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Federal Government

Industry Overview
The U.S. Federal Government was established by the Constitution to provide services to the public. While these services vary considerably, all are designed to improve the lives of the United States population, as well as people around the world. The Federal Government's essential duties include defending the United States from foreign aggression, representing U.S. interests abroad, crating and enforcing national laws and regulations, and administering domestic programs and agencies. Workers employed by the Federal Government are responsible for enacting and implementing the programs and performing the services that accomplish these goals, playing a vital role in many aspects of daily life.

Industry organization
More than 200 years ago, the founders of the United States gathered in Philadelphia to create a constitution for a new national government. The Constitution of the United States, ratified by the last of the 13 original States in 1791, created the three branches of the Federal Government and granted certain powers and responsibilities to each. The legislative, judicial, and executive branches were created with equal powers but very different responsibilities that act to keep their powers in balance.

  • The legislative branch is responsible for forming and amending the legal structure of the Nation. Its largest component is Congress, the primary U.S. legislative body, which is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives. This body includes senators, representatives, their staffs, and various support workers. The legislative branch employs only about 2 percent of Federal workers, nearly all of whom work in the Washington, D.C. area.
  • The judicial branch is responsible for interpreting the laws that the legislative branch enacts. The Supreme Court, the Nation's definitive judicial body, makes the highest rulings. Its decisions usually follow the appeal of a decision made by the one of the regional Courts of Appeal, which hear cases appealed from U.S. District Courts, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, or State Supreme Courts. U.S. District Courts are located in each State and are the first to hear most cases under Federal jurisdiction. The judicial branch employs about the same number of people as does the legislative branch, but its offices and employees are dispersed throughout the country.
  • Of the three branches, the executive branch has the widest range of responsibilities. Consequently, it employed 97 percent of all Federal civilian employees in 2008. The executive branch is comprised of the Executive Office of the President, 15 executive Cabinet departments, and about 70 independent agencies, each of which has clearly defined duties. The Executive Office of the President is composed of several offices and councils that aid the President in policy decisions. These include the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the administration of the Federal budget; the National Security Council, which advises the President on matters of national defense; and the Council of Economic Advisers, which makes economic policy recommendations.

Each of the 15 executive Cabinet departments administers programs that oversee an aspect of life in the United States. The highest departmental official of each Cabinet department, the Secretary, is a member of the President's Cabinet. Each, listed by employment size, is described below.

Defense: Manages the military forces that protect our country and its interests, including the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force and a number of smaller agencies. The civilian workforce employed by the Department of Defense performs various support activities, such as payroll and public relations.

Veterans Affairs: Administers programs to aid U.S. veterans and their families, runs the veterans' hospital system, and operates our national cemeteries.

Homeland Security: Works to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, reduce vulnerability to terrorism, and minimize the damage from potential attacks and natural disasters. It also administers the country's immigration policies and oversees the Coast Guard

Treasury: Regulates banks and other financial institutions, administers the public debt, prints currency, and collects Federal income taxes.

Justice: Works with State and local governments and other agencies to prevent and control crime and ensure public safety against threats both domestic and foreign. It also enforces Federal laws, prosecutes cases in Federal courts, and runs Federal prisons.

Agriculture: Promotes U.S. agriculture domestically and internationally, manages forests, researches new ways to grow crops and conserve natural resources, ensures safe meat and poultry products, and leads the Federal anti-hunger programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the Food Stamp program) and the National School Lunch Program.

Interior: Manages Federal lands, including the national parks and forests; runs hydroelectric power systems; and promotes conservation of natural resources.

Health and Human Services: Performs health and social science research, assures the safety of drugs and foods other than meat and poultry, and administers Medicare, Medicaid, and numerous other social service programs.

Transportation: Sets national transportation policy; plans and funds the construction of highways and mass transit systems; and regulates railroad, aviation, and maritime operations.

Commerce: Forecasts the weather, charts the oceans, regulates patents and trademarks, conducts the census, compiles statistics, and promotes U.S. economic growth by encouraging international trade. The Department of Commerce also houses the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which is a broad employer of engineers and scientists.

State: Oversees the Nation's embassies and consulates, issues passports, monitors U.S. interests abroad, and represents the United States before international organizations.

Labor: Enforces laws guaranteeing fair pay, workplace safety, and equal job opportunity, administers unemployment insurance (UI) to State UI agencies, regulates pension funds; and collects and analyzes economic data.

Energy: Coordinates the national use and provision of energy, oversees the production and disposal of nuclear weapons, and plans for future energy needs.

Housing and Urban Development: Funds public housing projects, enforces equal housing laws, and insures and finances mortgages.

Education: Monitors and distributes financial aid to schools and students, collects and disseminates data on schools and other education matters, and prohibits discrimination in education.

