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Federal Employment Overview

How Federal jobs will be filled is determined by the Federal civil service laws and regulations, augmented, in some cases, by additional statutes and Executive Orders. And methods may differ depending on the agency and the nature of the position. Many Federal agencies permit applicants to contact the agency directly for additional job information and to better understand the application process.

Depending on the circumstances, Federal jobs can offer greater stability than jobs with private companies. Many Federal agencies particularly value candidates who are veterans because they regard such candidates’ skill as highly transferable to the work of those agencies.

For many veterans, pursuing opportunities in the Federal Civil Service is a natural transition, and those positions, therefore, are highly competitive. You are competing against other highly skilled, highly educated, and highly qualified veterans as well as other applicants interested in Federal service.

Applying for a Federal job requires time, preparation, and attention to detail.

To better support and facilitate hiring of veterans into the Federal workforce, the Veterans Employment Initiative established Veteran Employment Program Offices at federal agencies.

While the process may be similar, in some respects, to that in private industry, there are significant differences due to the many statutes, executive orders, and regulations that govern Federal employment, as well as case law interpreting them.

Federal jobs in the Executive Branch generally fall into three categories:

  1. those that are in the competitive service,
  2. those that are in the excepted service, and
  3. those that are in the senior executive service.

Competitive Service

Competitive service consists of all civil service positions in the Executive Branch of the Federal Government that are not in the Senior Executive Service or excepted from the rules governing competitive service. Individuals must go through a competitive process (i.e., competitive examining) which is open to all eligible applicants who meet minimum qualifications. This process may consist of a written test, an evaluation of the individual's education and experience, and/or an evaluation of other competencies necessary for successful performance in the position to be filled. Competitive Service positions are by far, the vast majority of jobs in the Federal Civil Service.

Veterans’ Preference  applies to these Federal job openings. In order to receive the benefit of the preference, the applicant must achieve a passing score (or meet minimum qualifications, if they are used in lieu of a passing score).

Agencies filling positions in the competitive service are required by law to post vacancies with OPM whenever they are seeking candidates from outside their own workforce for positions lasting more than 120 days. (Agency, in this context, means the parent agency -- e.g., the Department of Treasury, not merely the Internal Revenue Service.) These vacancies are posted on OPM's USAJOBS.

Excepted Service

Excepted service consists of civil service positions within the Federal Government that have been excepted in one or more ways from the rules governing competitive appointments. Such appointments do not confer competitive status. There are a number of ways to be appointed into the excepted service, such as being appointed pursuant to an authority created by Congress, the President or the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that permits an alternative way to be selected (e.g., Veterans Recruitment Appointment) or being appointed to a position defined by statute as excepted (e.g., Attorneys positions, for which OPM is precluded from examining by appropriations provisions ). In some instances, Congress has, by statute, excepted all positions in an agency from the competitive service. For example, positions at the Postal Service and the Central Intelligence Agency are excepted by law.

A selection process for a position in the excepted service is still subject to veterans’ preference unless otherwise exempted. OPM has promulgated regulations that explain how veterans’ preference should be applied. If you are interested in excepted service positions you should contact the Federal agencies directly, in addition to looking for such positions on USAJOBS. Although some agencies post excepted service positions on USAJOBS voluntarily, and OPM plays a role in providing information on positions being filled in the Pathways Programs, for other positions in the excepted service, the employing agency will be the only source for application forms or information.

The Senior Executive Service

The Senior Executive Service (SES) was established by Title IV of the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) of 1978. SES positions include positions that were previously classified above GS-15 that encompass duties identified as executive or managerial. The SES was designed to be a corps of executives selected for their leadership qualifications (called the “ECQs,” i.e., Executive Core Qualifications). SES vacancies for which agencies intend to consider candidates not already certified are advertised on OPM's USAJOBS. Veterans do not receive hiring preference for SES positions. For additional information about the SES application process visit OPM’s Senior Executive Service website.

The Federal Government's Employment Information System, USAJOBS is updated every business day from a database of more than 30,000 worldwide job opportunities and is available to job seekers in a variety of formats.

USAJOBS provides information for Federal positions, employment information fact sheets, job applications and forms on-line. It has on-line resume development and electronic transmission capabilities. Job seekers can apply for most positions online.

