Another Look at the Different Worlds of Federal Workers

My most recent post addressed the differences between being a Fed in the DC area versus the rest of the United States. Having lived and worked for many years in Florida, Tennessee and Ohio before moving to the National Capital Region (NCR), I observed biases against and in favor of both field and headquarters Feds. One commenter reminded me that there are other groups of federal workers that cannot be easily described with the field and headquarters labels and that my last post was silent on that. It is a valid point, so I decided to take a look at other ways groups of federal employees might be different from one another, this time focusing on grade level.

As I said last week, one of the most striking differences is grade level and the pay that comes with it. Last week I focused on high grades. This week I’m looking at lower to mid grades. If we compare DC to a state (e.g., Georgia) that is about average on grade distribution, we see that there are tiny numbers of lower grade employees in DC, with just over 6,400 employees (3.8 percent) in grades 5, 6 and 7. In Georgia, 10,491 employees (14.7 percent) are at GS-5, 6 and 7.  Those numbers are important. In DC, the median home or condo price is more than twice that of Atlanta, which itself is more than twice that of Georgia as a whole. Rent prices are also about one-third higher in DC than in Atlanta. The cost of living in DC is among the highest in the country, but those often-forgotten GS-5 employees have to pay to live here. Whatever benefits may come from living in a city such as DC (and there are many), lower-graded federal workers in the NCR and other high cost areas often struggle to pay rent or are forced to live farther away and commute long distances to work. It is surprising to see how many Feds in the NCR commute as many as two to three hours each way. Imagine spending six hours a day in your car, just so you can have an affordable place to stay.

The situation is a bit different in Georgia and other states that are not known for high costs. Pay for a GS-9 comes in at about the same as the median income for the state. Even though there are far larger numbers of lower and mid grade employees in those locations, they are able to have a much better standard of living.

There is more to grade level that just pay, even though pay makes a huge difference. In locations with fewer federal workers and/or fewer high grade jobs, promotion opportunities for employees in lower grade jobs are more limited than that of employees at the same grade in the NCR. Some employees in lower graded jobs are just passing through those grades (entry level hires for higher graded jobs).

For the folks who do not have that ticket, such as people in clerical jobs, the opportunity to advance is related to how well they do their jobs, education and training, turnover in higher grade jobs, and often plain old luck. In researching this post I found some striking numbers. For example, clerical jobs generally do not require formal education beyond high school, yet 21 percent of federal clerical employees nationwide have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Four percent have a master’s degree or higher. The numbers are the same in Georgia, but are a bit lower in DC, where 17.3 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The degree or lack of it does not mean those workers are any less important or any less bright, but it may mean promotion opportunities are more limited for those without degrees. It also means there are a lot of people in government who have education that will qualify them for jobs in career fields where there are excellent opportunities to advance. A degree is not always required for higher grade jobs, but half of GS-11s in Georgia have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 80.4 percent of GS-13s have a bachelor’s or higher. In DC, 65.7 percent of GS-13s have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The disparity between DC and the rest of the country is most likely because of the demand in the NCR. There are so many federal jobs and so many vacancies that employees without a degree have a better chance of getting ahead.

The differences in grade levels may have some other, less visible, effects. Employees at higher grades are typically privy to more information about what is going on in an agency. They are more likely to be in the meetings where decisions are discussed and made, and because of the nature of their work, more information flows their way. Access to information can be an important aspect of moving up. It also appears that employees in higher grades make their views known more often. Let’s use the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey as an example. The response rates for employees in GS grades 1–6 is 31.8 percent. It increases to 45.0 percent for those in GS grades 7–12, and goes all the way up to 58.5 percent for GS grades 13–15. The response rate for employees in other pay plans (the largest of which is the Federal Wage System) comes in at 38.3 percent. Response rates to the FEVS also differ by education level, with employees with a high school diploma or less responding at a 37.6 percent rate, those with some college responding at 38.9 percent, and those with a bachelor’s degree coming in at 49.5 percent. Employees with more than a bachelor’s degree have a 52.6 percent response rate.

One other interesting data point on the field vs headquarters divide with respect to the FEVS is the response rates. In the 2017 FEVS, headquarters employees had a response rate of 42.5 percent, while field employees came in at 57.6 percent. The much higher response rate in the field may indicate a lot of things, one of which is that those folks are hungry for their voices to be heard. Note that “headquarters” means more than the NCR. There are lots of people who are called “headquarters” who would not think of themselves as being in a headquarters organization. I will go into more detail on that in a future post.

All of that may mean that the views of employees in lower grade positions and in the field may not be heard to the same degree as the higher graded employees and those in headquarters. That may mean that agency programs that are intended to improve morale and engagement miss the concerns of large groups of people.

