We hear the term “civil servant” thrown around in the media, newspapers, and even social media these days. But what does the term actually mean, and what jobs go into such a broad sector of the workforce?
What types of jobs are civil servant jobs?
Civil service jobs are any position—federal, state, or local—that either works with the government or within the public sector. Federal government employees, employees for independent agencies such as NASA, public school teachers, social workers, and police officers all are considered civil servants. If the job is essential in making sure our government runs—minus the Armed Forces, legislature, or judicial system—it is considered a civil service position.
But what exactly defines the “civil service”? Read on to find out more about this important sector of the American workforce.
Civil Service: Explained
What is the civil service? The federal civil service was established in 1871, although these jobs existed long before then. Typically, government employees were both hired, demoted, and removed simply at the President’s will. Of course, that means that each political party could reward their most loyal members by putting them up for such positions. This was called the spoils system.
When the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act created the United States Civil Service Commission in 1883, changes were made to the U.S. Code to create what is now considered our federal 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, expect positions in the uniformed services.”
But understanding U.S. Code is not always easy, so what does this mean for you?
Overseen by the Officer of Personnel Management, the United States Federal Service is made up of non-military, non-elected employees. According to the Federal Workforce Statistics report from the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management, the U.S. government employs about 2.1 million civilians in the civil service.
Understand, too, that the terminology can change between the federal, state, and local governments—not every place has the same understanding of the term “government employee.” This term can typically cover federal civil service, state government employees, and local government employees, but it is not interchangeable with the term “civil service employees.”
Another aspect of civil service is that the members of this sector of the workforce are considered apolitical or non-partisan. Because it is not an elected position, but rather appointed on professional merit, these positions—even though they are within the government—do not and should not come down to political affiliation.
There are also two subcategories of civil service positions—“professional” and “sub-professional.” Most federal jobs, both under the government and under independent agencies, are considered professional. Sub-professional, on the other hand, are any jobs under the professional level that are supervised by someone in the professional level. Within civil service, jobs such as clerical positions or custodial services are considered sub-professional.
What types of jobs are civil servant jobs?
The term “civil servant”, though, remains extremely broad. Within the federal civil service, most jobs are under the Executive Office of the President—all offices and agencies that support the executive branch. The Executive Office not only includes the White House office staff, but the West Wing, the Office of Management and Budget, and the National Security Council. All civil servants within these positions are considered nonpartisan and neutral.
The Senior Executive Service is also considered civil service; this office contains senior governmental leadership positions that the President of the United States appoints advisors to, like ambassadors or Cabinet members. Up to ten percent of these positions can be filled by political appointment in this department. Half of the Senior Executive Service can only be filled by career employees, while the other half are either political appointments or career employees.
All fifteen departments of the executive branch fall under the term “civil servant.” According to the U.S. Department of State, there are eleven civil service categories—foreign affairs, human resources, management analysis, general accounting and administration, budget administration, legal counsel, passport visa services, public affairs, contract procurement, information technology management, and foreign language and professional training. More can be read about these federal civil service positions at their website.
Most current positions within the U.S. Department of state are within the Foreign Service category, including working as a foreign service officer, a medical laboratory scientist, engineering officer, or medical provider. Apply for a State Department job at their website, or learn more about the positions they offer.
While many of the jobs within the civil service are under the Executive Office of the President, there are still civil service jobs that are part of independent agencies, like the United States Postal Service, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Federal judges, who are appointed by the office of the President, also fall under the category of civil servants. Those who are elected, though, are not considered civil servants—it goes back to the idea that all “civil servants” are appointed rather than elected, therefore local judges are not technically considered civil servants.
According to data from the United States Census Bureau, while the federal government is the country’s single largest employer, it still only employs about 12 percent of all government employees. 24 percent are employed at the state level, while 63 percent are at the local level.
From a state or local standpoint, jobs that are considered civil servant positions include public school teachers, county engineers, firefighters, and social workers. Administrative assistants within government offices, intelligence or financial analysts, information technology specialists, registered nurses and doctors all fall under the category of civil service and are integral to our functioning government and society.
Becoming a civil servant may be easier than you think, though—read on to find out how you can join this section of the American workforce.
The Civil Service Exam: Is it difficult?
How do I become a civil servant?
You can become a civil servant one of two ways within the Federal system—the competitive service or the excepted service. Most jobs are given out through the competitive service—here, applicants go through a rigorous application process where they must compete against other applicants, similar to a typical hiring process.
Excepted service, on the other hand, are merit based or hire under their own certain criteria. These jobs are typically under the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the foreign service, or national security, like the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the National Security Agency, the U.S. Secret Service, or the Central Intelligence Agency. Jobs that fall under this category also include foreign service professionals, doctors, lawyers, and judges.
Not having to go through the competitive process the same as the other positions is not always a benefit, though—employees do not have as many appeal rights within the excepted service.
When you consider becoming a civil servant, you will have required to take some sort of civil service exam. Most independent agencies, including all national security agencies and even the U.S. Postal service, require all applicants to take an exam before moving on through the hiring process.
Local organizations require the test as well, like most law enforcement or fire departments.
Civil servants under the sub-professional category will also have to take an exam, which is slightly less rigorous and has different necessary qualifications than the professional exam. To find out more about the test requirements, visit the Office of Personnel Management website.
To apply for a federal civil service position, visit USAjobs.gov to apply. After creating your profile, the site will take you through step by step while also providing an online version of the test you need to take in order to apply for your chosen position. Local and state civil service jobs can be found by searching your specific location.
Knowing more about the civil service and what jobs fall under this part of the workforce is key whether you are applying for a job or simply trying to understand our government better. Regardless of whether you are seeking a job in the federal government or an independent agency or are interested in becoming a local police officer, your commitment to the public will be your biggest asset when becoming a civil servant.
Do I have to be a U.S. citizen to hold a civil service position?
Only U.S. citizens and nationals are allowed to hold federal civil service jobs unless there are no qualified citizens available. There are also certain agencies that have their ability to hire non-citizens restricted. For more information, visit the Office of Personnel Management website.
Do I need certain skills to be in the civil service?
It depends on what position you are applying for. All jobs require you to have good communication skills, flexibility, organization, and decision-making skills. When searching for a civil service job, make sure you look closely at the requirements of each to get a better understanding of what you may need to do.
To learn how to best prepare and study for your civil servant exam click here!
Free civil service guide. Click here to learn more: https://civilservicehq.com/
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.
Hi! I’m Shawn Chun and I’m so grateful that you’re here.
Civil servants are some of the hardest working, most generous people I know. I have been passionate about all types of civil service career paths for years now and enjoy sharing everything I continue to learn about them.
Civil Service HQ strives to be the ultimate resource for learning everything about a career within the civil service.
Our mission is to empower you with information to help you decide which civil servant career path is best for you and to provide you with the tools needed to increase your chance of success in that career path.