only 16 percent of Federal employees worked in the vicinity of the Nations Capital in 2007. In addition to Federal employees working throughout the United States, about 92,000, which includes foreign nationals, are assigned overseas, mostly in embassies or defense installations.
Overview. Although the Federal Government employs workers in every major occupational group, workers are not employed in the same proportions in which they are employed throughout the economy as a whole (table 2). The analytical and technical nature of many government duties translates into a much higher proportion of professional, management, business, and financial occupations in the Federal Government, compared with most industries. Conversely, the Government sells very little, so it employs relatively few sales workers.
Management, business, and financial occupations. Management, business, and financial workers made up about 33 percent of Federal employment and were primarily responsible for overseeing operations. Managerial workers include a broad range of officials who, at the highest levels, may head Federal agencies or programs. Middle managers, on the other hand, usually oversee one activity or aspect of a program. One management occupationlegislatorsis responsible for passing and amending laws and overseeing the executive branch of the government. Within the Federal Government, legislators are entirely found in Congress.
Other occupations in this occupational group are accountants and auditors, who prepare and analyze financial reports, review and record revenues and expenditures, and investigate operations for fraud and inefficiency. Management analysts study government operations and systems and suggest improvements. Purchasing agents handle Federal purchases of supplies and tax examiners, collectors, and revenue agents determine and collect taxes.
Professional and related occupations. Professional and related occupations accounted for about 33 percent of Federal employment in 2006 (table 3). The largest groups of professional workers were in life, physical, and social science occupations, such as biological scientists, conservation scientists and foresters, environmental scientists and geoscientists, and forest and conservation technicians. They performed tasks such as determining the effects of drugs on living organisms, preventing fires in the National forests, and predicting earthquakes and hurricanes.
Many health professionals, such as licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses, registered nurses, and physicians and surgeons, were employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in VA hospitals.
Large numbers of Federal workers also held jobs as engineers, including aerospace, civil, computer hardware, electrical and electronics, environmental, industrial, mechanical, and nuclear engineers. Engineers were found in many departments of the executive branch, but the vast majority worked in the Department of Defense. Some worked in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as well as other agencies. In general, they solve problems and provide advice on technical programs, such as building highway bridges or implementing agency wide computer systems.
The Federal Government hires many lawyers, judges and related workers, as well as law clerks to write, administer, and enforce many of the countrys laws and regulations.
Computer specialistsprimarily computer software engineers, computer systems analysts, and network and computer systems administratorsare employed throughout the Federal Government. They write computer programs, analyze problems related to data processing, and keep computer systems running smoothly.
Office and administrative support occupations. About 14 percent of Federal workers were in office and administrative support occupations. These employees aid management staff with administrative duties. Administrative support workers in the Federal Government include information and record clerks, general office clerks, and secretaries and administrative assistants.
Service occupations. Compared with the economy as a whole, workers in service occupations were relatively scarce in the Federal Government. About 1 out of 2 Federal workers in service occupations were protective service workers, such as correctional officers and jailers, detectives and criminal investigators, and police officers. These workers protect the public from crime and oversee Federal prisons.
Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations. Federally employed workers in installation, maintenance, and repair occupations include aircraft mechanics and service technicians who fix and maintain all types of aircraft, and electrical and electronic equipment mechanics, installers, and repairers, who inspect, adjust, and repair electronic equipment such as industrial controls, transmitters, antennas, radar, radio, and navigation systems.
Other occupational groups. The Federal Government employed a relatively small number of workers in transportation; production; construction; sales and related; and farming, fishing, and forestry occupations. However, the Government employs almost all or a significant number of some occupations, such as air traffic controllers, agricultural inspectors, and bridge and lock tenders.
The educational and training requirements for jobs in the Federal Government mirror those in the private sector for most major occupational groups. Many jobs in managerial or professional and related occupations, for example, require a 4-year college degree. Some, such as engineers, physicians and surgeons, and biological and physical scientists, require a bachelors or higher degree in a specific field of study. However, registered nurse and many technician occupations may be entered with 2 years of training after high school. Office and administrative support workers in the government usually need only a high school diploma, although any further training or experience, such as a junior college degree or a couple of years of relevant work experience, is an asset. Most Federal jobs in other occupations require no more than a high school degree, although most departments and agencies prefer workers with vocational training or previous experience.