A posted job opportunity announcement reflects an agency's decision to seek qualified candidates for a particular vacancy. The agency is under no obligation to make a selection. In some instances, an agency may cancel the posting and choose to re-announce the vacancy later.

A Job Opportunity Announcement (JOA) contains seven essential elements:

  • Overview – information about the agency, brief summary of the position
  • Location – where position is located, if relocation is reimbursed, telework eligibility
  • Duties – describes the type of work the applicant will perform and their responsibilities
  • Requirements – competencies applicants should possess, conditions of employment
  • Required documents – documents necessary for a complete package, e.g. resume, transcripts, SF-50.
  • Benefits - Eligibility for benefits depends on the type of position you hold and whether your position is full-time, part-time, or intermittent.
  • How to Apply – agency instructions on specific actions and documents required

In filling a competitive service job, an agency may generally choose from among 3 groups of candidates:

  1. competitive list of candidates administered by OPM or by an agency under OPM's oversight. This list consists of applicants who have applied and met the eligibility and qualification requirements for a specific vacancy announcement. Only a citizen or national of the United States may apply.
  2. A list of candidates who have civil service status, consisting of applicants who are eligible for noncompetitive movement within the competitive service because they either now are or were serving under career-type appointments in the competitive service. These individuals are selected under agency merit promotion procedures and can receive an appointment by promotion, reassignment, transfer, or reinstatement.
  3. One or more list or lists of candidates who qualify for a special noncompetitive appointing authority established by law or Executive Order. Examples of special noncompetitive appointing authorities include the Veterans Recruitment Appointment (VRA) authority and authority to appoint individuals with certain prior service such as in the Peace Corps.

Rating and Ranking Applicants in the Competitive Service

Applicants for competitive service positions today are generally rated and ranked using a category ranking system. (Agencies may also request permission to use the traditional “rule-of-three” method by which candidates receive numerical scores and are then placed in rank order by their scores, augmented by five or ten preference points, where applicable.  In that method, the agency selects from among the candidates who are in the top three ranks at any given juncture.)

Under a category ranking selection process, candidates are placed in broader quality categories such as "Best Qualified" and "Qualified." Names of all eligible candidates in the highest quality category are referred on the Certificate of Eligibles to the selecting official for consideration.

  • Selecting official selects from among candidates in the highest quality category
  • Veterans’ preference applies but operates differently from the mechanism used under the rule of three.  Preference eligibles do not get points added to a numerical score; instead, with a significant exception discussed immediately below, they are placed in the quality category that applies to them and will be listed ahead of non-preference eligibles within that quality category.
  • Important exception: In the case of a qualified preference eligible with a compensable service-connected disability of 10 percent or more who has applied to a position other than a scientific and professional position at the General Schedule level 9 or above, the preference eligible will automatically be listed in the highest quality category, regardless of where he or she would otherwise fall in the quality categories.
  • Subject to the note below, and within each quality category, the agency must exhaust preference eligibles before it may select a non-preference eligible.
  • Category-based rating procedures thus still preserve and protect the rights of veterans when filling jobs through open competitive examining methods by incorporating rules that provide significant special priority in referral and selection as described above.

Pursuant to statute, and under specified circumstances, a selecting official may request permission to pass over a preference eligible in order to select a non-preference eligible in the same category. The agency may pass over the preference eligible, however, only if it receives approval either from OPM or the agency’s delegated examining unit, as applicable.

Positions within the Federal Government are classified by occupational series, grade or pay level, and pay plan. Pay plans identify the pay system under which the position is covered. Many white-collar employees are paid under the General Schedule (GS), which is regulated by title 5 and administered by OPM. GS positions, including other white-collar positions, are paid annual salaries. View the general schedule section. 

Blue-collar employees are paid under the Federal Wage System (FWS). FWS positions are craft, trade, and laboring positions and include several different pay plans (WS, WG, WL, etc.). FWS positions are paid on an hourly basis. 

Some agencies have statutory authority to administer their own pay systems. Employees within these agencies may be paid under separate pay systems (e.g., pay bands) with separate pay plan codes. For instance, the YA pay plan is used only by the Department of Defense for positions classified under the National Security Personnel System (NSPS). The VN pay plan is specific to nursing positions within the Department of Veteran Affairs. Because of variations in independent personnel systems across the Federal Government, it is recommended applicants contact the hiring agency directly to obtain definitive information about pay plans other than the GS.

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