However we look at it, the federal workforce comprises a wide variety of people in virtually every part of the U.S., with varying levels of education, pay, access to information, and involvement in decision-making. Trying to lump them into one big group does not work, even when that group is an individual agency. That means a new pay system that meets the needs of high grade employees may be terrible for lower graded employees, and vice versa. A solution that works for engineers may not work for contract specialists, and solutions that work in the NCR may not work in Albany, Georgia. When we attempt to solve problems in government, including civil service reform, we must be willing to walk away from one-size-fits-all and align the talent management processes and systems with the talent we are trying to hire, develop and retain.

Being a Fed in DC is Not the Same as the Rest of the Country

One of the themes I have written about over the years is the idea that the federal workforce is too varied and diverse to try to make one-size-fits-all programs for the entire workforce. It is a principal reason that measures like OPM’s 80-day hiring model don’t work. When we look at the differences between agencies or occupations or geographic locations, we find that the experience of one group of federal workers may bear little resemblance to that of another group.

Those of us who have worked in the DC area and in the field can attest to the profound differences between being a federal employee in DC and being a federal employee in Florida, or Ohio, or California, or just about anywhere else. Some of that difference is the headquarters v. field divide. I have heard both headquarters and field folks complaining about the other, saying they have no idea how things really are. Field folks tend to think headquarters people just get in the way, while headquarters people think field folks have no understanding of how policy making works, what it is like to deal with Congress, or even with the senior officials in their own agency. All of those are partly  true, wrapping biases and misperceptions in a kernel of truth. But they are such sweeping statements that they don’t hold up under closer examination.

One area where there is significant difference is the type of jobs we see. In DC, the grade levels are much higher, leading to higher pay. As you can see in the following table, the average pay of feds in DC* is more than $31,000 higher than the overall federal workforce. It is more than $35,000 higher than feds in Florida and Georgia, and more than $39,000 than those in North Carolina. There is an obvious explanation why that is so – Washington, DC is the seat of government and OPM classification standards give greater credit to headquarters jobs that drive agency policy. That does not explain why non-headquarters jobs in the DC area tend to be one or two grade levels higher than their counterparts in the field. Competition for scarce talent is the most likely cause of that discrepancy.

Another difference is the percentage of trade and craft jobs outside of DC. Roughly 10 percent of federal jobs are blue collar, while only 2 percent in DC are. Those jobs tend to pay less than general schedule and other white collar jobs series.

Another difference is in supervisory ratios. Even though grade levels are much higher in DC than in the rest of the country, the number of supervisors per employee is almost twice the number in Ohio, Georgia, or any other state. The difference is partly caused by the type of work in the field. We typically see more jobs that are done in larger teams. In DC, we see smaller work units that are more specialized.

The fact that there are good reasons for the differences in grade levels, types of work, pay and the number of supervisors does not make the effect of those differences any less important. Being in an organization where 55 percent of the employees are GS-13, 14, 15 or SES is much different from one where only 12 percentare at those levels. The same applies when you work in a town where the majority of the total workforce are either federal employees or federal contractors.

I spent 10 years working in Jacksonville, Florida. The Navy was the biggest employer in town, due to having 3 Navy bases. Even so, most people were not involved with the Navy or the federal government. That difference changes the mindset of the federal workers, because the town did not live and breathe government.

Another big difference in field locations is the expectation of promotions. In the DC area, getting promoted to GS-13, 14 or 15 is far easier, because half the jobs are at those grades. In the field, where only 1 in 10 jobs are GS-13s and only 1 or 2 in 100 are GS-15s, the expectation of where a career might top out is different. Getting to GS-13 is a big deal.

There are some other big differences. In the field it is uncommon to find anyone has testified before Congress, or who has worked with the agency head and most senior officials. In DC that is not such a big deal.

When we talk about the federal workforce, all of these differences are important. What might be important for the GS-9 in the field may be of no interest to the DC federal worker, and vice versa. That isn’t bad, it is just reality. Those who try to lump all federal workers into one big pot are doing a disservice to federal workers and are probably not doing themselves any favors either. The political who fed bashes because s/he is taking potshots at the GS-15s and SESers in DC is also talking about the GS-11 in the field who does not get involved in policy and other DC-oriented tasks.

We would all be better off if we recognize the differences and the similarities between DC and field employees. I’m not optimistic that we will see that any time soon.

* Data for the entire national capital region is much harder to come by, so this information includes the District of Columbia only. Because a significant number of federal employees in the NCR are in Maryland and Northern Virginia, state level totalss for those states are not included.