Federal Government civilian employment, except U.S. Postal Service, November 2008 (Employment in thousands)
  United States Washington MSA
Total 1,909 320
Executive departments 1,664 238
Defense, total 652 68
Army 244 20
Navy 175 25
Air Force 149 6
Other 84 17
Veterans Affairs 280 8
Homeland Security 171 23
Justice 108 24
Treasury 88 12
Agriculture 82 8
Interior 67 7
Health and Human Services 64 30
Transportation 55 9
Commerce 39 20
Labor 16 6
Energy 15 5
State 15 12
Housing and Urban Development 9 3
Education 4 3
Independent agencies 180 48
Social Security Administration 64 2
National Aeronautics and Space Administration 18 4
Environmental Protection Agency 18 5
General Services Administration 12 4
Office of Personnel Management 5 2
Smithsonian Institution 4 4
Other 59 27
Judicial branch 33 3
Legislative branch 30 29
SOURCE: U.S. Office of Personnel Management

Numerous independent agencies perform tasks that fall between the jurisdictions of the executive departments or that are more efficiently executed by an autonomous agency. Some smaller, but well- known, independent agencies include the Peace Corps, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission. Although the majority of these agencies are fairly small, employing fewer than 1,000 workers (many employ fewer than 100 workers), some are quite large. The largest independent agencies are:

Social Security Administration: Operates various old age, survivor, and disability insurance programs.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration: Oversees aviation research and conducts exploration and research beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

Environmental Protection Agency: Runs programs to control and reduce pollution of the Nation's water, air, and lands.

Tennessee Valley Authority: Operates the hydroelectric power system in the Tennessee River Valley.

General Services Administration: Manages and protects Federal Government property and records.

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation: Maintains stability of and public confidence in the Nation's financial system, by insuring deposits and promoting sound banking practices.

Working Environment 
The vast majority of Federal employees work full time; some work on flexible schedules that allow workers more control over their work schedules. Some agencies also offer telecommuting programs, which allow selected workers to perform some job duties at home or from regional centers.

Because of the wide range of Federal jobs, working conditions vary considerably. Most Federal employees work in office buildings, hospitals, or laboratories; but a large number also can be found at border crossings, airports, shipyards, military bases, construction sites, national parks, and other settings. Work environments vary from clean and comfortable to hazardous and stressful, such as those experienced by law enforcement officers and air traffic controllers.

Some Federal workers spend much of their time away from the offices in which they are based. For example, inspectors or compliance officers often visit businesses and worksites to ensure that laws and regulations are obeyed. Some Federal workers frequently travel long distances, spending days or weeks away from home. Auditors, for example, may spend weeks at a time in distant locations.

In 2008, the Federal Government, excluding the Postal Service, employed about 2.0 million civilian workers. The Federal Government is the Nation's single largest employer. Because data on employment in certain agencies cannot be released to the public for national security reasons, this total does not include employment for the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and National Imagery and Mapping Agency.

The Federal Government makes an effort to have a workforce as diverse as the Nation's civilian labor force. The Federal Government serves as a model for all employers in abiding by equal employment opportunity legislation, which protects current and potential employees from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or age. The Federal Government also makes a special effort to recruit and accommodate persons with disabilities.

Even though the headquarters of most Federal departments and agencies are based in the Washington, DC, area, only 15 percent of Federal employees worked in the vicinity of the Nation's Capital in 2008. In addition to Federal employees working throughout the United States, about 35,000, which includes foreign nationals, are assigned overseas, mostly in embassies or defense installations.

Degree Paths into this Industry
Although the Federal Government employs workers in every major occupational group, workers are not employed in the same proportions in which they are employed throughout the economy as a whole. The analytical and technical nature of many government agencies translates into a much higher proportion of professional, management, business, and financial occupations in the Federal Government, compared with all other industries combined.

Percent distribution of employment in the Federal Government, excluding the Postal Service, and for all industries by major occupational group, 2008
Occupational group Federal Government All industries
Total 100.0 100.0
Management, business, and finanicial 33.7 9.2
Professional and related 33.2 20.9
Office and administrative support 13.5 17.0
Service 8.2 19.7
Installation, maintenance, and repair 4.6 3.9
Transportation and material moving 2.9 6.7
Construction and extraction 1.6 4.6
Production 1.5 7.0
Sales and related 0.4 10.2
Farming, fishing, and forestry 0.4 0.7
SOURCE: BLS National Employment Matrix, 2008-18

Because the Career Cornerstone Center focuses on careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine), we will focus on how degrees in these areas can lead to a career with the Federal Government.

Management, business, and financial workers made up about 34 percent of Federal employment in 2008. Managerial workers include a broad range of officials who, at the highest levels, lead Federal agencies or programs. Middle managers, on the other hand, usually oversee one activity or aspect of a program.

