Curious about the perks of working for the government? An anonymous long-time federal employee shares about the pros and cons.
I’ve worked for the federal government ever since I turned 18. During this time, I’ve had jobs ranging from a general laborer in the wage grade system to supervising a team of specialists—and everything in between. In my 20-year career, I’ve had a lot of time to experience the highs and lows that a government career can bring.
There’s a lot to consider if you’re thinking about working for the government. Below, I’ve broken down what you can expect from a government job—both the best and the worst parts.
What are the benefits of a government job?
Let’s start with the biggest benefit of any job—salary! While it’s generally accepted that the government doesn’t pay as well as the private sector for certain jobs you might be surprised to learn that government employees are more likely to earn a six-figure salary than their private sector counterparts.
Are you surprised?
One reason for this apparent discrepancy is that the government has outsourced a lot of the low-skilled jobs to the private sector. Therefore, the federal government is filled with very specialized jobs that require lots of education and experience.
Of course, cracking into government work can be hard. But let’s say you do get a job offer—what should you be looking for in terms of benefits?
If you’re coming to the federal government from an equivalent job in the private sector, you will undoubtedly find that your salary is lower than you had hoped. Should you still take the job? Maybe! My non-taxable government benefits package is equal to 34% of my gross salary. Since I don’t pay taxes on that 34%, I estimate that I’d need to make at least 150% of my salary to take a job outside the government.
What exactly are the benefits of working for the federal government?
The biggest benefit is the FERS retirement annuity or “pension.” For each year you work for the government, you receive 1% of your salary per year in retirement. So if you have a 30-year government career, you’ll receive 30% of your salary for the remainder of your life. (Note that the government calculates the pension based upon the average of your highest three years of salary and not your final salary.)
But FERS provides more than your pension. You also get to keep your health insurance in retirement and continue paying only the employee portion of the premiums. In fact, I estimate that leaving the federal government just one day before retirement can cost you more than a million dollars in benefits.
Mission & Purpose
We can get super technical about exactly how much a government job is worth. But let’s face it: if money is your only goal in life, you’ll never be entirely satisfied working for the government.
Take it from Ronald Reagan, who famously said, “The best minds are not in government. If they were, business would hire them away.” Of course, this assumes that people are only motivated by money.
I’ve stayed in government work for more than 20 years because I feel a connection to my various roles and their respective missions. I can see how my work impacts Americans every day. I’m proud of what I do.
Studies show that only 30% of workers feel engaged in their work and finding meaning in your job is one of the biggest markers of job satisfaction. For anyone looking for a sense of deeper fulfillment from their career, working for the government is a great way to find meaning and purpose.
When the economy goes south, people buy U.S. Treasury bonds. Treasury bonds are considered the safest investment in the world because they’re backed by the “full faith and credit” of the U.S. government.
Similarly, the government won’t check its bank balance tomorrow and suddenly realize it doesn’t have enough money to pay me. In this way, I have been incredibly thankful for the solvency of the U.S. government during the 2008 financial crisis and 2020 pandemic.
That isn’t to say that people aren’t downsized in the government. Congress sets the budget for the government. And over time, agency budgets have been shrinking throughout the government, especially if you consider inflation.
However, government layoffs—or RIFs, as they’re called, short for “reduction in force”—are rare and generally out of sync with the economy at large. While no job is “permanent,” working for the government is about as close as you can get.
What’s the worst part about working for the government?
If Congress and the President cannot agree on the federal budget, the government “shuts down.” You may remember hearing about the longest government shutdown ever just a couple of years ago. I experienced that government shutdown as well as a 16-day shutdown in 2013.
During a government shutdown, you’re legally prohibited from working. This means I had to return my government computer and phone, and all of my daily routines were completely shattered overnight. Even worse, our paychecks stopped coming in as well.
Government shutdowns create a lot of financial stress for many families throughout the U.S. Additionally, shutdowns consume the entire news cycle. It’s impossible to be on social media without being continually reminded that you’re being used as a pawn in a political battle. As a result, living through a shutdown isn’t just a financial challenge—it’s also just as much of an emotional challenge.
Fortunately, I have a large emergency fund and was able to survive government shutdowns without too much drama. Despite this financial security, however, living through shutdowns is never easy. Statistically, shutdowns have occurred about one out of every four years since 1980, so it’s an inevitable reality that nearly every federal employee faces.
Let’s say you had an amazing year and completed twice as much work as everyone else in your division. You would think you could go into your boss’s office and ask for a raise, right? While that would be a solid strategy for someone in the private sector, things unfortunately don’t work like that in the federal government.
Most jobs are classified in the “General Schedule,” or GS, by a grade and a step. Your grade level is determined by the complexity of your job and the level of education needed. (Steps are automatically granted for the duration you work in that position).
In general, it’s not possible for your supervisor to increase your grade. The government set the GS up like this on purpose to avoid nepotism and favoritism and to create a workplace where merit is rewarded. However, in actuality, it means that you must wait for a position of a higher grade to open up before you can apply to it. Depending on where you work and how many open positions you are, it can take a long time to earn a promotion.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible—it just takes planning and some flexibility.
When it comes to working for the federal government, the benefits are great; it’s difficult to find the same job security and meaningful work anywhere else. However, the pay is a mixed bag and government shutdowns are the worst.
Overall, I’ve really enjoyed my nearly 20 years working for the government. When it’s all said and done, I’m hoping I have another 20 years of government service still ahead of me.
About the Author
Government Worker FI, also known as “GovWorker,” is a long-time employee of the U.S. government as well as anonymous personal finance blogger. Read more at Government Worker FI.