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Security Clearance


Significant Points

  • With nearly 2 million civilian employees, the Federal Government, excluding the Postal Service is the Nation’s largest employer.
  • About 5 out of 6 Federal employees work outside the Washington, DC metropolitan area.
  • Job growth generated by increased homeland security needs may be largely offset by projected slow growth or declines in other Federal sectors due to budgetary constraints, the growing use of private contractors, and the transfer of some functions to State and local governments.
  • Competition is expected for some Federal positions, especially during times of economic uncertainty, when workers seek the stability of Federal employment.

Nature of the Work

The Federal Government’s essential duties include defending the United States from foreign aggression and terrorism, representing U.S. interests abroad, enforcing laws and regulations, and administering domestic programs and agencies. U.S. citizens are particularly aware of the Federal Government when they pay their income taxes each year, but they usually do not consider the government’s role when they watch a weather forecast, purchase fresh and uncontaminated groceries, travel by highway or air, or make a deposit at their bank. Workers employed by the Federal Government play a vital role in these and many other aspects of our daily lives.

Over 200 years ago, the founders of the United States gathered in Philadelphia, PA to create a constitution for a new national government and lay the foundation for self-governance. 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, DC 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—through the power vested by the Constitution in the office of the President—has the widest range of responsibilities. Consequently, it employed 96 percent of all Federal civilian employees (excluding Postal Service workers) in 2004. The executive branch is composed of the Executive Office of the President, 15 executive Cabinet departments—including the newly created Department of Homeland Security, and nearly 90 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 (Table 1).

  • 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, 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 Food Stamps and School Lunch.
  • 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.
  • 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; regulates pension funds; and collects and analyzes economic data through its Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • 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.
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.
  • Operates the hydroelectric power system in the Tennessee River Valley.
  • ,strong>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 Conditions

Due to the wide range of Federal jobs, working conditions are equally variable. While most Federal employees work in office buildings, hospitals, or laboratories; a large number also can be found at border crossings, airports, shipyards, military bases, construction sites, and national parks. Work environments vary from comfortable and relaxed to hazardous and stressful, such as those experienced by law enforcement officers, astronauts, and air traffic controllers.

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

Some Federal workers spend much of their time away from the offices in which they are based. Inspectors or compliance officers, for example, 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.


Employment

In 2004, the Federal Government, excluding the Postal Service employed about 1.9 million civilian workers, or about 1.3 percent of the Nation’s workforce. The Federal Government is the Nation’s single largest employer. Because data on employment in certain agencies can not 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 an 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 1 out of 6 Federal employees worked in the vicinity of the Nation’s Capital in 2004. In addition to Federal employees working throughout the United States, another 93,000, which includes foreign nationals, are assigned overseas, mostly in embassies or defense installations.


Training

In all but a few cases, applicants for Federal jobs must be US citizens. Applicants that are veterans of military service may also be able to claim veteran’s preference which gives them preferred status over other candidates with equal qualifications. For an increasing number of jobs requiring access to sensitive or classified materials, applicants must undergo a background investigation in order to obtain a security clearance. This investigation covers an individual’s criminal, credit, and employment history, as well as other records. The scope of the investigation will vary, depending on the nature of the position in the government and the degree of harm that an individual in that position could cause. Generally, the higher the level of clearance needed, the greater the scope of investigation.

The educational and training requirements for jobs in the Federal Government mirror those in the private sector for most major occupational groups. Many jobs in managerial or professional and related occupations, for example, require a 4-year college degree. Some, such as engineers, physicians and surgeons, and biological and physical scientists, require a bachelor’s or higher degree in a specific field of study. However, registered nurse and many technician occupations may be entered with 2 years of training after high school. Office and administrative support workers in the government usually need only a high school diploma, although any further training or experience, such as a junior college degree or a couple of years of relevant work experience, is an asset. Most Federal jobs in other occupations require no more than a high school degree, although most departments and agencies prefer workers with vocational training or previous experience.

Once employed, each Federal department or agency determines its own training requirements and offers workers opportunities to improve job skills or become qualified to advance to other jobs. These may include technical or skills training, tuition assistance or reimbursement, fellowship programs, and executive leadership and management training programs, seminars, and workshops. This training may be offered on the job, by another agency, or at local colleges and universities.

