My last article gave an overview of my experience as a federal employee in a general sense. An important consideration for any career is one’s salary. This article will thus 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 of our federal government’s many agencies.
The General Schedule is a pay scale which dictates the salary of each federal civilian employee. The scale spans from grades 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 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 is money in the federal budget 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).
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 having a career in the Public vs. the Private sector vs. Academia. As described in my Pursuing a Ph.D. series, one’s career ascension within the federal government isn’t entirely dependent on one’s degree level. Having a Ph.D. for example doesn’t guarantee promotion, and there are scenarios where Ph.D.’s can end up being supervised by Masters and in some cases Bachelors level staff, something that would 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 in the Records Center who are doing administrative things,” a former colleague who has since pursued a career in the private sector often lamented. That’s another caveat, tenure is an important component to having a career as a federal employee. 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.
“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 DC metro area. Because the federal government is centralized here in Washington, DC, the opportunities to get promoted are more plentiful. Likewise, once the 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 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.
In closing, none of this information is confidential. The salaries of federal employees are readily available to the Public online, thus specific dollar amounts were intentionally not quoted in this piece. Likewise in general 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.