Federal Government

Significant Points

Nature of the Industry[About this section] [To Top]

The Federal Government was established by the Constitution to provide services to the public. While these services vary considerably, all are designed to improve the lives of the United States population, as well as people around the world.

Goods and services. The Federal Government's essential duties include defending the United States from foreign aggression, representing U.S. interests abroad, crating and enforcing national laws and regulations, and administering domestic programs and agencies. Workers employed by the Federal Government are responsible for enacting and implementing the programs and performing the services that accomplish these goals, playing a vital role in many aspects of daily life. (While career opportunities in the U.S. Postal Service and the Armed Forces are not covered here, they are described in 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 to create a constitution for a new national government. 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 granted 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 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 1 percent of Federal workers, nearly all of whom work in the Washington, DC area.

The judicial branch is responsible for interpreting the laws that are established by the legislative branch. The Supreme Court, the Nation's 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 about 2 percent of Federal workers, and unlike the legislative branch, its offices and employees are dispersed throughout the country.

Of the three branches, the executive branch has the widest range of responsibilities. Consequently, it employed about 97 percent of all Federal civilian employees (excluding Postal Service workers) in 2008. The executive branch is comprised of the Executive Office of the President, 15 executive Cabinet departments, and about 70 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, called the Secretary, is a member of the President's Cabinet. Each department, listed by employment size, is described below and in table 1.

Defense: Manages the military forces that protect our country and its interests, including the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force and a number of smaller agencies. The civilian workforce employed by the Department of Defense performs various support activities, such as payroll and public relations.

Veterans Affairs: Administers programs to aid U.S. veterans and their families, runs the veterans' hospital system, and operates our national cemeteries.

Homeland Security: Works to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, reduce vulnerability to terrorism, and minimize the damage from potential attacks and natural disasters. It also administers the country's immigration policies and oversees the Coast Guard.

Treasury: Regulates banks and other financial institutions, administers the public debt, prints currency, and collects Federal income taxes.

Justice: Works with State and local governments and other agencies to prevent and control crime and ensure public safety against threats, both domestic and foreign. It also enforces Federal laws, prosecutes cases in Federal courts, and runs Federal prisons.

Agriculture: Promotes U.S. agriculture domestically and internationally, manages forests, researches new ways to grow crops and conserve natural resources, ensures safe meat and poultry products, and leads the Federal anti-hunger programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the Food Stamp program) and the National School Lunch Program.

Health and Human Services: Performs health and social science research, assures the safety of drugs and foods other than meat and poultry, and administers Medicare, Medicaid, and numerous other social service programs.

Interior: Manages Federal lands, including the national parks, runs hydroelectric power systems, and promotes conservation of natural resources.

Transportation: Sets national transportation policy, plans and funds the construction of highways and mass transit systems, and regulates railroad, aviation, and maritime operations.

Commerce: Forecasts the weather, charts the oceans, regulates patents and trademarks, conducts the census, compiles economic statistics, and promotes U.S. economic growth by encouraging international trade.

Energy: Coordinates the national use and provision of energy, oversees the production and disposal of nuclear weapons, and plans for future energy needs.

Labor: Enforces laws guaranteeing fair pay, workplace safety, and equal job opportunity, administers unemployment insurance (UI) to State UI agencies, regulates pension funds; and collects and analyzes economic data.

State: Oversees the Nation's embassies and consulates, issues passports, monitors U.S. interests abroad, and represents the United States before international organizations.

Housing and Urban Development: Funds public housing projects, enforces equal housing laws, and insures and finances mortgages.

Education: Monitors and distributes financial aid to schools and students, collects and disseminates data on schools and other education matters, and prohibits discrimination in education.

Numerous independent agencies perform tasks that fall between the jurisdictions of the executive departments. 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), some are quite large. The largest independent agencies are:

Social Security Administration: Operates old age, survivor, and disability insurance programs.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration: Oversees aviation research and conducts exploration and research beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

Environmental Protection Agency: Runs programs to control and reduce pollution of the Nation's water, air, and lands.

