Pay and the General Schedule (GS)

Pay is a critical factor to consider as you pursue federal employment. While government pay may not compare with what some companies may offer, many government jobs offer a competitive salary with rapid promotion potential as well as benefits.

Federal employees are compensated according to government-regulated pay scales. More than 70 percent of federal employees are paid according to the most common pay scale, the General Schedule (GS), but there are a variety of alternative pay schedules as well.

The General Schedule

The General Schedule (GS) is the predominant pay scale for federal employees, especially employees in professional, technical, administrative or clerical positions. The system consists of 15 grades, from GS-1, the lowest level, to GS-15, the highest level. There are also 10 steps within each grade. The grade level assigned to a position determines the pay level for that job.

Grade Levels

  • GS-3 or GS-4: Typically internships or student jobs
  • GS-5 to GS-7: Most entry-level positions
  • GS-8 to GS-12: Mid-level positions
  • GS-13 to GS-15: Top-level supervisory positions
  • Positions beyond GS-15 are part of the Senior Executive Service

Agencies can advertise and fill jobs at whatever grade level they think appropriate. You can use your experience and education to qualify for a higher grade, whether or not you’ve worked in the government before. Once you are hired, you’ll receive a raise every time you are promoted across steps and grades. Federal employees often move up one step per year.

Some positions are labeled ‘career ladder’ positions. In such a position the employee is eligible for promotion to a higher grade without applying for a new position. 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 without switching jobs in as little as three years! To find out the grade and promotion potential for a particular job, check out the overview section of the job announcement.

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 of the cost of living in various geographical locations. In other words, a GS-7 biologist in San Francisco makes more money than a GS-7 biologist in Atlanta, because the cost of living in San Francisco is higher than the cost of living in Atlanta.

Additionally, pay rates outside of the continental United States are generally 10 to 25 percent higher. That’s because the government also offers certain employees a Cost of Living Allowance (COLA). If you live and work in Alaska or Hawaii or in the U.S. territories, then the government will give you a COLA to offset the high cost of living.

Special Rates

While most government agencies use the GS pay scale, more than 40 agencies or agency subcomponents use different pay schedules.

Some agencies use special rates within the GS system. The federal government establishes higher rates of base pay special rates for some jobs in order to recruit and retain top talent for hard-to-fill positions, especially in the scientific, technical, and medical fields. Examples of agencies with special rates include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Alternative Pay Schedules

Other agencies and positions use alternative pay schedules. Some notable examples include the Federal Wage System, the Foreign Service, and the Senior Executive Service.

  • Federal Wage System (FWS). The Federal Wage System is the pay plan for blue-collar workers, who are usually paid by the hour. It ensures that salaries for wage laborers align with that of similar jobs in the private sector.
  • Foreign Service. Foreign Service Officers in the Department of State, Commerce, or Agriculture use the Foreign Service pay plan. It features 9 pay grades, from FS-09, the lowest level, to FS-01, the highest level. There are also 14 steps within each grade.
  • Senior Executive Service (SES). The Senior Executive Service uses a gradeless pay system in which salary is based on individual performance. Basic pay ranges from $120,000 to $165,000, and members of the SES cannot receive locality pay.

Some agencies, such as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Reserve System, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, have their own unique pay plans.

Many alternative pay schedules are pay banded systems, which combine some of the grades from the GS scale into a wider cluster, or “band,” of grades. Instead of 15 different grades, there are only a few salary ranges in a pay banded system. Moving across pay bands is usually based on a “pay for performance” model, in which promotions are closely tied to your supervisor’s appraisal of your work.

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Pro Tip

Remember that the best way to figure out the pay plan and salary for a given job is to look at the job announcement.

Just like the GS system, all alternative pay schedules have their own code. Many jobs that use a different pay plan also list the GS equivalent on the job vacancy announcement.