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By Steve Kelman

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Are there any good GS-9 jobs out there?

I was having a conversation recently at lunch with a participant in our executive education program for GS-15's finishing up at the Kennedy School shortly. He noted that he was, to his knowledge, the only member of his Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) 1999 cohort still working in the government. He believed that PMFs were disillusioned with government service in large part because there are few GS-9 jobs that are interesting enough to engage smart young people. You generally need to get to higher-level jobs to have interesting work assignments, he felt, and by that time PMFs have jumped ship. After his observation, I sat down at lunch a few days later to discuss this issue with some of the other participants in the class.

Some interesting observations came out of the conversation. One was that you are more likely to find interesting and challenging GS-9 jobs in the field -- including civilian jobs in military settings -- than in a lot of agency headquarters in Washington. One Navy participant told me he had GS-9 civilians doing logistics-related jobs with a lot of responsibility and job variety. (I told people I remembered once picking up a hitchhiker in northern California many years ago who was an investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in charge of major complaints against big employers -- and he was a GS-7.)

A number of people in the conversation thought you could give new GS-9 hires interesting jobs as junior members of a team working on a significant issue. But managers needed to make a point to find these opportunities. Indeed, all the people around the table at lunch thought that agencies that cared about retaining bright young hires needed to think much more systematically about what kinds of job assignments to give the new hires.

We all agreed -- including me -- that "the kids" often have exaggerated expectations of the kinds of responsibilities they can reasonably expect in their first jobs. But most PMFs -- and indeed, a large proportion of smart young people seeking government careers -- have some policy-related interests, and there must be ways, again as part of teams, to give them exposure to their policy area of interest even if they can't be "making policy" themselves.

The conversation also turned to the question of smart GS-9's who soon find themselves doing GS-13 type work -- at the salary of a 9 and often working harder than some retired-in-place 13 or 14. This of course raises tough managerial challenges for the supervisor. The participant who originally raised this issue about the fate of PMFs suggested that a good supervisor is one who can pair the bright GS-9 or 11 with a bright and hardworking GS-13 or GS-14 mentor, giving the older person someone who will help him or her look good, while giving the younger person some responsibility and mentorship, which can make up for the lower salary and grade level. Meanwhile, the retired-in-place GS-14 is left off in a corner by himself or herself, insulated from the young achiever but, of course, still drawing a salary -- an unhappy fact about federal workplaces that is a losing proposition for everyone but the retired-in-place employee.

Question to government readers: Are there some interesting GS-9 jobs in your agency where PMFs might go? How do we make GS-9 jobs more interesting for new feds?

Posted on Nov 10, 2010 at 7:26 PM


Reader Comments

Thu, Nov 18, 2010

It seems the point of the article is that most GS9 positions are entry level administrative positions and the question posed seems to be: are there any more substanative positions out there, where are they and what are the pathways to get there?

Wed, Nov 17, 2010 Mike

If you think you're stuck in a GS-09 position then you need to research and fill the squares to get promoted. You may even need to move laterally to other jobs to add to your qualifications. If you just sit around frustrated and do nothing about it, then it's on you. Get degrees, take courses and add to your career brief. I don't see how we can offer younger folks increased pay grades when I'm reading about commissions targeting feds and proposing reducing the force and adding work to existing positions. According to the commission(s), we already make too much money compared to the private sector! Ludicrous.

Mon, Nov 15, 2010 Steve Kelman

Thanks all for interesting comments. I hope other readers can give examples of interesting GS-9 jobs for young feds. And we need to recognize that the government is competing for smart and dedicated kids with higher-paying private sector employers, and one alternative may have to be to offer them higher grade levels, or we will have no chance of getting them. Any HR or program types have any advice for the reader who is stuck in a GS-9 job below his skill level?

Mon, Nov 15, 2010

This place is full of interesting GS-9 slots, but they filled most of them at GS-12 level to get the 'kids' to even apply. Meanwhile, us Old Farts who inched our way up the upward mobility ladder that used to be SOP, are glass-ceilinged at GS-11 step 10.

Mon, Nov 15, 2010

As a GS9 I would like to know the answer to this question as well. I entered the Federal workplace after being unemployed for 5.5 months from the non-profit sector, where I had a higher salary and had 10 years of full time experience in a variety of positions and organizations. I took a lower paying Government job with a lot less responsibility doing administrative work, for which I am overqualified. After a year with the Government, I am looking to grow into something more substantive, but the conundrum seems to be that there isn't much of a path for me to take. How can a smart hard-worker move beyond administrative work? What are the options in Government? It seems like the Catch-22 with Federal jobs is that unless you are already in a particular position, you are not qualified for a new or different position. I would like to see more training and career ladder positions. It can be frustrating when you continually "pay your dues" by filling entry level positions, even with years of experience and then there still isn’t a pathway for moving up.

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