A Guide to Government Careers Make a Difference in Public Service

Meet the Author
Matt Ashare

Matt Ashare teaches journalism and media studies in the department of communications at Randolph College, a private liberal arts college located in Lynchburg, Va., and has spent more than two decades as a writer, editor and cultural critic. For 18 years, he was on staff at the Boston Phoenix, and he has been a columnist and freelance contributor at a number of publications, including Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Details and ArtForum. He graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., with a degree in history.

Introduction

Competitive compensation. Generous benefits. Job security. Student loan debt forgiveness. There are a number of tangible perks that come with working for the federal, state or local government, including the ability to better the country and our society in ways big and small. In this guide, you’ll learn about what government jobs offer, the types of jobs available, job search resources, how to apply and information on tuition assistance and loan forgiveness for government employees.

Where the Jobs Are, State by State

Most of the openings among the estimated two million federal civilian jobs, which amounts to roughly 30,000 vacancy announcements at any given time, can be found through the centralized resources of USA Jobs, the federal government’s official jobs site. Federal civilian job openings are also listed through Go Government, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that, in its own words, “works to revitalize our federal government by inspiring a new generation to serve and by transforming the way government works.”

In addition, there are jobs at the state government level, which can be found by accessing the resources of each individual state. The map below provides state-by-state links to the relevant agencies.

The Perks of Working for the Government

There are a number of tangible benefits the come with working for the federal government, and in many cases this also applies to jobs in state and local government.

  • It’s where the jobs are.

    In spite of the latest projections from the BLS, which anticipate a net loss of 407,500 jobs at the federal level from 2012 through 2022, the government is always hiring. New federal initiatives targeting renewable energy, improved veterans services and care, and technology sector education and growth require new workers at all levels, from technical staff to secretaries and administrators, from data entry to data management. So, while the numbers suggest that the federal government is shedding some jobs, it’s also always adding to its workforce. That’s how an organization like Go Government can boast upwards of 30,000 job openings throughout a calendar year.

  • Competitive compensation.

    Because the government employs so many different kinds of workers at so many different levels, it’s difficult to generalize when it comes to salary expectations. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) estimated the average annual salary for federal workers in 2013 to be $79,000. But that includes workers making far more and far less than that amount. One way to gauge the federal government’s commitment to paying its workers well is through the executive action that President Barak Obama took in January of 2014, raising the hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 for workers on all new government contracts. In addition, most salaried positions in the federal government fall under the Federal Wage System classification system. As the OPM notes, these workers are typically on a salary track that mandates “step increases” every one to three years.

  • Generous benefits.

    Since at least the middle part of the 20th century, the federal government has aimed to lead by example when it comes to using the size of its workforce and the economic clout that comes with that to provide a full array of benefits for its workers, from health and dental insurance, to low-cost life insurance and retirement pensions. For example, the GI Bill, formally known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, offered WWII veterans an array of unprecedented benefits, including low-interest mortgages and business loans, and money for college tuition and living expenses. Along with subsidized medical and dental insurance, most federal jobs include provisions for paid vacation and sick leave. Further, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program in 2007 allows for the reduction and forgiveness of qualifying student loans for graduates who are working full-time for a government entity. For detailed information, visit the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid website.

  • Job security.

    Most federal agencies provide services and have programs that are ongoing, from the National Transportation Authority and the National Security Agency, to the Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Indeed, the BLS points out that a majority of federal jobs are thought of as “permanent appointments,” and with “career-conditional appointments, workers may be eligible for permanent appointment after three years of continuous service.” In other words, unlike many private sector jobs, which may ultimately feel temporary, jobs with the federal government bring with them the promise of longevity and even permanence.

  • Working for the public good.

    Without going to deeply into a civics lesson, it was Abraham Lincoln who defined the nature of American governance in the Gettysburg Address as, “of the people, by the people, [and] for the people.” In many ways, this is reflected in the nature of government service. Working for the government might mean overseeing USDA inspections that insure the quality of our food supply, conducting scientific research that leads to breakthroughs in science and technology, conducting surveys and analyzing data that creates better social programs for children and families in need. Or, it could mean writing the reports, building the infrastructure, or cooking the meals that support those vital projects. As the BLS’s 2014 Career Outlook Report notes, “One of the biggest draws of federal work is the chance to make a positive difference, which workers say is a source of pride. Satisfaction often comes from knowing that they are helping and serving people in their roles as public employees.”

Student Loan Forgiveness for Government Employees

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, enacted by Congress in 2007, has created a useful bridge between the money students can borrow in order to complete their education and the kinds of jobs they might want to seek both during and after their time in school. The program forgives the remaining balance on federal Direct Loans after making 120 qualifying monthly payments (roughly 10 years) under a qualifying repayment plan while working full time for a qualifying employer.

What Is Qualifying Employment?

