Government salaries may not always rise to the level that some companies offer, but many federal positions DO offer a competitive salary, good benefits and the potential for rapid promotion. Then there are the X factors: the chance to make a difference in the world, and the pride you get from serving your country.
Now, the facts: Pay is based on government-regulated pay scales, and more than 70% of federal employees are paid according to the General Schedule (GS). Positions beyond GS-15 are part of the Senior Executive Service. Members of the SES lead the federal workforce and serve in the key positions just below the top presidential appointees.
The General Schedule
The General Schedule is the predominant federal pay scale, particularly for employees in professional, technical, administrative or clerical positions. The system has 15 grades, starting at GS-1 and going up to GS-15. And there are 10 steps within each grade.
- GS-3 or GS-4: typically internships, student jobs or lower level administrative work.
- GS-5 to GS-7: mostly entry-level and administrative positions.
- GS-8 to GS-12: mostly mid-level technical and first level supervisory positions.
- GS-13 to GS-15: Top-level technical and supervisory positions.
As a federal employee, you are eligible for increases in pay based on your time in service and you may qualify for promotions. In positions designated as “career ladder,” you would be eligible for more rapid promotion. For example, a GS-5/7/9 career ladder enables a recent graduate to move from a GS-5 to a GS-7 to a GS-9 in as little as three years.
You can find the grade and promotion potential of a position in the overview section of a job announcement on USAJOBS.
Pay and Cost of Living Allowance
Salaries under the GS system have two parts: base pay and a locality pay adjustment. The GS base pay is adjusted to accommodate the cost of living in more expensive geographical locations. So, if you were a GS-7 biologist in San Francisco you would make more money than a GS-7 biologist in Atlanta, because the cost of living is higher in Atlanta.
You may receive additional pay called a locality pay adjustment, depending on where you work in the United States. In some areas, such as Alaska, Hawaii and California, locality pay can be 10-25% higher than in other locations.
The government pays a higher base rate for some jobs, so agencies can recruit and retain top talent. Often, the base pay is higher for positions that are harder to fill, particularly in the scientific, technical and medical fields. Agencies with special rates include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Internal Revenue Service.
Alternative Pay Schedules
More than 40 agencies or agency subcomponents use different pay schedules from the GS schedule.
- The Federal Wage System is the pay plan for people who are usually paid by the hour. It ensures that wages align with those of similar private sector jobs. Jobs that pay hourly include work such as carpentry or printing plant worker.
- Foreign service officers work for the departments of State, Commerce or Agriculture. They are federal employees who live in another country for a few years at a time before moving on to another assignment elsewhere, and they represent the government’s interests overseas. They’re paid under the Foreign Service pay plan, which has nine pay grades—from FS-09, the lowest level, to FS-01, the highest level. Each grade has 14 steps.
- Salary in the Senior Executive Service is based on performance. Basic pay ranges from $120,000 to $165,000 and locality pay is not available.
Some agencies have their own pay plans, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. And some agencies use “bands”—or salary ranges—instead of pay grades. Rather than 15 grades, those agencies have a smaller number of pay bands with broader salary ranges.