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Federal Employees make me want to puke

Before I get in to the content of today’s post, Let me be clear: I don’t represent or speak on behalf of the US Govt in any capacity.

I get it. You hate the government and you hate me because I work for the government.

My inspiriation for todays rant came from this article over at Fabulously Broke. The article includes a chart showing the relationship between Federal employee’s salaries compared to private sector salaries in a similar position. FB did a good job writing a relatively neutral article, with only slight undertones that Feds have the good life.  Anywho, here is a copy of that chart…

You’ll notice in all but two fields, the federal employee’s average salary is higher than that of their private sector counterpart. This appears to piss off quite a few people. Here are just three (out of 175) comments left on an article at BigGovernment (which also blogged about this chart).

  • Time to start firing federal employees. We in the private sector cannot afford them. We must have a right not to financially support others, don’t we? Are these federal employees our children? I am pissed.
  • This doesn’t elicit tears, but it does make me want to puke.
  • But with those higher salaries we get the cream of the crop. I’m sorry…I meant scum off the top. Most government workers I know would have a damn difficult time getting a job in the private sector.

While I definitely understand where these people are coming from, I do feel as though I need to at least defend myself a little bit.

I wrote a while back about how the government pay structure works. It’s important to remember that with the government, you know exactly how much money you are going to make in your current position. It doesn’t matter how good of an employee you are, your income can’t exceed your job series. This is not true in the private sector. You have the potential to earn whatever income you are worth (either by requesting a raise, working for a different company, or becoming self employed).

Sure the average federal civil engineer salary might be higher than the private sector equivalent, but there aren’t any federal engineers making more than the government has predetermined they can be paid. Not one. The highest paid federal engineers in the country might be making $150K/yr, but the highest paid private sector engineers are making millions. When you work for “The Man” you give up your right to continually grow your income. Personally, I think that is a pretty significant sacrifice.

I also think it’s interesting that this list leaves out some of the more common “white collar” professions. Namely, medical doctor and lawyer. I think I know why they did this however. There is no way in H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks a federal physician’s/lawyer’s salary is going to be higher than their private sector counterparts. Possibly a little bias in the charts? I wonder how many other positions were left out in which this would also be the case?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all trying to say those employed by Uncle Sam have it bad. ‘Cause I don’t think that is true. As is true with all companies, there are pros and cons to working for the fed. It’s not all butterflies, ponies, and happiness…at least I don’t think it is… and if it is I didn’t get the memo. For now, I have thoroughly enjoyed the benefits of working for Uncle Sam, but I personally think the salary structure of the Fed will eventually drive me to the private sector. I want the ability to earn what I’m worth, not what my job series says I’m going to be paid.

So, what do you think? Where did the bitterness towards federal employees salary come from? Is the bitterness really about the salary, or more about frustration with the government as a whole? Would you ever work for “The Man”? Why or why not? Do you hate me (please don’t answer that question if you do… I’m kind of sensitive :))



  1. I have no bitterness. In fact, I'd love to top out at 98K a year (chemist here) because honestly, I'd probably make that much in 30 years in the private sector the way things are right now (plus I don't want to be the chemist that make 150K a year because it comes with a huge amount of unpaid OT and babysitting which I don't want). It's not just 98K a year either, it's the awesome benefits and hello, 13 sick days a year? If I ever took 13 sick days a year at my current job I'd be fire or the first to be laid off.

  2. I'm a lawyer, and believe me, there are many attorneys who make less than the typical starting rate for a federal lawyer, which was GS-11 back in 2005 when I graduated. There are also many who make more, but the current GS-11 rate is more than I was making when I started practicing. So I don't know if the bias argument really works or not.

    I think part of the problem is that people perceive so many inefficiencies in the government, and the red tape that can go along with trying to get anything done, even on a personal level, and people get frustrated to think that "so and so makes HOW much to do WHAT?" Besides the fact that, if I'm correct, based on people I know in the government, you don't pay into Social Security, your take home is larger than those in the private sector. This also means that you're not eligible to receive Social Security, but many people who do pay into it feel the same way but don't have the option not to pay. That said, I think a lot of people just want an excuse to be pissed about anything, so I don't put much stock into it.

  3. I've looked at some DOE jobs and such (Chemical Engineer, here). I'm wondering if these jobs (Federal vs. Private) are totally equivalent.

    For instance, most of the jobs I looked at on the DOE website required an MS or PhD, or a Professional Engineering registration, while in the private sector, I can get by just fine with my BS.

    So my listing might look like Federal: $120,000, Private $80,000, but would that make you say that the Federal guy is overpriced? He may have a PhD or an MS, which seems to be a requirement for many Federal jobs, at least in the science sector.