In all but a few cases, applicants for Federal jobs must be U.S. citizens. Applicants who are veterans of military service also may be able to claim veterans preference which gives them preferred status over other candidates with equal qualifications. For jobs requiring access to sensitive or classified materials, applicants must undergo a background investigation in order to obtain a security clearance. This investigation covers an individuals criminal, credit, and employment history, as well as other records. The scope of the investigation will vary, depending on the nature of the position in the government and the degree of harm that an individual in that position could cause. Generally, the higher the level of clearance needed, the greater the scope of investigation.
Once employed, each Federal department or agency determines its own training requirements and offers workers opportunities to improve job skills or become qualified to advance to other jobs. These may include technical or skills training, tuition assistance or reimbursement, fellowship programs, and executive leadership and management training programs, seminars, and workshops. This training may be offered on the job, by another agency, or at local colleges and universities.
Advancement for most workers in the Federal Government is currently based on a system of occupational pay levels, or grades, although more departments and agencies are being granted waivers to utilize different pay and promotion strategies. Workers typically enter the Federal civil service at the starting grade for an occupation and begin a career ladder of promotions until they reach the full-performance grade for that occupation. This system provides for a limited number of noncompetitive promotions, which usually are awarded at regular intervals, assuming job performance is satisfactory. The exact pay grades associated with a jobs career track depend upon the occupation.
Typically, workers without a high school diploma who are hired as clerks start at grade 1, and high school graduates with no additional training hired at the same job start at grade 2 or 3. Entrants with some technical training or experience who are hired as technicians may start at grade 4. Those with a bachelors degree generally are hired in professional occupations, such as economist, with a career ladder that starts at grade 5 or 7, depending on academic achievement. Entrants with a masters degree or Ph.D. may start at grade 9. Individuals with professional degrees may be hired at the grade 11 or 12 level. Those with a combination of education and substantive experience may be hired at higher grades than those with education alone.
Once nonsupervisory Federal workers reach the full-performance level of the career track, they usually receive periodic step increases within their grade if they are performing their job satisfactorily. They must compete for subsequent promotions, and advancement becomes more difficult. At this point, promotions occur as vacancies arise, and they are based solely on merit and in competition with other qualified candidates. In addition to within-grade longevity increases, Federal workers are awarded bonuses for excellent job performance.
Workers who advance to managerial or supervisory positions may receive within-grade longevity increases, bonuses, and promotions to higher grades. The top managers in the Federal civil service belong to the Senior Executive Service (SES), the highest positions that Federal workers can reach without being specifically nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Relatively few workers attain SES positions, and competition is intense. Bonus provisions for SES positions are even more performance-based than are those for lower-level positions. Because it is the headquarters for most Federal agencies, the Washington, DC, metropolitan area offers the best opportunities to advance to upper-level managerial and supervisory jobs.
Wage and salary employment in the Federal Government is projected to decline by 4.6 percent over the 2006-16 period. Some job growth will be generated by increased homeland security needs. There is projected slow growth or declines in other Federal sectors due to governmental cost-cutting, the growing use of private contractors, and continuing devolutionthe practice of turning over the development, implementation, and management of some programs of the Federal Government to State and local governments. However, many job openings should arise from the need to replace workers who retire or leave the Federal Government for other reasons.
Employment change. Staffing levels in Federal Government, while relatively stable in the short run, can be subject to change in the long run primarily because of changes in public policies as legislated by the Congress, which affect spending levels and hiring decisions for the various departments and agencies. In general, over the coming decade, domestic programs are likely to see cuts in their budgets as Congress seeks to reduce the Federal budget deficit, but the cuts will likely affect some agencies more than others. Any employment declines, however, generally will be carried out through attritionsimply not replacing workers who retire or leave the Federal Government for other reasons. Layoffs, called reductions in force, have occurred in the past, but they are uncommon and usually affect relatively few workers.
While there will be job openings in all types of jobs over the coming decade, demand will continue to grow for specialized workers in areas related to border and transportation security, emergency preparedness, public health, and information analysis.
A study by the Partnership for Public Service, which surveyed Federal department and agency hiring needs through September 2009, found that most new hires in the Federal Government will come in five major areas: security, enforcement, and compliance, which includes inspectors, investigators, police officers, airport screeners, and prison guards; medical and public health fields; engineering and the sciences, including microbiologists, botanists, physicists, chemists, and veterinarians; program management and administration; and accounting, budget, and business, which includes revenue agents and tax examiners needed mainly by the Internal Revenue Service. The Department of Health and Human Services will need health insurance specialists and claims and customer service representatives to implement the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit. Patent examiners, foreign service officers, and lawyers also are in high demand.
