Most jobs within the federal government fall into three basic pay systems: General Schedule (GS), Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) and Federal Wage System (FWS).

General Schedule: The government’s largest pay system

GS covers jobs falling in the professional, technical, administrative and clerical career areas. Around 70% of federal jobs fall under this pay system. The GS pay system consists of 15 grades with 10 steps in each grade. The grades start out at GS-1 and tops out at GS-15.

The grades are structured according to the type and level of work. For example:

  • GS-3 or GS-4: Internships or student jobs
  • GS-5 to GS-7: Most entry-level positions
  • GS-8 to GS-12: Mid-level positions
  • GS-13 to GS-15: Top-level supervisory positions

Note: Positions beyond GS-15 fall under the Senior Executive Service.

Some positions are classified as “ladder positions” in that they may be graded multi-graded as a GS-5/7/9 for example, enabling an individual in one of these positions to move up three grades without switching jobs.

Pay under the GS system has two parts: base pay and locality pay. All individuals in the U.S. at the same grade and step are paid the same regardless of location. But because the cost of living varies greatly, locality pay comes into play so that the amount paid is closely on par with the private sector in that area doing the same type and level of work.

Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to reform or change the GS system. Despite pilots and programs ushered in throughout various agents, GS remains.

Law Enforcement Officer Pay

Federal agencies employ around 120,000 full-time law enforcement officers that are authorized to make arrests and carry weapons. Common agencies employing LEOs include:

  • ATF
  • Coast Guard
  • Air Marshal
  • ICE
  • Secret Service
  • US Marshal
  • DEA
  • Homeland Security
  • National Park Service
  • Border Patrol

Law enforcement officer jobs are also found in almost all the departments within the Executive branch and some within the Legislative and Judicial branches. And that does not even take into consideration the LEO jobs within independent law enforcement agencies like the:

  • Central Intelligence Agency
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • United States Postal Service
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Amtrak
  • Federal Reserve Bank

Within the LEO pay system, there are 8 grades starting at Grade 3 and topping out at Grade 10. Within each grade are 10 steps. The LEO pay rate reflects the standard wages for equally graded positions within the private sector. Jobs based on location or assignment may also be entitled to locality pay.

Federal wage system pay

Established in 1972, most FWS jobs are blue-collar jobs such as trade, craft or laborer-type positions. Most of the jobs in this pay scale occur within the Executive branch. The wage of each graded position is tied to the local wage area and is kept relevant through periodic surveys of the local companies that employ workers in different levels of a particular type of job. FWS does not cover jobs in the Post Office, Legislative branch or private sector firms contracting with the federal government.

There are 15 grades within the NA/Wage Worker and NL/Wage Leader rates with an additional four grades at the NS/Senior Executive Service level. Each grade has five steps within that grade. A new hire into a WG-5 job may come at Step 1 or 2 depending on qualifications. Over time and performance ratings, the individual can move up through the steps topping out at Step 5.

To proceed further, the individual must compete and be selected for a higher graded position, at which time the individual starts out at a step in the new grade that is at least or at a higher pay rate than what that person was making in their previous position.

As with the GS pay system, some jobs are multi-graded but usually limited to spanning just two grades. Also the same as GS, an individual could start at step 1 of the lower grade and top out at step 5 of the higher grade without having to change jobs.

Because the structure of jobs within the federal system is similar in nature to the military structure, many veterans seek jobs within the federal system not only for its familiarity, but also because their military service counts as years of federal service thus giving them some tenure. And for jobs authorized to claim Veteran preference, veterans can get from 5 to 10 additional points for military service which can move them up higher on the hiring list than non-military applicants. This can give veterans a leg up when it comes to getting hired for a Federal job.

If transitioning out of the military soon, consider a job in one of the federal pay systems. Not only are they good jobs with great benefits, but you will be still serving your country, just in a different manner.

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Kness retired in November 2007 as a Senior Noncommissioned Officer after serving 36 years of service with the Minnesota Army National Guard of which 32 of those years were in a full-time status along with being a traditional guardsman. Kness takes pride in being able to still help veterans, military members, and families as they struggle through veteran and dependent education issues.