Federal Jobs: Pros and Cons

Thursday, August 4, 2011
In the wake of this week’s agreement about the national debt ceiling, you may be wondering what impact this legislation will have on careers in the federal government. As it happens, I recently wrote a book called 150 Best Federal Jobs, which is now in the final stages of editing. To prepare this book, I studied the outlook for federal careers and their other advantages and disadvantages. I’ll be interested to see how the Bureau of Labor Statistics revises their projections for federal jobs when their new figures come out early next year.

A lot of people mistakenly believe that the federal workforce has been expanding rapidly and is expected to grow by leaps and bounds. In fact, the paychecks of federal workers make up only a small fraction of our federal expenditures that are running up unprecedented levels of debt.

More important, even before the current round of cuts (plus those that are to be enacted by the “Super-Congress”), the federal workforce was not expected to be a fast-growing industry. Two years ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected 0.5 percent growth from 2008–2018, compared to 10.1 percent for all industries. If you don’t count Postal Service jobs, federal growth was projected to be a somewhat healthier 3.5 percent, but that still does not compare well to the 10.1 average across all career fields.

On the other hand, I should mention the many factors that make federal employment desirable. This is one of the few industries that were not badly hurt by the recent recession. It continues to offer jobs in a wide variety of fields, jobs that have many advantages compared to jobs in the private sector:
  • Federal jobs tend to be more secure. When agencies need to reduce their size, they usually do so by attrition (that is, not replacing people who leave). Employees can challenge termination or other personnel decisions through a formal appeals process.

  • Hiring and promotion in federal jobs are guided by a stronger commitment to diversity and inclusion than you’ll find in most private-sector worksites.

  • Federal jobs offer a wider selection of health-insurance plans than do private-sector employers. Retirees can continue their health-insurance coverage for the same fee they paid while working.

  • Federal jobs offer better retirement benefits than many jobs in the private sector.

  • Federal jobs offer 10 holidays per year.

  • Federal jobs offer 13 vacation days per year to beginning workers, 20 days after 3 years, and 26 days after 15 years. To this, add 13 days of sick leave per year.

  • Federal jobs often permit flexible work arrangements. For example, you may be able to work four 10-hour days per week or do some work from home. Workers are rarely required to work more than 40 hours. This can make a huge difference in some fields, such as law and accounting.

  • High-quality day care for children is often available at federal job sites or sometimes is subsidized at off-site centers.

  • Federal jobs can give you the satisfaction of serving the nation.
Federal employment is not a worker’s paradise, however:
  • The advantages listed above mean that competition for some federal jobs is intense.

  • A few federal jobs require security clearance, which may require background investigations that can drag on for months.

  • The workplace structure tends to be more bureaucratic than in small private-sector businesses. In high-tech jobs, the workplace may be slower to adopt the newest technologies.

  • Sometimes political pressures prevent workers from doing their jobs as they see fit.

  • Jobs may be affected in arbitrary ways by national political trends. For example, last year President Obama froze federal workers’ pay as a political gesture that actually had a minimal impact on the budget.

  • Although the many rules are designed to promote fairness, some workers find ways to manipulate the rules to gain an advantage.
What about pay? The answer depends on how you analyze the data. Federal workers earn more than private-sector workers, but they also are better educated. Most individual federal workers would earn more in an equivalent private-sector job. On the other hand, federal pay is extremely fair. In many private-sector jobs, you have to negotiate your salary and don’t know what other workers’ salaries are based on. The pay for federal jobs is supposed to be comparable to what is current in the private sector, with adjustments for local cost of living, and it is based on your salary grade.

The high level of competition for federal jobs, though listed here as a disadvantage, is an indication that work for the federal government is, on balance, very rewarding.


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