Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Pros and Cons of Federal Jobs

In response to this week’s shutdown of the federal government, I thought it would be a good time to look at the advantages and disadvantages of working for this employer.

Compared to jobs in the private sector, jobs with the federal government have many advantages:
  • 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:
  • Competition for some federal jobs is intense.
  • Contrary to what you may have heard about the growth of the federal workforce, it is not a fast-growing field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the federal workforce will shrink by 12.5 percent from 2010 to 2020, compared to 14.3 growth percent for all industries. If you don’t count Postal Service jobs, the federal workforce shrinks by “only” 8.2 percent, but that still compares quite poorly to the average across all career fields.
  • 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.
  • 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 (when it’s not shut down by political blackmail).
You can read details about specific federal jobs in my book 150 Best Federal Jobs (JIST).

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