A Look at Careers: The Federal Government’s General Schedule Pay Scale and Salaries Revisited

“When I first moved here, a couple of men told me they had achieved their ‘14s’ when we first met and I didn’t know what that meant.”

The first principle of my blog is Creating Ecosystems of Success and some of its focuses are: Career Discussions, Education, and Financial Literacy/Money. I originally published this piece in 2015 on the Examiner as I started to understand some of the nuances of being a federal employee. While the employment in the government is relatively stable in comparison to the private  sector, there are some other unique differences which I thought were worth discussing. If you or someone you know is considering a federal career, this is a good and insightful read.

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My last article gave an overview of my experience as a federal employee in a general sense. This article will talk about one of the more intriguing parts of being a federal employee; the General Schedule (GS). The GS is particularly relevant when one is looking to get hired into the federal government and it takes on more significance when seeking promotion within one the federal government’s many agencies.

The General Schedule is a payroll scale which dictates the salary of each federal civilian employee. The scale spans from levels 1-15, with 15 being the highest paid and most senior. The only levels higher than the GS are the Senior Executive Service (SES) and then becoming an elected official.

Within the GS some promotions to the next grade are automatic without competition. Within grades, there are ‘steps’ where one automatically gets a raise periodically. There are 10 steps to each grade, and the first four step increases are automatic annually. Afterwards they are every two years. This seems like a really good deal right?

Reaching the GS-14 and 15 levels from the 13 level involves competition. That’s assuming that there’s money in the federal budget or ‘continuing resolutions’ for those promotions to become available in the first place. Another caveat is that one cannot jump to a higher grade without proving that they adequately performed the functions of the grade below it – going from a 13 to a 15 for example. A 13 must first become a 14 before reaching a 15.

While the GS is standard across the board for all federal employees, the cost of living for geographic location varies. For example, a GS-14 in my hometown of Buffalo, NY would make slightly less than a GS-14 in the Washington, DC metro area due to the vast difference in the cost of living.

What does all of this matter? As with everything, it isn’t a perfect system depending on your point of view, and there are pros and cons to working in the public vs. the private sector vs. academia. As described in my Earning a Ph.D. series, ascension within the federal government isn’t entirely dependent on one’s degree level. Having a Ph.D. for example doesn’t guarantee a promotion or even favor within an agency, and there are scenarios where Ph.D.’s can end up being supervised by master’s and in some cases bachelor’s level staff, something that would almost never occur in the private sector or in academia.

“We have Ph.D.’s.!!! We shouldn’t be making the same amount of salary as those filing records or who are doing administrative things,” a former colleague who has since gone to the private sector often lamented. That’s another caveat, tenure is an important component to federal employment. Specifically, there are instances where someone with a lower level of education who has been in the system longer, can make equal or more salary than someone with greater academic credentials who has been the system for less time. Ponder that.

“I wanted to move to Washington DC, so that I could get my 11,” a friend with a background in Human Resources who was a GS-9 said upon moving to the Washington, DC. Because the federal government is centralized in Washington, DC, the opportunities to get promoted are more plentiful there. Likewise, once promotions are achieved, that level is typically maintained wherever one goes afterwards throughout their career.

“When I first moved here, a couple of men told me they had achieved their ‘14s’ when we first met and I didn’t know what that meant,” a female acquaintance shared with me about her early dating experiences in the area. A funny but true and in some ways disturbing aspect to all of this is that in the DC Metro area, your GS-level can have huge social implications. In the minds of some, it represents: power, prestige and status in addition a considerable salary, the latter probably being the most important though they are generally lower than comparable private sector positions.

In closing, none of this information is confidential so I won’t get in trouble for sharing any of this. The salaries of federal employees are readily available to the general public online. Thus, when you know someone’s GS-level, you have an idea of what they earn, unlike in the private sector – an unsettling thought in terms of privacy to some degree. Nevertheless, it’s one of the cons that come along with being a public servant. The bonuses tend to also be more robust in the private sector.

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There are other aspects to being a federal employee such as the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) which is the retirement plan/system for civilian employees. I will probably discuss it in a subsequent post about retirement as it’s something I didn’t quite understand when I started my federal career.

I’m going to close by going back to stability, but in a different way. In some instances, federal employees may perform at low levels for their given duty for any number of reasons. This likewise can earn consecutive poor ratings at their annual performance appraisals. This is difficult for supervisors because it’s classically hard to fire federal employees as there’s a long and involved process for letting go of them once they’ve passed their probationary period – again something very similar to academia.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this one you might also enjoy:

Perspectives of federal workers caught in the middle of the 2013 government shutdown revisited
The myth of the stability of being a government employee revisited
Father’s Day 2018: Dad’s doctor and his lawyer, and a discussion on careers
Applying School To The “Real World”: Turning Subject Knowledge Into a Career
Staying Relevant In The Workplace: The Tips To Help
Common Mistakes When Choosing A Career
Making The Most Of Your Education

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