If your career path may include a civil service job or government position, it's important to understand the typical qualifications and requirements for the wide variety of career options offered by the federal, state, or local government.
Jobs in the federal government appear in the General Schedule (GS), which assigns grades to jobs according to the difficulty of duties and responsibilities and the knowledge, experience, and skills required. Job applicants must meet the education and/or experience requirements, show evidence of having the required skills, and pass a job-related written test.
Career planning should account for typical requirements
The following educational and experience requirements are typical for various categories of civil service jobs:
Professional — Require highly specialized knowledge. Typically, you must have a bachelor's degree or higher in a specific field.
Administrative and managerial — Usually do not require specialized knowledge. A bachelor's degree and/or responsible job experience, however, is required. In general, you must begin at the trainee level and learn the duties of the job after being hired.
Investigative and law enforcement — Requirements vary greatly depending on the job. In general, these positions require a bachelor's degree, specialized training, good physical condition, and/or previous relevant experience.
Technical and clerical — Entry-level positions in these fields usually require a high school diploma or equivalent, although junior college or technical school training may enable you to enter a field at a higher level. No additional experience or training may be necessary.
Labor and mechanical — These positions, particularly those requiring a skilled trade, often require relevant experience. Apprenticeships for those with no previous training, however, may be available for some positions.
Unskilled — Many positions require little or no prior training or experience. These positions include that of janitor, maintenance worker, and messenger.
Job training may be provided
Training for increased responsibility in a government position is often provided on the job, and employees are encouraged to continue their own training and education. You may participate in individual career development programs and receive job training in your own agency, in other agencies, or outside the government (in industrial plants and universities, for example). In addition, the government sponsors formal training courses and may pay for outside training that is directly related to improving job performance.
Additional types of requirements that may affect your career path
In addition to education, experience, and skill requirements, you must meet general age and physical requirements for joining the civil service. The government sets no maximum age limit for federal employment. The usual minimum age is 18, but high school graduates as young as 16 may apply for many jobs.
You must be physically able to perform the duties of the position in which you're interested, and you must be emotionally and mentally stable. This does not mean that a physical disability will disqualify you, as long as you can perform the work efficiently and without posing a hazard to yourself or others. Of course, there are some positions — such as border patrol agent, firefighter, and criminal investigator — that can be filled only by applicants who are in top-notch physical condition. Whenever this is the case, the physical requirements are described in detail in the job announcement.
Take working conditions and benefits into account when career planning
More than one-half of federal civilian employees are paid according to the General Schedule (GS), a pay scale for those in professional, administrative, technical, and clerical jobs and for workers such as guards and messengers. Salaries under the GS are set to correspond to pay levels in similar occupations in the private sector. GS pay rates are uniform throughout most of the country, although they are adjusted upward in areas with very high cost-of-living indexes, such as New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Advancement to a higher pay grade generally depends on one's level of ability and work performance, as well as on the availability of jobs at higher-grade levels. Most agencies fill vacancies by promoting their own employees whenever possible. Promotions are based on increases in responsibility and the demonstration of increased experience and skill.
It's not always necessary to move to a new job to advance in pay grade. Sometimes an employee's work assignments change a great deal in the ordinary course of business — in other words, the job "grows" or expands in responsibility. When that happens, a position classifier determines whether the position should be reclassified to a higher grade because of increased difficulty or responsibility.
Federal jobs offer many benefits in addition to pay, including health and life insurance, retirement benefits, and holidays. While some benefits are fairly standard throughout the government job sector, others may vary depending on the position, so you should always research career information about jobs you're interested in.
The usual government work week is 40 hours. Most government employees work 8 hours per day, Monday through Friday. In some cases, the nature of the work may call for a different work week, and as in many other businesses, employees sometimes have to work overtime. If you are required to work overtime, you will either be paid for the extra time or given time off as compensation.
Performance and awards
Employees are regularly rated on job performance. In most agencies, the ratings are "outstanding," "satisfactory," and "unsatisfactory." Employees with "outstanding" ratings receive extra credit toward retention in case of layoffs. An employee whose rating is "unsatisfactory" may be dismissed or assigned to another position.
Government agencies encourage employees to suggest better, simpler, or more economical ways to perform their work. A suggestion or invention that results in savings or improved service may result in a cash award for you, or you may be rewarded for outstanding job performance or other acts deserving recognition.
Vacation and sick leave
Most federal employees earn annual leave for vacation and other purposes according to the number of years they've been in the federal service. Vacation benefits begin at 13 working days a year for most new full-time employees and increase with length of employment. Most full-time employees also earn 13 days of sick leave with pay each year, regardless of length of service.
If health care coverage is important to you, then it's definitely an aspect of jobs that you should look closely at when career planning. The government sponsors a voluntary health insurance program for federal employees. The program offers a variety of plans to meet individual needs, including basic coverage and major medical protection against costly illnesses. The government contributes part of the premium and the employee pays the balance through payroll deductions.
The Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) offers very favorable terms for retirement. Federal employees are covered under a combined Social Security and supplemental retirement program. The government's contribution is generous, and employees can contribute as much as desired. This system gives employees flexibility to move between the private sector and civil service without losing basic retirement benefits.
Government workers are entitled to the following 10 regular paid holidays each year:
- New Year's Day (January 1)
- Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Birthday (third Monday in January)
- Presidents' Day (third Monday in February)
- Memorial Day (last Monday in May)
- Independence Day (July 4)
- Labor Day (first Monday in September)
- Columbus Day (second Monday in October)
- Veterans Day (November 11)
- Thanksgiving Day (fourth Thursday in November)
- Christmas Day (December 25)
State and local government employment
State and local governments provide a large and expanding source of job opportunities and career options in a variety of fields. More than 15 million people work for state and local agencies throughout the United States; nearly three-fourths of these employees work in local government, such as county, municipality, town, and school district governments.
As with federal employment, nearly every kind of job available in the private sector is also available in state and local employment. However, some positions are unique to state and local government, including the following:
Public education — educational services comprise the majority of jobs in state and local government. School systems, colleges, and universities employ not only teachers but also administrative personnel, librarians, guidance counselors, nurses, dieticians, clerks, and maintenance workers.
Health services — nearly 1.4 million people are employed in health and hospital work, including physicians, nurses, medical laboratory technicians, and hospital attendants.
Highway work — more than 500,000 people work in highway construction and maintenance. Positions include civil engineers, surveyors, equipment operators, truck drivers, concrete finishers, carpenters, and construction workers.
Governmental control and finance — these positions account for about 700,000 employees, including those in the justice system, tax enforcement, and general administration. Specific positions include city managers, property assessors, and budget analysts, as well as stenographers and clerks.
Law enforcement and firefighting — more than 900,000 people work in law enforcement. This includes not only police officers and detectives, but also administrative, clerical, and custodial workers. Local governments employ 287,000 non-volunteer firefighters, many of whom work part-time.
You can find other state and local government work in these fields:
- housing and urban renewal
- local libraries
- local utilities
- natural resources
- parks and recreation
- public transportation
- public welfare
- sewage disposal
These types of positions require people with diverse experiences, such as economists, electrical engineers, electricians, pipe fitters, clerks, foresters, and bus drivers.
State and local government job requirements, salary scales, and benefits vary from state to state and from one municipality to another, but in general they're comparable to those of federal government employment. As with federal jobs, applicants must meet certain educational and/or experience requirements, show evidence of having the required skills, and pass a job-related written test. You should always research specific career information to learn more about positions that you are interested in.