How Does the Federal Pay Scale Work?

Learn How Federal Salary Grades and Pay Steps Work

Pay Scale
Federal Pay Scales Can Be Lucrative. TaxRebate.org.uk /Images Money/Creative Commons

Regardless of the level of government - be it state, local or federal - many public employers have fixed, defined pay scales, rates, and grades. These scales establish a predetermined salary range, based on the education and experience level of a given employee, and help workers know not only how much they can earn, but what they need to do to earn more. The U.S. federal pay scale system in particular paints a clear picture of how federal employees can plan their careers and their earning potential.

What Are the Federal Pay Grades?

How much money you can earn working in federal government jobs, including law enforcement careers with the federal government, are based on a number of factors. Each grade provides a set salary range for a given level of education and experience.

The pay grade system also takes into account federal locality pay, which incorporates local costs of living in determining how much money you earn as a federal worker.

Pay grades are categorized as General Schedule (GS) levels and are dependent on a variety of criteria. For example, if you want to become a Secret Service agent, you could be hired at the GS-5 level if you only have a bachelor's degree, or the GS-7 level if you have a master's degree.

The general schedule has 15 pay grades, numbered 1 through 15. Each government agency determines where its authorized positions fall within those pay grades. For federal law enforcement and corrections jobs, those pay grades generally start at GS-5.

What Are the Federal Pay Steps?

Each pay grade within the federal general schedule pay system has its own salary range. Within that range are individual steps, based on years of service. For example, if you are hired at the GS-5 level, you can expect to earn a salary increase each year over the span of 10 years, provided you have favorable performance evaluations.

How Can You Get Started at a Higher Pay Grade?

Especially in federal law enforcement jobs, federal pay grades are determined largely by how much education you have and how much experience you bring to the table.

If you want to start out in a higher pay grade, you'll need to earn a graduate level degree, such as masters degree in criminal justice or criminology.

You can gain valuable experience that can help you start at a higher salary by working at the local or state level, volunteering or interning in a field related to the federal job you're applying for.

For example, you can increase your federal starting pay by getting experience local as a police officer or detective before applying to become an FBI agent.

How Can You Move into a Higher Pay Grade?

As we've discussed, the biggest factors in the U.S. federal pay grade system are education and experience. In order to advance yourself and move up in grade, you can work toward earning a higher level of education and increase your knowledge and experience in key areas such as criminal investigations.

What Else Can Affect My Federal Pay?

How much money you can earn in a federal law enforcement career is affected by a couple of other factors.

Namely, where you work and how many hours you work.

The federal government takes into account the cost of living when figuring salaries ​and offers pay adjustments based on location, called locality pay. The government also offers law enforcement availability pay (LEAP) to compensate for the longer hours you may be expected to work.

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