Explained: Professional vs Sub-professional civil service

Looking for a government or civil service position can be confusing enough when considering all the steps you must take to get there. Between interviews, assessments, and personality tests, what is the difference between them all, and how do you apply for a professional or sub-professional service job? How hard is it to ace that exam to move forward in your application?

What is the difference between professional and sub-professional civil service exams?

The professional civil service exam covers more analytical abilities, based on position, while the sub-professional exam covers more clerical abilities. The professional exam is more complex than the sub-professional exam, but coverage is almost identical, and the length of time is also comparable.

But how do you get to the point of taking either the professional or sub-professional civil service exam? Read more to find out what the civil service is and how to put it in your application.

What is civil service?

The United States Code defines “Federal civil service” as “all appointive positions in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the Government of the United States, except positions in the uniformed services.”

But what does that mean?

The United States Federal Service consists of employees who are not elected, nor are they military. Overseen by the Office of Personnel Management, as of 2020, the U.S. government employs around 2.1 million civilian workers.

Not all agencies under the “civil service” terminology are under the “Executive Office of the President” grouping. Many independent agencies are considered civil service, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the United States Postal Service.

Not on that list are state and local civil servants, which can include jobs such as county engineers, public school teachers, and social workers.

In the federal system, there are two ways that jobs are given out: the competitive service and the excepted service. According to the U.S. Code, most are given under the competitive service, while the Foreign Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and national security positions are within the excepted service umbrella.

In competitive service, applicants must actively compete against other applicants, like a typical hiring process.

In excepted service, these jobs are typically merit-based or have their criteria. Most of these agencies fall under the national security or intelligence umbrella, like the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the U.S. Secret Service, and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Employees do have fewer appeal rights in the excepted service compared to the competitive service.

The terminology can also change from place to place—”government employees” can cover the federal civil service, state government employees, and local government employees, the terms “government employees” and “civil service employees” are not always interchangeable.

The last category is the Senior Executive Service—or senior government leadership positions filled by political appointments, like Cabinet members or ambassadors.

These categories are relatively new, though, and these breakdowns have not always been the case.

How have laws concerning the civil service changed over time?

While the federal civil service was established in 1871, civil service jobs existed long before in the form of the spoils system. Before 1871, government jobs were hired—and fired—at the President’s will, which meant each political party would reward their people by giving them sought-after government positions.

In 1883, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act created the United States Civil Service Commission to better handle civil service in the U.S. Government. This came about due to the assassination of President James Garfield at the hands of an assassin claiming he deserved a position in the federal civil service.

But, after these changes were made to the U.S. Code, it shifted—by the first decade of the new century, almost two-thirds of federal employees were required to take a test to measure their qualifications instead of just being given their position.

But what’s the difference between the “professional” and “sub-professional” civil services?

Professional Vs. Sub-Professional

“Professional” civil service covers the majority of federal jobs, like many of the independent agencies under the government umbrella.

“Sub-professional” is defined as working “under the ‘professional’ level but above clerical or labor level, typically under the supervision of a professionally trained person.” This civil service position includes clerical jobs, trades, or custodial services.

But which of these are required to take an exam, and what’s the difference?

What jobs would require a civil service exam?

Any independent agency like the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, or the Naval Criminal Investigative Service would require an exam. Even NASA and the U.S. Postal Service require it before they will consider you for the position.

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On a more local level, most law enforcement agencies, fire departments, and even the Bureau of Motor Vehicles requires you to take the exam.

There are several different types of assessments through the federal government and the Office of Personnel Management, and it’s important to know which one you would be required to take.

What is the difference between professional and sub-professional civil service exams?

As mentioned before, the professional civil service and sub-professional civil service exams are similar. While the professional exam focuses on analytics and logic, the sub-professional exam covers clerical abilities.

Both the professional and sub-professional service exams are used to screen applicants based on their knowledge and skill, along with their situational judgment. Many jobs have phased this test out, but there are still positions that require it, such as law enforcement and the U.S. Postal Service.