General Services Administration: Manages and protects Federal Government property and records.

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation: Examines insuring deposits and promoting sound banking practices.

Office of Personnel Management: Oversees issues related to human resources, such as hiring practices, health insurance policies, and workforce performance evaluation.

Table 1. Federal Government civilian employment, except U.S. Postal Service, November 2008 (Employment in thousands)
  United States Washington MSA
Total 1,909 320
Executive departments 1,664 238
  Defense, total 652 68
    Army 244 20
    Navy 175 25
    Air Force 149 6
    Other 84 17
  Veterans Affairs 280 8
  Homeland Security 171 23
  Justice 108 24
  Treasury 88 12
  Agriculture 82 8
  Interior 67 7
  Health and Human Services 64 30
  Transportation 55 9
  Commerce 39 20
  Labor 16 6
  Energy 15 5
  State 15 12
  Housing and Urban Development 9 3
  Education 4 3
Independent agencies 180 48
  Social Security Administration 64 2
  National Aeronautics and Space Administration 18 4
  Environmental Protection Agency 18 5
  General Services Administration 12 4
  Office of Personnel Management 5 2
  Smithsonian Institution 4 4
  Other 59 27
Judicial branch 33 3
Legislative branch 30 29

Working Conditions[About this section] [To Top]

Hours. The vast majority of Federal employees work full time; some work on flexible schedules that allow workers more control over their work schedules. Some agencies also offer telecommuting programs, which allow selected workers to perform some job duties at home or from regional centers.

Work environment. Because of the wide range of Federal jobs, working conditions vary considerably. 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, national parks, and other settings. Work environments vary from clean and comfortable to hazardous and stressful, such as those experienced by law enforcement officers and air traffic controllers.

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.

Employment[To Top]

In 2008, the Federal Government, excluding the Postal Service, employed about 2.0 million civilian workers. The Federal Government is the Nation's 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 Nation's 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 15 percent of Federal employees worked in the vicinity of the Nation's Capital in 2008. In addition to Federal employees working throughout the United States, about 35,000, which includes foreign nationals, are assigned overseas, mostly in embassies or defense installations.

Occupations in the Industry[To Top]

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. (See table 2.) The analytical and technical nature of many government agencies translates into a much higher proportion of professional, management, business, and financial occupations in the Federal Government, compared with all other industries combined.

Table 2. Percent distribution of employment in the Federal Government, excluding the Postal Service, and for all industries by major occupational group, 2008
Occupational group Federal Government All industries
Total 100.0 100.0
Management, business, and finanicial 33.7 9.2
Professional and related 33.2 20.9
Office and administrative support 13.5 17.0
Service 8.2 19.7
Installation, maintenance, and repair 4.6 3.9
Transportation and material moving 2.9 6.7
Construction and extraction 1.6 4.6
Production 1.5 7.0
Sales and related 0.4 10.2
Farming, fishing, and forestry 0.4 0.7

Management, business, and financial occupations. Management, business, and financial workers made up about 34 percent of Federal employment in 2008. Managerial workers include a broad range of officials who, at the highest levels, lead Federal agencies or programs. Middle managers, on the other hand, usually oversee one activity or aspect of a program.

Business and financial occupations include 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. Compliance officers make sure than contracts, licenses, and permits comply with Federal law, and tax examiners, collectors, and revenue agents determine and collect taxes.

Professional and related occupations. Professional and related occupations accounted for 33 percent of Federal employment (table 3). The largest groups of professional workers were in healthcare practitioner and technical occupations; life, physical, and social science occupations; and architecture and engineering occupations.

Health professionals, such as licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses, registered nurses, and physicians and surgeons, provide medical care at Federal hospitals, serving a wide range of individuals that include veterans of the nation’s Armed Forces.

Life, physical, and social science occupations in the Federal government include biological scientists, conservation scientists and foresters, environmental scientists and geoscientists, and forest and conservation technicians. They perform tasks such as determining the effects of drugs on living organisms, preventing fires in national forests, and predicting earthquakes and hurricanes.

