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What Is Federal Civilian Employment?

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The United States government is the nation's largest employer. Along with more than 2 million military active-duty and reserve personnel at time of writing, the federal government employs more than 2 million nonmilitary workers. Those gigs range from department and agency heads to janitors, clerks and scientists.

What Is a Federal Civilian Employee?

Federal civilian employees work directly for the federal government. Uniformed members of the military are government employees, but they're not civilians. Federal contractors employ thousands of staffers to do work for the government, but they're not federal employees; the government doesn't set their pay, their hours, their benefits and so on. Elected officials and federal judges are federal employees.

Specific federal laws and regulations may define federal employment differently. The rules in 18 U.S. Code 207, for instance, place certain restrictions on former federal employees acting as lobbyists. The rules refer to "employees," but define the term very precisely. The definition is meant to tell who's covered by the rules, not to define federal employment in general.

Counting Civilian Employees

Getting accurate figures on civilian employees is tougher than you might think. Like determining who's covered by a given regulation, the differences in definitions can get technical.

The Congressional Research Service sets the numbers at 2.6 million executive-branch civilian employees, plus another 60,000 in the legislative and judicial branches of the government. The U.S. Postal Service employs almost 600,000 executive-branch workers. Because USPS has been set up as a self-financing agency, rather than paying employees from general tax money, the postal workforce gets counted separately from the rest of the executive branch.

The technical part is that there's more than one way to add up the size of the workforce:

  • A head count of the number of federal civilian employees.
  • Adding up the number of hours federal employees work in a year and dividing that by 2,080, a year of full-time work.
  • Surveying federal agencies on the sizes of their staffs.
  • Contacting workers at home in a survey.

Different methods get different results. Suppose an agency has 10 part-time employees who work 20 hours per week. The head count method tells the researcher the agency has 10 employees. Adding up the hours would show the agency has what amounts to five "full-time equivalent" employees. Neither of these is automatically a wrong answer – it depends on what the questioner wants to know.

How to Become a Federal Civilian Employee

Just like counting the federal workforce, there's more than one method for becoming a federal employee. The federal USAJOBS website lists a dozen different approaches for different classes of people: veterans, Native Americans, executives, military spouses and current federal employees looking at a career move.

There are some federal positions that aren't available through normal job-hunting methods. To become a member of Congress, for instance, you have to win an election. To become a federal judge, you have to be nominated by the president and then approved by the Senate. Becoming a U.S. ambassador requires a nomination, Senate approval and incredible amounts of paperwork.

For lower-ranked employment, the USAJOBS site is the place to go. You can use the website to search for potential federal jobs you'd be qualified for. You can also create a profile, upload your resume and add any other documentation you need. Then you can submit copies to apply for as many jobs as you like.

A few decades ago, getting into a civil service job required passing an exam. In the 21st century, only 20 percent of federal jobs require such a test. If you have the skills the job calls for, the focus will be on your background, work experience and education.

Once you apply, the agency will rate and rank your application. Rating measures your application against the minimum requirements for the job. Ranking compares your skills and experience to that of the other applicants. The agency then evaluates candidates by assigning numerical scores and picking the top candidate. An alternative approach is to group applications into categories and choose any of the candidates in the top category.

Some applicants, such as veterans, get special preference during this competitive phase. If the agency uses numerical scores, veterans get a five-point bonus or 10 points if they're disabled. If the agency uses category grading, qualified disabled vets go in the top category. Other veterans may not make the top grade, but they get preference ahead of any non-veterans in their category. The applicant will have to provide paperwork confirming he or she is a veteran.

There are other special paths to federal employment:

  • College students may qualify for internships.
  • Military spouses can land jobs outside the usual competitive process.
  • Spouses and partners of federal employees working overseas can apply for jobs when they return to the U.S. Like military spouses, they may be able to skip the usual competition. 
  • Disabled individuals get special consideration in hiring.
  • Applicants looking for a senior executive position with the government can get special consideration if they demonstrate serious executive accomplishment in their previous jobs.

The alternative paths may not be available for the job you want. The details of the position on USAJOBS will include whether it's open to military spouses or veterans, for instance.

What Are Federal Civilian Jobs?

The federal government's 2 million-plus employees work in every conceivable field and industry. The Treasury Department alone employs workers in 250 different types of jobs:

  • Economists and financial analysts
  • Accountants
  • Tax collectors
  • Chemists working on currency-manufacturing processes
  • IT specialists
  • Criminal investigators for catching fraud and abuse in the department.