  4. Ninja – so glad you posted this – when I read FB's post I was like, "Wha?!?". I work at a government contractor and have for the past three years and my boyfriend works for the government. Our experience suggests that the chart above is CRAP (in regards to salary, at least). In most fields (our experience is mostly in IT and healthcare), private sector employees make significantly more money than Feds. However, they also work longer hours, have less vacation, and don't get the sweet health insurance.

    Ask anyone in DC – the real money is in the private sector. People who work for the government do it for reasons other than money.

  5. I'd say the bitterness comes from the fact that government is viewed as inefficient and bloated. Couple that with high salaries for professionals and generous benefits, you get a genuine government hate-fest.

    That said, I don't begrudge you any of your perks. In fact I agree with you that the salary "cap" is a huge sacrifice.

    The government does need to reevaluate their pay scales for certain positions though. Every year most major corporations do market rate adjustements to salaries to make sure their salaries are in-line with the rest of the market. It seems as though the gov't does not.

  6. Those numbers are sooooooooooo skewed. The pay scale varies across the country due to locality pay. Those federal numbers could be from New York and the private sector numbers could be from Kansas.

    Also, I have a family member that is an IT Specialist for the Feds and they DO NOT make $122,000. Come on.

    Are they forgetting all the downsides of government employement? No maternity leave, no fancy, new buildings (they're mostly depressing, old, economically priced buildings), NO huge bonuses (well for most people), no fun company parties at fancy restaurants, and the biggest one like Ninja mentioned – no growth!!

    It's not all stars and kittens like ninja said. If you want a government job so bad, go get one!!!

  7. Plus, the two sectors have a different system for figuring out growth and reduction of employees. One is based on markets and economic growth (hence, if you have a good job and you are doing well you can make more money). And the government jobs are based on taxes, political swings, etc. That is why so many people have signed up for state and federal jobs lately, they see it as slightly more dependable in this economy. People always want to poke at the government for something. So they get paid a bit more for certain jobs… their ceiling is very structured, and some jobs are at the whim of bad government or political whims.

    At my job (sales) I have the potential to become a sales manager, general manager, president, and even owner. If i was doing a fed job- what are my upgrade options? President? I like what I have but respect those that take government jobs.

  8. Both public and private sector jobs have their pros and cons. Like you mentioned, federal employees follow a strict salary structure, but also tend to have better bennies and pensions. Private sector jobs may pay better over time, but don't have the relative security of a public position.

    I think you're hearing a lot more grumbling than you usually would because of the recent economic events of the past few years. And traditionally, the government is seen as bloated. In NJ, our governor is making massive cuts to education, but not cutting many government jobs, which is leaving a bad taste in many people's mouths. But if it was good times (like the late 90s), I don't think there would be as much public-sector bashing going on. It's all relative!

    I'm in one of those two positions that supposedly pay better in the public sector, so I'm truly not complaining. But I fear for my job, and think I would be more secure in the private sector. It's a trade-off — more job security, or a better salary? At the same time, I know a few state employees (okay, not federal, but similar situation) who are also fearing for their jobs and pensions.

  9. Mr is a federal employee (commerce). He does have a great salary and fantastic benefits. Not all government jobs are cushy, though, and he works extremely hard to make the quota required for hist job. He will also max out at a GS-13 (and a step increase) next year and that's it, unless Congress votes themselves another raise. (We're certainly not struggling to survive, but we're not 'millionaires' either.) His job is totally thankless and people crap on him for working for the feds. Oh, and his job is mind-numbingly boring and he deals with argumentative lawyers all day. Still sound awesome?

    There's a reason his department loses a ton of workers to the private sector. Most of them get their training from the government, work a few years to learn the ins and outs of the system and then run off to finish their law degree and work for themselves.

  10. I think the bitterness towards government employees is because of the current economic situation we're in. If this economy wasn't in a rut, then Fed employees would be considered "underpaid" and the masses would be clamoring for increases. But because money is extremely tight, we need a scapegoat: oh why look over there, it's Federal Employees, getting paid! THE HORROR.

    The private sector is getting the same kind of flack for HCE (Highly Compensated Employees) or Executives that are still making millions even though their company posted losses (umm, who didn't?) or were bailed out (yeah, in this case, I'm not a fan!). It seems to me, people are calling for a plain pay for performance scheme to be applied across all industries, including the public sector.

    That, to me, is about the silliest thing I've ever heard.

  11. I think the wrath towards federal employees comes from a perception of "job for life" which absolutely does not exist in the private sector. In addition to that, everyone has encountered a lousy government employee at one time or another (and we've all elected a few as well). Many of us work in "at will" states and can be dismissed at any time for no reason whatsoever. And one of the reasons this happens is because we make "too much money" and a younger, less expensive employee can take their place. Speaking for myself, I'd happily give up supposedly unlimited salary growth opportunity for a little more security. $$ aren't the only thing I work for!