Architecture and engineering occupations include aerospace, civil, electrical and electronics, and mechanicalengineers. 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 also employs a substantial number lawyers, judges and related workers who, interpret, administer and enforce many of the country's laws and regulations.

Computer specialists are also employed throughout the Federal Government. They write computer programs, analyze problems related to data processing, and protect computer systems from hackers, viruses, and other hazards.

Office and administrative support occupations. About 14 percent of Federal workers were in office and administrative support occupations. These employees aid management and other staff with administrative duties, such as scheduling appointments, drafting e-mail and other correspondence, maintaining financial documents, and executing purchase orders. Administrative support workers in the Federal Government include information and record clerks, financial clerks, and secretaries and administrative assistants.

Service occupations. Service workers hold a relatively small share of Federal employment, compared to their share of all industries combined. About 5 percent of service workers in the Federal Government 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, 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 Federal Government employs almost all or a significant share of some occupations, such as air traffic controllers, agricultural inspectors, and bridge and lock tenders.

Table 3. Employment of wage and salary workers in Federal Government, 2008 and projected change, 2008-2018. (Employment in thousands)
Occupation Employment, 2008 Percent Change,
2008-18
Number Percent
All Occupations 2,016.8 100.0 9.5
Management, business, and financial occupations 680.0 33.7 14.0
  Buyers and purchasing agents 31.3 1.6 18.4
  Claims adjusters, examiners, and investigators 43.5 2.2 19.5
  Logisticians 24.5 1.2 18.3
  Management analysts 50.0 2.5 8.6
  Tax examiners, collectors, and revenue agents 31.4 1.6 19.5
Professional and related occupations 669.3 33.2 9.7
  Computer specialists 76.3 3.8 8.0
  Engineers 92.3 4.6 9.0
  Biological scientists 25.4 1.3 16.0
  Physical scientists 32.4 1.6 6.8
  Economists 4.5 0.2 -1.3
  Lawyers 31.8 1.6 8.6
  Judges, magistrates, and other judicial workers 3.6 0.2 7.5
  Registered nurses 62.2 3.1 14.1
Office and administrative support occupations 272.7 13.5 -3.9
  Financial clerks 38.3 1.9 5.8
  Eligibility interviewers, government programs 27.5 1.4 8.6
  Secretaries and administrative assistants 28.9 1.4 -0.9
NOTE: Columns may not add to total due to omission of occupations with small employment.

Training and Advancement[About this section] [To Top]

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 bachelor's or higher degree in a specific field of study. In addition, many occupations, such as registered nurses or engineering technicians may require at least 2 years of training after high school. Many additional Federal jobs, such as those in office and administrative support, have more general requirements. Some have no formal educational requirement, while others require a high school diploma or some related 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 veteran's preference which gives them preferred status over other candidates with equal qualifications. For jobs requiring access to sensitive or classified materials, such as those relating to national security, applicants must undergo a background investigation. This investigation covers an individual's 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 sensitivity of the information involved.

Each Federal department or agency determines its own on-the-job training practices, and many offer 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." Workers typically enter the Federal civil service at the starting grade for an occupation and begin a series of promotions, called grade increases, until they reach the full-performance grade for that occupation. Pay grade increases through the full-performance level are usually given at regular intervals, as long as job performance is satisfactory. With each pay grade increase, an employee generally is given more responsibility and higher pay. The exact pay grades associated with a job's career ladder depend upon the occupation and specific job duties.

Once Federal workers reach the full-performance level of a position, they must compete for promotions, and advancement becomes more difficult. At this point, promotions occur as vacancies arise, and they are based solely on merit.

Outlook[About this section] [To Top]

Wage and salary employment in the Federal Government is projected to increase by 10 percent over the 2008-18 period. There will be a substantial number of job openings as many Federal workers are expected to retire over the next decade, although job prospects are expected to vary by occupation.