There are even marketing specialists working for Treasury. Any time the department issues a special commemorative coin, the marketers work to promote it.

Some jobs go to contractors, private businesses handling work for the federal government. The Department of Defense employs around 760,000 civilian workers and more than half a million contractors. The privatized jobs aren't counted as federal employment and don't follow the same rules. The debate over whether privatizing jobs makes them more efficient and cost-effective has been going on for years. There's no sign of it ending.

If you think working for the government requires moving to Washington, D.C., think again. Four-fifths of federal employees work outside the nation's capital. The states with the highest concentration of federal workers are California, Texas, Virginia and Maryland, but there are federal jobs all across the country.

Life as a Federal Employee

In a lot of ways, working for the federal government is no different than any other job. You put in the hours, and you earn the pay. If you do well, you may be able to move up the ladder. Sexual harassment and discriminatory hiring are illegal. But just as two private employers may do things a little differently, the federal government has its own employment procedures:

  • Your first year on the job is probationary. By the end of the year, your supervisor recommends either keeping you or not.
  • Permanent employees and some temporary employees will have to undergo a background check.
  • If you have any influence on hiring other employees, using it for a relative –

    child, parent, spouse, in-laws, nieces and nephews, for instance –

    is a no-go. 

When you leave your job, there may be rules on who you can work for next. For example, if you work in procurement and award a contract greater than $10 million to a contractor, it'll be a year before you can accept any pay or compensation from the company. Rules of this sort discourage federal employees from cutting sweetheart deals with contractors in return for a job or a bribe. Employees have to abide by the federal code of ethics even if their activities don't violate a specific rule. The code says they should never use their office for personal gain, nor give preferential treatment to individuals or groups. They must also avoid any action that makes it look like they're breaking the code. Taking a job with a company you regulate would raise questions, even if all your decisions were fair and unbiased. Giving or getting gifts would also pose a problem.

The federal Hatch Act places restrictions on civilian employees' political activities. They can vote, donate to campaigns and express opinions. They can't campaign or make speeches for or against candidates in partisan elections; use their position to influence an election; engage in political activity while on duty; or solicit or discourage political contributions or activity from anyone who does business with their agency.

Federal Employees and the General Schedule

The federal General Schedule has nothing to do with organizing meetings or scheduling the work day. "GS" is the federal system for ranking white-collar employees and setting their pay. The General Schedule has 15 grades, from GS-1 at the bottom to the stratospheric heights of GS-15. Most civilian employees fall under the GS system.

Federal agencies classify the grade of each job, setting the GS based on the level of difficulty, the level of responsibility and the qualifications for the job. GS-2 jobs typically go to individuals with a high school diploma and no particular additional experience. An applicant with a four-year degree can land a GS-5, while a graduate degree could qualify someone for a GS-9.

Within each grade are 10 step rates. Moving up a step is worth a 3 percent salary increase. Workers go up in steps based on a mix of performance and longevity. You'd need to spend at least a year at step one to rise to two, for instance, then another year to make step three. At steps seven through nine, it's a three-year wait. If you stay in one GS grade, it'll take you more than 18 years to go from step one to step 10. Exceptional employees can get an extra step increase each year. Jobs in hard-to-staff regions may offer a special pay rate to lure employees.

Moving up to the next GS boosts your pay roughly as much as moving two steps in a given grade. Usually, you have to put in at least a year at your current GS before you advance. When you first apply for a position, the job announcement will give the GS range. You can often advance to the top of the range just by putting in time at your post. Above that level, you have to earn your promotions by competing in the federal merit system.

Above the general schedule come the six levels of Senior Executive Service (SES) and then the five ranks of Executive Level. To make executive level requires a presidential appointment. Members of SES serve in the positions just below those of presidential appointees. They operate and oversee all activity in approximately 75 agencies, taking direction from the executive level.

Benefits and Bonuses

Along with their pay, federal civilian employees also get a benefits package:

  • Civilian employees get health insurance. There are no restrictions for age or physical condition, and once you sign up, the plan can't be canceled. The government pays slightly more than 70 percent of the premium cost.
  • Most employees can enroll in life-insurance coverage.
  • A civil service annuity: The annuity costs less than 1 percent and can pay as much as 30 percent of your peak salary. 
  • Employees can invest up to 12 percent of their salary in a thrift plan equivalent to a 401(k).

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About the Author

Over the course of his career, Fraser Sherman has reported on local governments, written about how to start a business and profiled professionals in a variety of career fields.. He lives in Durham NC with his awesome wife and two wonderful dogs. His website is frasersherman.com