Business and financial occupations include accountants and auditors, who prepare and analyze financial reports, review and record revenues and expenditures, and investigate operations for fraud and inefficiency. Management analysts study government operations and systems and suggest improvements. Compliance officers make sure than contracts, licenses, and permits comply with Federal law, and tax examiners, collectors, and revenue agents determine and collect taxes.

Professional and related occupations accounted for 33 percent of Federal employment. The largest groups of professional workers were in healthcare practitioner and technical occupations; life, physical, and social science occupations; and architecture and engineering occupations.

Allied health and medical professionals, such as licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses, registered nurses, and physicians and surgeons, provide medical care at Federal hospitals, serving a wide range of individuals that include veterans of the nationís Armed Forces.

Life, physical, and social science occupations in the Federal government include biological scientists, conservation scientists and foresters, environmental scientists and geoscientists, and forest and conservation technicians. They perform tasks such as determining the effects of drugs on living organisms, preventing fires in national forests, and predicting earthquakes and hurricanes.

Architecture and engineering occupations include aerospace, civil, electrical and electronics, and mechanical engineers. Engineers were found in many departments of the executive branch, but the vast majority worked in the Department of Defense. Some worked in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as well as other agencies. In general, they solve problems and provide advice on technical programs, such as building highway bridges or implementing agency-wide computer systems.

Computer specialists are also employed throughout the Federal Government. They write computer programs, analyze problems related to data processing, and protect computer systems from hackers, viruses, and other hazards.

Computer specialists -- primarily computer software engineers, computer systems analysts, and network and computer systems administrators -- are employed throughout the Federal Government. They write computer programs, analyze problems related to data processing, and keep computer systems running smoothly.

Federally employed workers in installation, maintenance, and repair occupations include aircraft mechanics and service technicians who fix and maintain all types of aircraft, and electrical and electronic equipment mechanics, installers, and repairers, who inspect, adjust, and repair electronic equipment such as industrial controls, transmitters, radar, radio, and navigation systems.

Employment of wage and salary workers in Federal Government, 2008 and projected change, 2008-2018.  (Employment in thousands)
Occupation Employment 2008 Percent Change,


Number Percent


All Occupations 2,016.8 100.0 9.5




Management, business, and financial occupations 680.0 33.7 14.0


Claims adjusters, examiners, and investigators 43.5 2.2 19.5


Logisticians 24.5 1.2 18.3


Management analysts 50.0 2.5 8.6


Tax examiners, collectors, and revenue agents 31.4 1.6 19.5




Professional and related occupations 669.3 33.2 9.7


Computer specialists 76.3 3.8 8.0


Engineers 92.3 4.6 9.0


Biological scientists 25.4 1.3 16.0


Physical scientists 32.4 1.6 6.8


Economists 4.5 0.2 -1.3


Registered nurses 62.2 3.1 14.1




NOTE: Columns do not add to total due to omission of occupations without a main focus in STEM. Original source: BLS National Employment Matrix, 2008-18.


 Industry Forecast
Wage and salary employment in the Federal Government, except Post Office, is expected to increase by 10 percent over the coming decade, which is close to the 11 percent growth rate for all industries combined. Staffing levels in Federal Government can be subject to change in the long run because of changes in public policies as legislated by the Congress, which affect spending levels and hiring decisions for the various departments and agencies. In general, over the coming decade, domestic programs are likely to see an increase in employment.

While there will be growth in many occupations over the coming decade, demand will be especially strong for specialized workers in areas related to public health, information security, scientific research, law enforcement, and financial services. As a larger share of the U.S. population enters the older age brackets, demand for healthcare will increase. This will lead to a substantial number of new jobs in Federal hospitals and other healthcare facilities for registered nurses and physicians and surgeons. In addition, as cyber security becomes an increasingly important aspect of National defense, rapid growth will occur among information technology specialists, such as computer and information research scientists, who will be needed to devise defense methods, monitor computer networks, and execute security protocol. Furthermore, as global activity in scientific development increases, the Federal Government will add many physical science, life science, and engineering workers to remain competitive. Aside from these specific areas, numerous new jobs in other occupational areas will arise as the diverse Federal workforce continues to expand.

As financial and business transactions face increased scrutiny, a substantial number of compliance officers and claims adjusters, examiners, and investigators will be added to Federal payrolls. In addition, as the population grows and national security remains a priority, many new law enforcement officers, such as detectives and criminal investigators will be needed.

Job prospects in the Federal government are expected to vary by occupation. Over the next decade, a significant number of workers are expected to retire, which will create a large number of job openings. This may create favorable prospects in certain occupations, but jobseekers may face competition for positions in occupations with fewer retirements, or for popular jobs that attract many applicants.

Competition for Federal positions can increase during times of economic uncertainty, when workers seek the stability of Federal employment. In general, employment in the Federal government is considered to be relatively stable because it is less susceptible than private industries to fluctuations in the economy.

Related Degree Fields

Professional Associations/Resources

Note: Some resources in this section are provided by the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.



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