You must be employed full time in any position at a public service organization or serving full time with AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps. Qualifying positions include:

  • A government organization, including a federal, state, local or tribal organization, agency or entity

  • A not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code

  • A not-for-profit organization, except a labor union or partisan political organization, that provides one of the following services:

    • Emergency management

    • Military service

    • Public safety

    • Law enforcement

    • Public interest law services

    • Early childhood education (including licensed or regulated health care, Head Start and state-funded pre-kindergarten)

    • Public service for individuals with disabilities and the elderly

    • Public health (including nurses, nurse practitioners, nurses in a clinical setting and full-time professionals engaged in health care practitioner occupations and health care support occupations)

    • Public education

    • Public library services

    • School library or other school-based services

The following types of employers do not qualify for the loan forgiveness program:

  • Labor unions

  • Partisan political organizations

  • For-profit organizations

  • Nonprofit organizations that are not tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and do not provide a qualifying service.

Which Loans Qualify?

A qualifying loan under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is any loan a borrower received under the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program, generally called a Direct Loan. Other federal loans, including the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program and the Federal Perkins Loan Program, are not eligible for forgiveness. However, they may become eligible if consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan and beginning qualifying payments. Borrowers should also note that only payments made after October 1, 2007—when the program began—are eligible.

How to Apply?

Borrowers should know that loan forgiveness is not automatic after 120 payments—careful paperwork and certification must be completed for eligibility. Since 120 payments will take at least 10 years, the U.S. Department of Education recommends borrowers periodically submit an Employment Certification for Public Service Loan Forgiveness form while working toward the eligibility requirements. Borrowers will be informed of whether their employment and payments qualify toward the program. The certification paperwork must also be signed by the qualifying employer.

Loan Forgiveness Resources

US Department of Education, Federal Student Aid, “Forgiveness, Cancellation, and Discharge”

US Department of Education, Federal Student Aid, “Federal Work-Study Jobs”

US Department of Education, Federal Student Aid, “Grants and Scholarships”

National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators

Types of Government Jobs

As we’ve already seen, government sector employment covers an immense array of job descriptions, opportunities and possibilities. In fact, it would be easier to come up with a list of common career options that don’t have a place within the government, than to list all of the employment areas covered under the umbrella of government work. The BLS does provide a useful conceptual breakdown of government employment, using six categories listed in the chart below:

CATEGORY Number of Jobs Median Salary
Administrative 724,633 $85,343
Professional 469,456 $94,583
Technical 306,983 $47,254
Blue Collar 172,967 $52,624
Clerical 86,138 $37,724
Other White Collar and Unspecified 71,546 $55,844

Beyond that, there are jobs that are unique to state and local government, cities, municipalities, counties and towns. While it would be impossible to list all of these various employment options, we’ll explore some of the possibilities below.

Local Government Jobs

Each city, town, and county can have its own approach to governmental structure and municipal services, which can include everything from maintaining parks to ticketing illegally parked cars, from administering the schools to teaching the classes. Depending on the size of the city or town, the responsibilities of the particular job, and the economic realities of the region, the salary and benefits can differ quite a bit. However, here are a few common jobs available at the local level, along with median annual salaries, based on the BLS’s May 2014 Occupational Employment Statistics.

  • Landscaping and grounds keeping workersLandscaping and grounds keeping workers maintain the public areas of the municipality.

    Median salary:$24,290
  • Database administratorsDatabase administrators maintain and operate computer databases that pertain to the functioning of municipalities.

    Median salary:$80,280
  • Surveying and mapping techniciansSurveying and mapping technicians work with architects, civil engineers and administrators, creating maps for construction and other public works projects, as well as for zoning and other boundary location purposes.

    Median salary:$40,770
  • Healthcare social workersHealthcare social workers provide support services and direction to people in need of medical services.

    Median salary:$51,930
  • Fire inspectors and investigatorsFire inspectors and investigators are charged with insuring that buildings and homes in the municipality are up to code, and investigate fires and explosions.

    Median salary:$56,130

State Government Jobs

According to the latest BLS data, nearly 2.2 million people were employed in state government jobs as of May 2014. And that excludes jobs in schools and hospitals, which are both significant areas of employment within state government. Essentially, you’ll find many of the same kinds of jobs at the state level as you would at the city, town or county level. At the same time, each state has agencies that are charged with larger concerns that mirror federal agencies, from highway and infrastructure maintenance, to taxing assessment and collection. And there are particular areas that are solely the domain of the states, like motor vehicle registries and driver licensing. Below are several examples of common state level jobs, along with median salary data drawn from the BLS’s May 2014 Occupational Employment Statistics.

  • Purchasing managersPurchasing managers are in charge of procurement for large, state-funded projects, including public works and highway construction, repair and maintenance.

    Median salary:$106,090
  • Elementary school teachersElementary school teachers generally teach in the basic areas of study for children in kindergarten through sixth grade.

    Median salary:$54,120
  • Detectives and criminal investigatorsDetectives and criminal investigators are law enforcement officers who investigate crime and criminal activity for the state police and/or related agencies.

    Median salary:$79,870
  • Judicial law clerksJudicial law clerks work directly for judges who may be appointed or elected, conducting research and preparing legal documents.

