To Serve Again: Opportunities in the Federal Government

When your military service is complete, it may mean the end of uniforms and deployments, but you can continue to serve our country in a different capacity. The move from the military to federal employment can be a smooth transition and there are financial advantages to extending your federal service. Government agencies are working hard to bring veterans on board. They offer various reasons you might expect – you are familiar with national service, etc. But they also understand what Corporate America has long known: veterans are extremely valuable employees.

It is no secret that there are calls from all over the United States for the federal government to spend less. But even if the overall number of federal employment opportunities were to decrease, veterans would still be in good shape, because federal agencies have been directed to hire as many veterans as they can. Veterans have a decided advantage when it comes to getting a job with the federal government. To learn more, click here.

While veterans have enjoyed different forms of federal hiring preference since the Civil War, the situation is even better now. Thousands of veterans have been hired by federal agencies since November 2009, when President Obama signed Executive Order 13518, Employment of Veterans in the Federal Government, and established the President's Veterans Employment Initiative.

Nearly one in three new federal hires in fiscal 2015 (the most recent statistics provided by the federal government at press time) were veterans, marking the highest-ever hiring rate for former military personnel, according to the Office of Personnel Management. The 32.5 percent veteran hiring rate in fiscal year 2015 was down just slightly from the record 33.2 percent that was set in the previous fiscal year. While most agencies hired more actual veterans in raw numbers between fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015, the percentage of new vet hires as part of the overall new hire pool stayed about the same, or decreased slightly for many agencies because they hired more people overall in fiscal 2015.

President Obama’s executive order led to the creation of a liaison at federal agencies to match veterans’ skill sets and help them adjust to civilian life. Before the initiative, veteran hiring was flat. Between fiscal years 2003 and 2007, it rose just 0.5 points from 25 percent to 25.5 percent.

The goal of the President's Veterans Employment Initiative was to help federal agencies identify qualified veterans, clarify the hiring process for veterans seeking employment with the federal government, and help them adjust to the civilian work environment once they are hired. A Veteran Employment Program Office has been established in 24 agencies, and has helped veterans identify employment opportunities within the respective federal agencies and helped veterans recently employed by these agencies adjust to civilian life and a workplace culture.

In addition, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has issued a strategy for boosting the employment of veterans within the federal government. The strategy emphasizes training, coordination, marketing, and the inclusion of military spouses in hiring initiatives. Part of the OPM’s strategy is to make sure other agencies know that following veterans’ preference – which gives servicemembers an advantage over other candidates in the hiring process – is critical in meeting a government obligation to veterans.

Working for the Federal Government

Big government versus small government seems to be a theme of nearly every election. The federal government is big - too big, according to some. But it is a fact that the U.S. government employs a lot of workers. With 2.1 million employees (excluding DoD personnel), it is bigger than most corporations. Only worldwide megaliths like Wal-Mart (2.1 million) and McDonald’s (1.9 million) come close.

But in order to provide the different services to the country, our federal government requires a lot of employees. Federal workers do everything from research and development of new technologies, verify the safety and effectiveness of food and pharmaceuticals, maintain the nation’s security at home and abroad, and provide emergency care when natural disasters arise. There are also taxes to collect, and the federal government usually provides guidance and direction to the states on things like education, housing initiatives, and more. Their work affects millions of people. With such a big pool of employees and a wide-ranging set of tasks, there is likely a federal job out there for you, no matter what your skills or interests are.

One of the reasons why the federal government is so big is that it oversees the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and all U.S. territories. The federal government is divided into three branches: legislative, judicial, and executive. These three branches comprise departments and agencies that are responsible for specific government functions. Most federal agencies are part of the executive branch.

Federal workers are broken down into these categories: administrative, professional, technical, blue collar, and clerical. The biggest category, according to OPM is administrative. The administrative category comprises nearly 40 percent of the federal workforce. Professional is the next biggest category, followed by technical, blue collar, and clerical.

Administrative workers do everything from handle human resources to computing payroll. The administrative positions are the same that are found in every large organization.

Professional workers are more specialized. They may be doctors, nurses, lawyers, and other occupations that generally require advanced degrees. The technical group is similar, but they tend to be more science- and technology-based. This field includes engineers, scientists, and computer programmers.
Blue collar workers mainly do manual labor such as cleaning offices, constructing buildings, etc. Generally speaking, the blue collar group does not need college degrees.

Clerical workers also do not need a college education, but this group is shrinking. It consists of secretaries, office clerks and other similar positions.

Pay and Benefits

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. GS-5 to GS-7 cover most entry level positions, with the positions lower than that (GS-3, etc.) being internships or student jobs. GS-8 to GS-12 are mid-level positions and GS-13 to GS-15 are top-level supervisory positions. The Senior Executive Service covers anything beyond GS-15.

Federal workers’ wages or salaries are based on their job classification, grade level, geographic location, and length of employment. To help offset higher living costs in some areas, the federal government includes a premium, called locality pay, for employees who work in 34 urban areas. This premium provides a percentage-based increase over the base pay. For example, a GS-9 job pays more in San Francisco than it does in Norfolk.

In 2015, according to OPM, the average annual federal salary was just over $81,000. Workers are usually eligible for “step increases” every 1 to 3 years, until they reach the maximum step in the grade for their job. There are ten steps at each grade level. Step increases are accompanied by a small bump in pay. Along with salaries or wages, employee compensation in the federal government includes benefits, such as subsidized health insurance.

What attracts most people to federal work is something that veterans are already familiar with - the chance to make a positive difference, which workers say is a source of pride. The federal government also offers benefits such as low-cost life insurance and paid vacation and sick leave that begin accruing on the first day of work. Some agencies allow flexible work arrangements, such as alternative schedules. And, when funding is available, agencies may pay for workers to get additional education, such as a professional certificate or graduate degree.

Another appeal to working for the government is job security. Many federal services—including national security, emergency response, and air traffic control—are essential and ongoing. For this reason, federal workers may feel they have greater job stability than private-sector employees.

With the opportunity to continue to serve your fellow Americans, and the satisfaction of meaningful work, it is difficult to imagine a better fit for veterans than working for the federal government.

Tuesday February 28, 2017

This article appeared in the March-April 2017 issue of Search & Employ Magazine