There is no one specific exam that covers all civil service positions, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management website.

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These “written and performance tests”, as outlined by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management website, must be taken before even being considered for an interview.

Some jobs require tests by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, while other positions have test required and administered by the specific agency and is not overseen by the Office of Personnel Management.

Required, written tests include much of law enforcement, such as United States Marshal Service, police, the U.S. Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection Officers, and Border Patrol Agents (including a language proficiency test).

Jobs that require the Administrative Careers with America assessment or another equivalent exam include jobs within social sciences, geography, history, psychology, workforce research and analysis, financial administration and tax specialists, and Internal Revenue Service officers.

Jobs that require either a performance test or certification include stenographers, clerks, and other administrative positions. For a full list of requirements, visit their website.

How can I apply for a federal civil service position?

While state and local civil service jobs do not have a generalized portal, the federal civil service does. Visit USAjobs.gov to apply for several federal positions that are open right now.

The Federal Application process includes creating your USAJobs profile, where you can manage your entire application from start to finish. After searching for jobs, it will take you through step by step, including providing an online version of the required test for that position.

More about civil service exams HERE.

How can I prepare for the test?

It depends on what position you’re applying for. For example, the U.S. Post Office exam will test you on your memory, while a clerical exam will focus more on problem solving and grammar.

Two types of tests could be administered depending on the job—The Administrative Careers with America Assessment or the USA Hire assessment.

The USA Hire assessment is performed typically through the USA Jobs website. When you find a vacancy and apply online, after uploading your resume, you will be asked to complete the assessment questionnaire.

The USA Hire assessment looks over logic, comprehension, personality, and reasoning, along with occupational math, judgment, and reading. This assessment could be used with another questionnaire. Scores are typically valid for a year after the completion date.

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You may also have to take the Administrative Careers with America assessment or take one or the other, depending on the agency.

Many positions require the Administrative Careers with America Assessment. This test replaced the Professional and Administrative Career Exam in the 1980s and it is still being used to assess potential employees.

Unless you are going into a law enforcement position, it is most likely you will be taken the Administrative Careers with America Assessment. This test has two components: the ability test and the Individual Achievement Record.

The Ability Test outlines verbal and mathematical reasoning, while the Individual Achievement Record test asks questions about past events, behaviors, and personality to see how their previous knowledge and experience can be translated into performance.

Don’t be discouraged if you’re applying for a civil service job with little or no work experience—the test will let you consider other factors.

The test is available online or as a written exam. Online assessments can be found at the USA Jobs website when applying for jobs that require that assessment.

When considering civil service employment, it’s best to check with the specific agency or job that you’re applying to for more information about the specific test you would have to take.

Regardless of what kind of job you’re applying for, there are a few things to remember:

  • All job assessments are different depending on the position.
  • Familiarize yourself with the specific requirements that the job you are considering requires.
  • If you have questions about what kind of test you would be facing, contact the specific agency to which you’re applying.
  • Prepare ahead of time. Understand that it may take time, and you may be frustrated when taking these logic and cognitive tests, but in the end, you’ll be one step closer to that civil service position you desire.

When you’re ready to apply for a civil service job, visit USAJobs.gov for a listing of open federal jobs, and start on your civil service career today!

Related Questions

What skills should you have to be in the civil service?

Depending on what job you’re going for, each one will have different requirements. Regardless, some of the skills remain the same: be organized, be able to communicate, be flexible, be able to work on a team or alone, and be able to make tough decisions.

Do I have to be a U.S. citizen to apply for a civil service position?

Yes. Only U.S. citizens and nationals may hold Federal service jobs, unless there are no U.S. citizens who are qualified and available, according to the Office of Personnel Management website. Some agencies are restricted from hiring non-citizens.

Can my professional experience count instead of taking an assessment like the Administrative Careers with America test?

No. According to the Office of Personnel Management, agencies are not permitted to replace the assessment with education requirements. The test itself does give credit for experiences in school, work, military service, hobbies, or other organizations through its assessment.

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Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.