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The Pros and Cons of a Government Job

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Pacific Islander man riding on garbage truck
Blend Images - Don Mason / Brand X Pictures

When you think about government, images of the President of the United States, Capitol Hill and the Lincoln Memorial may come to mind. Those are certainly indelible images of American government, but they do not wholly represent the day-to-day functions of how the business of the People gets done. For the typical government employee, more common images would be the inside of a cubicle, the back of a garbage truck or the county jail.

Some jobs lend themselves to government work -- police officers, firefighters, social workers, etc. Others -- such as accountants, computer programmers and human resource specialists -- exist in both the private and public sectors. So how do you choose whether to work in the private or public sector? Like any decision, there are positives and negatives to consider.

Pros

The best aspects of a government job include:

  • Stability. Unlike the private sector where companies can go out of business, the government never goes out of business. Agencies or offices may close or morph into new forms, but there will always be government jobs. Employees will always be needed to complete the tasks only government does, and additional employees will always be needed to support them.
  • Flexibility. In the vast majority of positions, workers can easily maintain a healthy work-life balance. Additionally, telecommuting and alternative work schedules are common in government agencies. For jobs that require employees to conduct much of their business away from the office, government organizations have begun providing equipment to facilitate a mobile workforce.
  • Benefits. Government benefits almost always exceed private sector benefits packages. Employees often have superior health care plans with lower cost and favorable retirement plans. In prolonged recessions, government and private sector benefit packages both get worse. Still, government benefits remain better. 
  • Time off. Leave time accruals are generous, and managers tend to be permissive in approving vacation time. Federal holidays are observed. State and local governments sometimes have their own additional holidays.

Cons

The worst aspects of a government job include:

  • Slow salary growth. Cost-of-living adjustments authorized for government employees rarely keep up with inflation, and merit raises are given to only a small percentage of top performers. For big salary increases, government employees have to compete for vacant positions with higher salaries.
  • Capped earning potential. Government executives are paid far less than their private sector counterparts. To hit the big paydays, high level government employees jump to the private sector.
  • Low levels of control. Bureaucracy doesn’t only frustrate citizens. It also plagues government employees wanting to get things done quickly. Expect all major and many minor decisions to go through some sort of formal approval process.

  • Lazy co-workers. Adages about lazy government workers exist for a reason. Some government employees just do what is asked of them and no more, but there are far more employees who are driven to achieve more than just the bare minimum. Unfortunately, poor performers are rarely coached to better performance or fired for cause.

No matter what you want to do, chances are you can do it for the government. You just need to make sure that you're willing to put up with the negative aspects in exchange for the positive ones.

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