    Median salary:$46,640
  • Agricultural engineersAgricultural engineers use technology and biological science to solve problems related to soil and water conservation, the processing of meat, poultry and other agricultural products and other farming practices.

    Median salary:$71,730

Federal Government Jobs

Depending on how the numbers are crunched, the U.S. government is either the largest single employer in the country, or very close to being just that, with somewhere in the neighborhood of two million civilian employees. If you count the military, that adds roughly 1.5 million additional jobs to the tally, for a total that ends up somewhere within striking range of four million. The BLS numbers for federal government employment by agency indicate that even if you exclude those in the military, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of the Army account for more than half of all federal civilian employment. Of course, that includes a whole lot of support staff, from engineers and construction specialists, to doctors, nurses and scientific researchers. And, the federal bureaucracy also requires secretaries, data managers, public relations coordinators, enforcement officers, training instructors, computer specialists, lawyers, legal analysts, doctors, nurses, dentists, dieticians, nutritionists, and the list goes on and on and on. To get a sense of the range of jobs and salaries that fall under the rubric of federal civilian employment, here are a few employment options in the realm of federal civil service.

  • Human resource specialistsHuman resource specialists recruit and place workers in appropriate jobs, manage payroll issues, and provide information to employees about health insurance, pension plan and other benefits.

    Median salary:$57,420
  • Postal Service mailPostal Service mail carriers deliver the mail.

    Median salary:$57,200
  • Aerospace engineersAerospace engineers design, build and test aircraft, missiles, space vehicles and satellites.

    Median salary:$105,380
  • ForestersForesters manage and maintain public lands, parks, wildlife habitats, beaches and watersheds, and help to insure compliance with environmental regulations.

    Median salary:$57,980
  • Museum technicians and curatorsMuseum technicians and curators are charged with the storage, preservation and exhibition of items in a museum’s collection, as well as with research into the nature of various acquisitions.

    Median salary:$39,940

How to Apply for Government Jobs

The federal government is, by its own admission, a huge and complex bureaucracy, if not by design, then certainly by necessity. Simply put, even at the state level, the vast array of functions and responsibilities that are in the hands of government agencies requires large organizational structure and hierarchies that have to be both efficient and fair. That requires a lot of manpower, and a fair amount of judicious oversight and careful enforcement. In other words, it’s complicated. And, the process of applying for government jobs had become so impenetrably complex and convoluted that in 2010 President Obama issued an executive order to improve and reform federal job recruitment and hiring procedures. That order set out guidelines for federal agencies, like, “eliminate any requirement that applicants respond to essay-style questions when submitting their initial application materials for any federal job; allow individuals to apply for federal employment by submitting resumes and cover letters or completing simple, plain language applications, and assess applicants using valid, reliable tools; and provide for selection from among a larger number of qualified applicants by using the ‘category rating’ approach.”

As a result, the USAJOBS, the central online hub for federal civilian job openings, has become somewhat more user-friendly, and a new version of the old civil service exam has emerged in the form of USA Hire, an online assessment tool that the Office of Personnel Management indicates is already in use for 10 percent of all federal job openings.
Here are some helpful resources for finding and applying for government jobs at the federal level:

Professional Societies for Government Employees

There are also a number of professional organizations that can be helpful resources for jobseekers, and for those already employed in the government jobs. They can offer professional advice, continuing education opportunities, job bulletins, and other assets unique to particular fields in government employment. Here are some of the more notable professional societies for government workers:

Spotlight on AmeriCorps

One of the signature achievements of Bill Clinton’s presidency was the establishment of AmeriCorps, a Corporation for Federal and Community Service that was conceived as something of a domestic analog to the Peace Corps. Created by the National Community Service and Trust Act of 1993, AmeriCorps is essentially a funding and organizational framework to help foster community nonprofit agencies. Its primary areas of focus are education, environmental sustainability, public safety and healthcare. As of the latest report from the Corporation for Federal and Community Service, AmeriCorps had more than 75,000 full- and part-time volunteer workers engaged in community-based programs and initiative across the country. It also encompasses several spin-off subgroups, including the National Civilian Community Corps, FEMA Corps (allied with the Federal Emergency Management Agency), and AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America).

In addition to being a valuable and rewarding personal experience, participation in AmeriCorps, which is one of the ways to earn student debt relief through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, can be valuable training for a professional career. The organization offers professional development and resume resources, and it looks good on a resume as well. Those who participate the AmeriCorps VISTA program can then become eligible for preferred status in the hunt for a federal government job. After a full year of service in AmeriCorps VISTA, you gain noncompetitive eligibility for federal jobs status. While that doesn’t guarantee a civil service job, federal agencies are allowed to hire those with noncompetitive eligibility without going through the full hiring process. Those with noncompetitive eligibility status are also able to apply for jobs that are only open to those already employed by the federal government. For more information on AmeriCorps and careers in government, visit

http://www.nationalservice.gov/programs/americorps/alumni/americorps-and-your-career.