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The U.S. government's general system pay scale in a nutshell

Reports indicate that those working for the government pull in slightly higher salaries than their private industry counterparts. In this blog, I take a look at the U.S. government's general system pay scale.

Last time in this blog, I provided some details from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that indicate employees for the federal government are better paid than private sector employees. I promised in the last part of that blog to attempt to explain the government's general system pay scale (the pay scale that is geared toward those in administrative or professional roles).

I wish I hadn't promised that because in doing research on the topic, I thought my eyes were going to spin out of my head. But I'll attempt to explain it here and, if you're the type who likes to dabble in molecular biology, you should be fine picking up the finer points. So here we go:

The system consists of 15 grades (or levels), starting at GS-1 and continuing to GS-15. (Employees aren't always hired in at the GS-1 level; some are hired in above that due to prior experience or a college education. If you had a great academic career, then you could qualify for Superior Academic Achievement, which would qualify you for a GS-7 position.)

Within each grade, there are 10 steps that can increase your pay by about 3% at each step (this is in addition to pay adjustments in response to pay increase in the private sector, like a cost-of-living raise).

Got that? Yeah, me neither.

Let's continue. You can expect to receive a raise by moving up one step at a time within your grade, EXCEPT FOR:

  • A one-year waiting period for the first three step increases;
  • Then a two-year waiting period for the next three increases;
  • Then a three-year waiting period for the next step increases.

Oh yeah, I forgot. Those waiting periods? They hold unless a federal supervisor authorizes a QSI (quality step increase) in between. Or their particular position is on a "career ladder."

A career ladder lets someone who is hired in at, for example, GS-5 to skip up to GS-7 if he does well on the learning curve.

Figure A shows the outline of the General System Pay Scale.

Figure A

OK, this is actually a DNA molecule, but that's what the system looks like in my head.

Now, as convoluted as this system appears, I can see where it would have advantages over the salary systems in the private sector. For example, sometimes companies in the private sector will try to satisfy an employee's desire to move up by assigning a new title but no increase in salary. This, of course, wouldn't be possible in the government system.

In the coming weeks, I'll be looking at other factors that differentiate between working in government vs. private industry.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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