The Federal System

Each federal department determines the amount of training necessary for its various positions. Each department also offers workers a chance for upward progress through technical or skills training, tuition assistance or reimbursement, and other training programs, seminars, and workshops. The different ranks of government pay levels are referred to as “grades.” Typically, new employees start out at a low grade and progress through higher grades as they gain additional experience and training. Some federal departments and agencies have been granted the opportunity to experiment with different pay and promotion strategies in order to make jobs competitive with those of the private sector.

Candidates who do not have a high school diploma and who are hired as clerks start at Grade 1. High school graduates with no additional training hired at the same job start at Grade 2 or 3. Employees with some technical training or experience who are hired as technicians may start at Grade 4. College graduates who hold a bachelor's degree generally are hired in professional occupations. For example, an economist would start at Grade 5 or 7. Applicants with a master's degree or Ph.D. may start at Grade 9. Others with professional degrees may be hired at Grade 11 or 12. See Appendix B for a complete list of pay grades and salaries for 2005.


The highest demand for workers is and will continue to be in areas such as border and transportation security, emergency preparedness, public health, and information technology.

The General Schedule (see Appendix B) has fifteen pay grades for civilian white-collar and service workers. There are also 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 is difficult to fill, candidates can receive higher pay or special rates. Physician and engineer positions fall into this category. Federal employees who work in the continental United States receive locality pay. The amount is determined by comparisons of private-sector wages and federal wages in the particular geographic area.

The Federal Wage System

The Federal Wage System (FWS) is used to pay workers in craft, repair, operator, and laborer jobs. This schedule sets federal wages so that they are comparable with regional wage rates for similar types of jobs. Salaries paid under the FWS vary significantly from one locality to another.

Getting Promoted

When most federal workers reach the cap level of their career grade, they have to compete for promotions, which makes advancement more difficult. Promotions may occur as vacancies arise, and they are based on merit.

The top managers in the federal civil service belong to the Senior Executive Service (SES). This is the highest position that federal workers can attain without being specifically nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Few workers attain SES positions, and competition for these positions is fierce. Most are located in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

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