About 3 out of 5 Federal workers held managerial, business, financial, or professional jobs in 2002, double the proportion for the workforce as a whole.
About 4 out of 5 Federal employees worked outside the Washington, DC, metropolitan area.
Employment in the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will include new hires, as well as workers transferring from other agenciesmostly from within the Departments of Justice, Transportation, Agriculture, and the Treasury.
Job growth generated by increased homeland security needs may be largely offset by projected slow growth or declines in other Federal sectors due to budgetary constraints, the growing use of private contractors, and the transfer of some functions to State and local governments.
The Federal Government’s essential duties include defending the United States from foreign aggression and terrorism, representing U.S. interests abroad, enforcing laws and regulations, and administering domestic programs and agencies. U.S. citizens are particularly aware of the Federal Government when they pay their income taxes each year, but they usually do not consider the government’s role when they watch a weather forecast, purchase fresh and uncontaminated groceries, travel by highway or air, or make a deposit at their bank. Workers employed by the Federal Government play a vital role in these and many other aspects of our daily lives. (While career opportunities in the U.S. Postal Service and the Armed Forces are not covered here, both are described in the 2004-05 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook. See the Handbook statements on Postal Service workers and Job opportunities in the Armed Forces.)
Over 200 years ago, the founders of the United States gathered in Philadelphia, PA, to create a constitution for a new national government and lay the foundation for self-governance. 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 created with 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 primary 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 the legislative branch enacts. 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 the same number of people as does the legislative branch, but its offices and employees are dispersed throughout the country.
Of the three branches, the executive branchthrough the power vested by the Constitution in the office of the Presidenthas the widest range of responsibilities. Consequently, it employed about 98 percent of all Federal civilian employees (excluding Postal Service workers) in 2002. The executive branch is composed of the Executive Office of the President, 15 executive Cabinet departmentsincluding the newly created Department of Homeland Security, and nearly 90 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, the Secretary, is a member of the President’s Cabinet. Each, listed by employment size, is described below (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. Conceived after the September 11, 2001, attacks and officially established in early 2003, the DHS will include new hires, as well as workers transferring from other agenciesmostly from within the Departments of Justice, Transportation, Agriculture, and the Treasury. Agencies will be housed in 1 of 4 major directorates: Border and Transportation Security, Emergency Preparedness and Response, Science and Technology, and Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection.
Treasury: Regulates banks and other financial institutions, administers the public debt, prints currency, and collects Federal income taxes.
Justice: Enforces Federal laws, prosecutes cases in Federal courts, and runs Federal prisons.
Agriculture: Promotes U.S. agriculture domestically and internationally and sets standards governing quality, quantity, and labeling of food sold in the United States.
Interior: Manages Federal lands, including the national parks and forests; runs hydroelectric power systems; and promotes conservation of natural resources.
Health and Human Services: Sponsors medical research, approves use of new drugs and medical devices, runs the Public Health Service, and administers Medicare.
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 statistics, and promotes U.S. economic growth by encouraging international trade.
State: Oversees the Nation’s embassies and consulates, issues passports, monitors U.S. interests abroad, and represents the United States before international organizations.
Labor: Enforces laws guaranteeing fair pay, workplace safety, and equal job opportunity; administers unemployment insurance; regulates pension funds; and collects and analyzes economic data through its Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Energy: Coordinates the national use and provision of energy, oversees the production and disposal of nuclear weapons, and plans for future energy needs.
Housing and Urban Development: Funds public housing projects, enforces equal housing laws, and insures and finances mortgages.
Education: Provides scholarships, student loans, and aid to schools.
Table 1. Federal Government executive branch civilian employment, except U.S. Postal Service, March 2003 (Employment in thousands)
Washington, DC area
Health and Human Services
Housing and Urban Development
Social Security Administration
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Environmental Protection Agency
Tennessee Valley Authority
General Services Administration
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
SOURCE: U.S. Office of Personnel Management
Numerous independent agencies perform tasks that fall between the jurisdictions of the executive departments or that are more efficiently executed by an autonomous agency. 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 workers), some are quite large. The largest independent agencies are:
Social Security Administration: Operates various retirement and disability programs and Medicaid.
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.
Tennessee Valley Authority: Operates the hydroelectric power system in the Tennessee River Valley.
General Services Administration: Manages and protects Federal Government property and records.
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation: Maintains stability of and public confidence in the Nation’s financial system, by insuring deposits and promoting sound banking practices.