  12. I work for a major multibillion dollar defense contractor that is run very much like a civilian government agency, but not quite. That said, in my short time here I have discovered that I will probably not work at this company for more than 3-5 years due to the fact that there is a definite ceiling on my income, and handicap on a young person to get to the top. I don't appreciate that aspect of my job, even though I do appreciate the excellent benefits.

    I get 15 days of paid time off every year and 10 days paid vacation.
    I make about 15% more than I would in a regular company at the same position
    My health insurance is in the "ridiculously inexpensive" category
    I still get a 401k match

    So yes, I am grateful for my job, but I don't see myself here unless I am one of the few who is "fast-tracked" to the top. I am an incredibly efficient employee and an expert (already, I am a youngun still) in my field, and I am not going to sit here at the bottom with the golden handcuffs of cheap insurance and a lot of vacation when I could triple my income in three years somewhere else.

    Love my job though. 🙂

    • I assume you are exaggerating, but where would you go to accelerate your income growth that much. I'm in the same boat as you.

      One thing I will say is the total value of your benefits, I bet, almost doubles your income.

      • I am not exaggerating, I just miscommunicated. 🙂 What I was trying to say is that after I have been at my company for 3ish years, it seems likely to me that I will be trapped in a position that I can't get promoted out of because of the political nature of the promotion system in the company. (i.e. promoted based on time, not on skills/performance/results)

        So, at the end of three years, it is probable that I could step outside of the company and be able to earn 2-3 times the income in 3 or so years. Meaning, six+ years from now.

        I have calculated my benefits as best I can and they add about 40-45% to my income, for the record.

        Again, I am NOT complaining and am VERY excited about the opportunity I have here. I was just pointing out that in the future this job is likely going to pin me into a position that they won't promote me out of because I don't have 15+ years of experience and am under the age of 30.

        To reiterate: I love my job. 🙂

  13. I'm a GS-12 auditor with the feds. I started out about 4 years ago as a GS-7. At that time, I was making about $10,000 less/year than friends of mine who went in to private industry. Now, we make approximately the same. I will never say that I am underpaid, and I think my salary and benefits are comparable to what I would make elsewhere.

  14. I also forgot to add that any US citizen is free to become a Federal employee, so if someone thinks the salary and benefits are worth it, they can apply if they hold the basic qualifications.

  15. I think the bitterness comes from people's perception that our tax dollars pay for those salaries, and if they appear inflated, people feel like it's money coming out of their own pockets. There is a sense of ownership with respect to all government spending I've noticed. I don't hate you Ninja-if I could make good money in a government job, I totally would!

  16. Here is the main factor in this apparent inequality. While private sector employees have gone many years without adequate pay raises or increased benefits, federal (and state) employees recieve mandated COLA's and other predictable increases. Saddly, the top percentage of earners in the private sector have exponentially increased their income while keeping many others in inflationary losing positions. The real issue is that private sector employees are "hating" on government workers for having a better boss.

    On the flip side, I do agree that a decent pay scale is not worth the moral issues, and many inspirational succubi which exist in government work.

    FYI, if you want to make money, work with money. 🙂 Just some advice from your friendly neighborhood banker.

  17. Debt Ninja, I seriously think it has more to do with people being misinformed than people really thinking you don’t deserve your pay. When I worked for a newspaper, I watched a state House Rep try to run for county mayor of a not-so-large county. I thought he was crazy before finding out that he would receive a significant pay bump from House Rep to county mayor.

    Similarly, if a county is having problems with tax revenue, who gets the crap end of the stick? Gov employees who are either laid off or do not receive a pay increase. Who wants their job to be dependent on the amount of money county citizens pay in sales tax during the year? I watched employee after employee state their case for a raise before the county commission, showing charts that proved they were underpaid.

    Of course, that’s not federal government, but I’d imagine they’d be close to the same. People don’t understand that the government – whether county, state or federal – has strict pay scales that hinder as much as help government employees.

  18. Thank you for posting your side.

    Perhaps we have the "grass is greener" syndrome. There are pros and cons to working in public versus private.

    And in private, even if I can charge outrageous prices for my work, nothing is guaranteed, as so demonstrated by them telling me that I am not to be extended on my contract 🙁

    Looks like I may be stuck at earning $25,000 this year as my income.

  19. "This is not true in the private sector. You have the potential to earn whatever income you are worth (either by requesting a raise, working for a different company, or becoming self employed)." That line is laughable. Most private companies with their top heavy management will crush the little ones in order to maintain their salaries. It is not so easy in the private sector.

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