Spend enough time around the D.C. area, and you’ll meet people on both sides of the aisle. Not the political aisle (although there’s plenty of that around here), but the contractor versus civilian debate. Both federal civilians and contractors love to point out that the federal employee has more job security. But is that really true and what goes into that argument? While it’s true that it’s challenging (but not impossible) for a federal employee to get fired, the feeling of job security comes from many other factors.

What Makes the Federal Life Feel Secure?

Job security is measured by many factors for federal employees, and the decision to pass on other opportunities and often higher compensation is a calculated one for many feds. Mission focus and client authority play into the decision, but job security is a key factor, as well. But aside from the hoops government leadership has to go through to fire an employee, what makes the civilian life feel more secure? Working for the federal government usually means lower compensation, so why does the job feel more secure?

Working for government contractors provides cleared candidates a lot of opportunity to jump around and gain experience. Depending on the line of work, the pay is also competitive. But the opportunities and the compensation are only as good as the current economy or the contract period of performance. Even with the best managers and leaders in place, when contracts are not won or mergers happen, employees experience stress over the prospect of losing their job – regardless of their personal performance. As companies reorganize to better align costs or move locations, those changes impact personnel needs.

For federal employment, voters and lawmakers talk about whittling down the federal workforce, but nothing changes until it works its way through the system. A reduction-in-force is possible, but a lot goes into whether or not it actually becomes a reality. It is possible for entire departments or agencies to evaporate, but often, a potential re-organization will come down to all talk and no action. Add to all of this the steady and straightforward benefits offerings for federal employees, and the feeling of security is a worthy tradeoff for higher compensation.

Most people love to highlight how hard it is to fire a federal employee. And when it comes to poor performance, it is challenging to work through the process of offloading an employee. Managers will often avoid the paperwork required to get rid of a notoriously poor performer. However, the process of removing a federal employee for malfeasance – like timecard fraud– is a lot more straightforward and likely to happen. So, despite all the budget drills, the odds of being paid even during a shutdown are high. Additionally, the odds of the government actually going through with eliminating positions are low.

Job Security is Different for Every Candidate

But most federal employees don’t stay just for that level of job security. The feelings run much deeper than that and are more nuanced for every candidate. As the government moves to make it easier to allow employees to bounce in and out of service without losing all of their benefits, the federal talent pool will increase and more employees in national security will see and experience the benefits of both the contractor and civilian side.


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Jillian Hamilton has worked in a variety of Program Management roles for multiple Federal Government contractors. She has helped manage projects in training and IT. She received her Bachelors degree in Business with an emphasis in Marketing from Penn State University and her MBA from the University of Phoenix.