Due to the wide range of Federal jobs, most of the working conditions found in the private sector also are found in the Federal Government. Most white-collar employees work in office buildings, hospitals, or laboratories, and most of the blue-collar workforce can be found in warehouses, shipyards, military bases, construction sites, national parks, and national forests. Work environments vary from comfortable and relaxed to hazardous and stressful, such as those experienced by law enforcement officers, astronauts, and air traffic controllers.
The vast majority of Federal employees work full time, often on flexible or “flexi-time” schedules that allow workers more control over their work schedules. Some agencies also offer telecommuting or “flexi-place” programs, which allow selected workers to perform some job duties at home or from regional centers.
Some Federal workers spend much of their time away from the offices in which they are based. Inspectors and compliance officers, for example, 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.
In 2002, the Federal Government employed about 1.9 million civilian workers, or about 1.3 percent of the Nation’s workforce. 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 (table 2). The analytical and technical nature of many government duties translates into a much higher proportion of professional, management, business, and financial occupations in the Federal Government, compared with most industries. Conversely, the Government sells very little, so it employs relatively few sales workers.
Even though most Federal departments and agencies are based in the Washington, DC, area, fewer than 15 percent of Federal employees worked in the vicinity of the Nation’s Capital in 2003. In addition to Federal employees working throughout the United States, about 3 percent are assigned overseas, mostly in embassies or defense installations.
Although the Federal Government employed workers in almost every occupation in 2002, about 3 out of 4 Federal workers were employed in professional and related; management, business, and financial; or office and administrative support occupations (table 3).
Large numbers of Federal workers also held jobs as engineers, including aerospace, civil, computer hardware, electrical and electronics, industrial, mechanical, and nuclear engineers. Engineers were found in many departments of the executive branch, but they most commonly worked in the Department of Defense, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Department of Transportation. In general, they solve problems and provide advice on technical programs, such as building highway bridges or implementing agency-wide computer systems.
Management, business, and financial workers made up about 28 percent of Federal employment and were primarily responsible for overseeing operations. Legislators, for example, are responsible for passing and amending laws. Managerial workers include a broad range of officials who, at the highest levels, may head Federal agencies or programs. Middle managers, on the other hand, usually oversee one activity or aspect of a program.
About 17 percent of Federal workers were in office and administrative support occupations. These employees aid management staff with administrative duties. Administrative support workers in the Federal Government include secretaries and general office clerks.
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, antennas, radar, radio, and navigation systems.
Training and educational requirements in the Federal Government mirror those in the private sector for most major occupational groups. Many jobs in 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. Also, because managers usually are promoted from professional occupations, most have at least a bachelor’s degree. However, registered nurse and many technician occupations may be entered with 2 years of training after high school. Office and administrative support workers in the government usually need only a high school diploma, although any further training or experience, such as a junior college degree or a couple of years of relevant work experience, is an asset. Most Federal jobs in other occupations require no more than a high school degree, although most departments and agencies prefer workers with vocational training or previous experience.
In general, each Federal department or agency determines its own training requirements and offers 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 in the Federal Government is commonly based on a system of occupational pay levels, or “grades.” Workers enter the Federal civil service at the starting grade for an occupation and begin a “career ladder” of promotions until they reach the full-performance grade for that occupation. This system provides for a limited number of noncompetitive promotions, which usually are awarded at regular intervals, assuming job performance is satisfactory. Although these promotions do not occur more than once a year, they sometimes are awarded in the form of two-grade increases. For example, in some cases, a worker may advance from grade 7 to 9 in the first year, from grade 9 to 11 in the second year, and from grade 11 to 12 in the third year. The exact pay grades associated with a job’s career track depend upon the occupation.
Typically, workers without a high school diploma who are hired as clerks start at grade 1, and high school graduates with no additional training hired at the same job start at grade 2 or 3. Entrants with some technical training or experience who are hired as technicians may start at grade 4. Those with a bachelor’s degree generally are hired in professional occupations, such as economist, with a career ladder that starts at grade 5 or 7, depending on academic achievement. Entrants with a master’s degree or Ph.D. may start at grade 9. Individuals with professional degrees may be hired at the grade 11 or 12 level.
New employees usually start at the first step of a grade; however, 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.
Once non-supervisory Federal workers reach the full-performance level of the career track, they usually receive periodic step increases within their grade if they are performing their job satisfactorily. They must compete for subsequent promotions, and advancement becomes more difficult. At this point, promotions occur as vacancies arise, and they are based solely on merit. In addition to within-grade longevity increases, Federal workers are awarded bonuses for excellent job performance.