Employment change. Wage and salary employment in the Federal Government, except Post Office, is expected to increase by 10 percent over the coming decade, which is close to the 11 percent growth rate for all industries combined. Staffing levels in Federal Government can be subject to change in the long run 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 an increase in employment.

While there will be growth in many occupations over the coming decade, demand will be especially strong for specialized workers in areas related to public health, information security, scientific research, law enforcement, and financial services. As a larger share of the U.S. population enters the older age brackets, demand for healthcare will increase. This will lead to a substantial number of new jobs in Federal hospitals and other healthcare facilities for registered nurses and physicians and surgeons. In addition, as cyber security becomes an increasingly important aspect of National defense, rapid growth will occur among information technology specialists, such as computer and information research scientists, who will be needed to devise defense methods, monitor computer networks, and execute security protocol. Furthermore, as global activity in scientific development increases, the Federal Government will add many physical science, life science, and engineering workers to remain competitive. Aside from these specific areas, numerous new jobs in other occupational areas will arise as the diverse Federal workforce continues to expand.

As financial and business transactions face increased scrutiny, a substantial number of compliance officers and claims adjusters, examiners, and investigators will be added to Federal payrolls. In addition, as the population grows and national security remains a priority, many new law enforcement officers, such as detectives and criminal investigators will be needed.

Job prospects. Job prospects in the Federal government are expected to vary by occupation. Over the next decade, a significant number of workers are expected to retire, which will create a large number of job openings. This may create favorable prospects in certain occupations, but jobseekers may face competition for positions in occupations with fewer retirements, or for popular jobs that attract many applicants.

Competition for Federal positions can increase during times of economic uncertainty, when workers seek the stability of Federal employment. In general, employment in the Federal government is considered to be relatively stable because it is less susceptible than private industries to fluctuations in the economy.

Earnings [About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

Industry earnings. The majority of professional and administrative Federal workers are 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, but 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 led to an increase of as much as 34 percent above the base salary in 2009.

Table 4. Federal Government General Schedule base pay rates, 2009
GS level Entrance level Step increase Maximum level
1 $17,540 Varies $21,944
2 19,721 Varies 24,815
3 21,517 $717 27,970
4 24,156 805 31,401
5 27,026 901 35,135
6 30,125 1,004 39,161
7 33,477 1,116 43,521
8 37,075 1,236 48,199
9 40,949 1,365 53,234
10 45,095 1,503 58,622
11 49,544 1,651 64,403
12 59,383 1,979 77,194
13 70,615 2,354 91,801
14 83,445 2,782 108,483
15 98,156 3,272 127,604

In March 2009, the average earnings for full-time Federal employees were $74,403. (See table 5).

Table 5. Average annual salaries for full-time workers in the Federal Government in selected occupations, 2009
Occupation Salary
All occupations $74,403
General attorney 128,422
Financial management 119,671
General engineering 114,839
Air traffic control 109,218
Economist 108,010
Chemistry 101,687
Computer science 100,657
Microbiology 97,264
Architecture 94,056
Criminal investigating 93,897
Customs and border protection 92,558
Statistics 92,322
Accounting 91,541
Information technology management 91,104
Librarian 84,796
Ecology 84,283
Human resources management
81,837
Budget analysis 80,456
Nurse 77,166
Chaplain 75,485
Mine safety and health 75,222
Engineering technical 69,092
Medical technologist 64,774
Border patrol agent 59,594
Correctional officer 53,459
Police 52,085
Legal assistance 48,668
Fire protection and prevention 48,166
Secretary 46,384
Tax examining 42,035
Human resources assistance
40,334
Nursing assistant 34,728

For those in craft, repair, operator, and laborer jobs, the Federal Wage System (FWS) is used to determine worker pay. 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.

Federal employees may also receive monetary bonuses and awards. Awards are generally bestowed for a special act or service, or for 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 generally receive health and life insurance options that are partially subsidized 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—a savings program that is similar to many 401(k) plans. Worker participation in the Thrift Savings Plan is voluntary, but contributions 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 of service, 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.



*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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