This is part of Federal Times’ ongoing series about the federal hiring process. For more information on how to get a federal job, read here.

More than 70 percent of federal jobs are classified under the General Schedule, a system that was enacted in 1949 to standardize federal positions across agencies and ensure pay parity with the private sector.

The GS scale is divided into 15 levels, with each level generally resulting in higher pay and increased skills requirements.

“I don’t feel that all applicants need to be experts to understand the General Schedule,” an Office of Personnel Management official told Federal Times, explaining that the applicant instead needs to have a firm grasp on two things: the salary they are looking for and the skills they have.

Non-GS positions are still quite similar to the GS structure, and the same rules of understanding salary and skills still apply when searching the USAJobs site.

Entry-level is not always at the bottom

Entry-level positions in the federal government do not all start at a GS-1, and, in fact, there are fewer GS-1s in government than any other General Schedule level.

“The entry level will vary greatly depending on the occupation, and even what the agencies need. Sometimes agencies do want to bring in talent at a lower level, at an entry level, and build their bench. Other times they may have skill gaps and need to hire at a higher level,” the OPM official said.

An HR position, therefore, may start at a GS-9 and work its way up, while another position may start at a GS-4.

A good rule of thumb for applicants that are new to the GS system is to focus on their desired pay range, rather than basing their search on GS-level guesses.

“Typically, the way it works within the federal government, the applicant needs to have demonstrated skills at the lower GS level before you’re ready for the next GS schedule,” the OPM official said.

“But every vacancy announcement will very explicitly describe what is required to qualify for that particular vacancy announcement. So as long as the applicant knows that the salary is something that they’re willing to accept and that they meet the description of qualifications that is outlined in the vacancy announcement, that is what is most important for them in applying.”

Job listings should also give applicants an idea of their career trajectory in the federal government.

“When you look in a USAJobs vacancy announcement, you’ll see a section called ‘promotional potential.’ That is important to understand,” the OPM official said.

“Say, for example, you’re applying for a GS-9, but the potential is to a GS-13. That tells the employee that, ‘while I’m starting at the 9, if I perform well on the job, if I meet all the criteria, I do have options to continue to get promoted all the way up to the 13 level, because that’s the full performance level, before I need to actually compete again for the next level.‘”

Calculating GS pay

Pay on the GS scale can generally be calculated by three factors: grade, step and locality.

Listings on USAJobs are almost always accompanied by a pay range, rather than a fixed number, and a GS grade can offer pay that ranges between thousands of dollars of difference.

This is due to the fact that within each GS grade is a series of 10 steps, that enable an employee to receive in-grade pay raises before they reach promotional potential.

An employee’s pay can get an additional boost if that person lives in one of the locality pay areas designated by OPM and designed to offset the cost of living in more expensive parts of the country.

A GS-10 working in Washington, D.C., will have a higher total pay than someone at the same level in Albany, New York, because the cost of living is greater.

Federal employees may also receive a base or locality pay increase en masse as part of congressional appropriations or presidential order. Such increases are designed to keep federal pay apace of private sector pay for certain positions.

OPM releases pay tables every year, clarifying the pay for certain positions, and online tools can then easily calculate pay for a certain type of position:

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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