Job prospects. In spite of legislative budget cuts, there still will be numerous employment opportunities in many agencies from the need to replace workers who leave the workforce, retire, or accept employment elsewhere. In fact, the need for replacement for workers will be significant in the coming years. For example, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) estimates that among all full-time permanent employees in the Federal workforce as of October 2004, 58 percent of supervisory and 42 percent of nonsupervisory workers will be eligible to retire by the end of 2010.
Competition is expected for many Federal positions, especially during times of economic uncertainty, when workers seek the stability of Federal employment. In general, Federal employment is considered to be relatively stable because it is not affected by cyclical fluctuations in the economy, as are employment levels in many private sector industries.
The distribution of Federal employment will continue to shift toward a higher proportion of professional, business, and financial operations, and protective service workers. Employment declines will be the greatest among office and administrative support occupations and production occupations because of increasing office automation and contracting out of these jobs.
Industry earnings. In an effort to give agencies more flexibility in how they pay their workers, there are different pay systems in effect, or planning to be implemented over the next few years, within the Federal Government. The new systems incorporate fewer, but wider, pay bands, instead of grade levels. Pay increases, under these new systems, are almost entirely based on performance, instead of length of service.
The majority of professional and administrative Federal workers are still paid under the General Schedule (GS). The General Schedule, shown in table 4, has 15 grades of pay for civilian white-collar and service workers, and smaller within-grade step increases that occur based on length of service and quality of performance. New employees usually start at the first step of a grade; however, if the position in question is difficult to fill, entrants may receive somewhat higher pay or special rates. Almost all physician and engineer positions, for example, fall into this category. In an effort to make Federal pay more responsive to local labor market conditions, Federal employees working in the continental United States receive locality pay. The specific amount of locality pay is determined by survey comparisons of private sector wage rates and Federal wage rates in the relevant geographic area. At its highest level, locality pay can lead to an increase of as much as 30 percent above the base salary in 2007. Every January, a pay adjustment tied to changes in private sector pay levels is divided between an across-the-board pay increase in the General Schedule and locality pay increases.
In March 2007, the average earnings for full-time workers paid under the General Schedule were $65,463. (See table 5).
For those in craft, repair, operator, and laborer jobs, the Federal Wage System (FWS) is used to pay these workers. This schedule sets Federal wages so that they are comparable with prevailing regional wage rates for similar types of jobs. As a result, wage rates paid under the FWS can vary significantly from one locality to another.
In addition to base pay and bonuses, Federal employees may receive incentive awards. These incentive awards can be in the form of cash rewards, quality step increase (a faster than normal progression of steps on the GS pay scale), and time off awards (allowing time off without using leave or loss of pay). The one-time cash awards can be up to $25,000, but are typically significantly smaller, are bestowed for a significant suggestion, a special act or service, or sustained high job performance. Some workers also may receive premium pay, which is granted when the employee must work overtime, on holidays, on weekends, at night, or under hazardous conditions.
Benefits and union membership. Benefits are an important part of Federal employee compensation. Federal employees may choose from a number of health plans and life insurance options; premium payments for these policies are partially offset by the Government. In addition, workers hired after January 1, 1984, participate in the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), a three-tiered retirement plan including Social Security, a pension plan, and an optional Thrift Savings Plan. Worker participation in the Thrift Savings Plan is voluntary, but any contributions made are tax-deferred and, up to a point, matched by the Federal Government. In addition to other benefits, some Federal agencies provide public transit subsidies in an effort to encourage employee use of public transportation.
Federal employees receive both vacation and sick leave. They earn 13 days of vacation leave a year for the first 3 years, 20 days a year for the next 12 years, and 26 days a year after their 15th year of service. Workers also receive 13 days of sick leave a year, which may be accumulated indefinitely.
The American Federal Government Employees union represents nonsupervisory Federal employees. About 22 percent of all Federal civilian employees outside the Postal Service were union members or covered by union contract in 2006.
Information on obtaining a position with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) through USAJOBS, the Federal Governments official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at http://www.usajobs.opm.gov or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724-1850 or TTY (978) 461-8404. These numbers are not tollfree, and charges may result.
For advice on finding a job with the Federal Government and more information on the Federal hiring process and employment system, contact:
For more information on union membership for Federal government employees, contact:
The duties of Federal Government workers are similar to those of their private sector counterparts. Further information on many Federal Government occupations, including those listed below, can be found in the 2008-09 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook.
Suggested citation: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Career Guide to Industries, 2008-09 Edition, Federal Government, Excluding the Postal Service, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/oco/cg/cgs041.htm (visited September 17, 2008 ).
Last Modified Date: March 12, 2008