Workers who advance to managerial or supervisory positions may receive within-grade longevity increases, bonuses, and promotions to higher grades. The top managers in the Federal civil service belong to the Senior Executive Service (SES), the highest positions that Federal workers can reach without being specifically nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Relatively few workers attain SES positions, and competition is intense. Bonus provisions for SES positions are even more performance-based than are those for lower-level positions. Because it is the headquarters for most Federal agencies, the Washington, DC, metropolitan area offers the best opportunities to advance to upper-level managerial and supervisory jobs.
Table 4. Federal Government General Schedule pay rates, 2003
There are several pay systems governing the salary rates of Federal civilian employees. In 2003, the majority of Federal workers were 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. Workers in localities with high costs of living are paid as much as an additional 21 percent, and some hard-to-fill occupations are paid more as an incentive. In general, this schedule is amended every January to reflect changes in the cost of living.
In 2003, the average worker paid under the General Schedule earned $55,871. At $118,002, patent administrators had the highest average earnings (table 5), while some administrative support workers started at salaries less than $20,000.
Table 5. Average annual salaries in the Federal Government in selected occupations, March 2003
Border Patrol agent
Fire protection and prevention worker
Mail and file clerk
The Federal Wage System (FWS) is used to pay most Federal workers in craft, repair, operator, and laborer jobs. 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.
In addition to base pay and bonuses, Federal employees may receive incentive awards. These one-time awards, ranging from $25 to $10,000, are bestowed for a significant suggestion, a special act or service, or 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 are an important part of Federal employee compensation. Federal employees may choose from a number of health plans and life insurance options; premium payments for these policies are partially offset 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. Worker participation in the Thrift Savings Plan is voluntary, but any contributions made 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, 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, which may be accumulated indefinitely. About a third of all Federal civilian employees were union members or covered by union contract, more than double the proportion of workers in all industries.
Wage and salary employment in the Federal Government is projected to grow by 3 percent through the year 2012, while the salaried economy as a whole is expected to grow by 16 percent. Job growth generated by increased homeland security needs may be largely offset by projected slow growth or declines in other Federal sectors due to governmental cost-cutting, the growing use of private contractors, and continuing devolutionthe practice of turning over the development, implementation, and management of some programs of the Federal Government to State and local governments.
Because of its public nature, the factors that influence Federal Government staffing levels are unique. The Congress and President determine the Government’s payroll budget prior to each fiscal year, which runs from October 1 through September 30. Changes in public policy priorities can result in increasing levels of Federal employment in some programs and declines in others. For example, Department of Defense civilian employment, which accounts for about 35 percent of Federal civilian employment, has been on the decline in recent years. Although this decline is expected to level off over the next decade, the emphasis on reduced government payrolls will lead to decreases in employment in many other agencies.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, spurred the creation of DHS and major reorganization of several executive departments, offices, and agencies. Demand will continue to grow for specialized workers in areas related to border and transportation security, emergency preparedness, public health, and information analysis. The employment implications of changing Federal priorities remain uncertain, but a portion of employment gains could be offset by reductions due to overlapping functions of various Federal agencies.
Any employment declines generally will be carried out through attritionsimply not replacing workers who retire or leave the Federal Government for other reasons. Layoffs, called “reductions in force,” have occurred in the past, but they are uncommon and usually affect relatively few workers. In spite of attrition, there still will be numerous employment opportunities in many agencies due to the need to replace workers who leave the workforce, retire, or accept employment elsewhere. The proportion of the federal civilian workforce eligible for retirement has increased significantly over the last decade with the aging of the federal workforce.
Competition is expected for some Federal positions, especially during times of economic uncertainty, when workers seek the stability of Federal employment. In general, Federal employment is considered to be relatively stable because it is not affected by cyclical fluctuations in the economy, as are employment levels in many construction, manufacturing, and other private sector industries.
The distribution of Federal employment will continue to shift toward a higher proportion of professional, business operations, and protective service workers, as employment declines will be most rapid in administrative support and production occupations. Employment of office and administrative support workers in the Federal Government will be adversely affected by office automation. Employment among production occupations is expected to decline as many of their functions are contracted out to private companies.
Information on obtaining a position with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)
through a telephone-based system. Consult your telephone directory under
U.S. Government for a local number or call (703) 724-1850; Federal Relay Service: (800) 877-8339.
The first number is not tollfree, and charges may result. Information also is available from the OPM Internet site:
The duties of Federal Government workers are similar to those of their private sector counterparts.
Further information on many Federal Government occupations, including those listed below, can be
found in the 2004-05 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Career Guide to Industries, 2004-05 Edition, Federal Government, Excluding the Postal Service, on the Internet at
(visited July 09, 2004).