Advancement for most workers in the Federal Government is currently based on a system of occupational pay levels, or “grades,” although more departments and agencies are being granted waivers to experiment with different pay and promotion strategies. Workers typically enter the Federal civil service at the starting grade for an occupation and begin a “career ladder” of promotions until they reach the full-performance grade for that occupation. This system provides for a limited number of noncompetitive promotions, which usually are awarded at regular intervals, assuming job performance is satisfactory. The exact pay grades associated with a job’s career track depend upon the occupation.

Typically, workers without a high school diploma who are hired as clerks start at grade 1, and high school graduates with no additional training hired at the same job start at grade 2 or 3. Entrants with some technical training or experience who are hired as technicians may start at grade 4. Those with a bachelor’s degree generally are hired in professional occupations, such as economist, with a career ladder that starts at grade 5 or 7, depending on academic achievement. Entrants with a master’s degree or Ph.D. may start at grade 9. Individuals with professional degrees may be hired at the grade 11 or 12 level. Those with a combination of education and substantive experience may be hired at higher grades than those with education alone.

Once nonsupervisory Federal workers reach the full-performance level of the career track, they usually receive periodic step increases within their grade if they are performing their job satisfactorily. They must compete for subsequent promotions, and advancement becomes more difficult. At this point, promotions occur as vacancies arise, and they are based solely on merit and in competition with other qualified candidates. In addition to within-grade longevity increases, Federal workers are awarded bonuses for excellent job performance.

Workers who advance to managerial or supervisory positions may receive within-grade longevity increases, bonuses, and promotions to higher grades. The top managers in the Federal civil service belong to the Senior Executive Service (SES), the highest positions that Federal workers can reach without being specifically nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Relatively few workers attain SES positions, and competition is intense. Bonus provisions for SES positions are even more performance-based than are those for lower-level positions. Because it is the headquarters for most Federal agencies, the Washington, DC metropolitan area offers the best opportunities to advance to upper-level managerial and supervisory jobs.


Other Qualifications

Advancement

Job Outlook

Wage and salary employment in the Federal Government is projected to grow by 2.5 percent through the year 2014, compared to 14 percent growth projected for salaried employment in all industries combined. Job growth generated by increased homeland security needs may be largely offset by projected slow growth or declines in other Federal sectors due to governmental cost-cutting, the growing use of private contractors, and continuing devolution—the practice of turning over the development, implementation, and management of some programs of the Federal Government to State and local governments.

Staffing levels in government, while relatively stable in the short run, can be subject to change in the long run due mainly to changes in public policies as legislated by the Congress, which affect spending levels and hiring decisions for the various government departments and agencies. In general, over the coming decade, domestic programs are likely to see cuts in their budgets as Congress seeks to reduce the Federal budget deficit, but the cuts will likely affect some agencies more than others. Any employment declines, however, generally will be carried out through attrition—simply not replacing workers who retire or leave the Federal Government for other reasons. Layoffs, called “reductions in force,” have occurred in the past, but they are uncommon and usually affect relatively few workers. In spite of this, there still will be numerous employment opportunities in many agencies, due to the need to replace workers who leave the workforce, retire, or accept employment elsewhere.

While there will be job openings in all types of jobs over the coming decade, demand will continue to grow for specialized workers in areas related to border and transportation security, emergency preparedness, public health, and information analysis.

A study by the Partnership for Public Service, which surveyed Federal department and agency hiring needs for the 2005-2006 period, found that most of the new hires in the Federal Government will come in 5 major areas. They are: security, enforcement, and compliance, which includes inspectors, investigators, police officers, airport screeners, and prison guards; medical and public health fields; engineering and the sciences, including microbiologists, botanists, physicists, chemists, and veterinarians; program management and administration; and accounting, budget, and business, which includes revenue agents and tax examiners needed mainly by the Internal Revenue Service. The Department of Health and Human Services will need health insurance specialists and claims and customer service representatives to implement the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit. Patent examiners, foreign service officers, and lawyers also are in high demand.

The distribution of Federal employment will continue to shift toward a higher proportion of professional, business and financial operations, and protective service workers. Employment declines will be the greatest among office and administrative support occupations and production occupations, due to increasing office automation and contracting out of these jobs.

Competition is expected for some Federal positions, especially during times of economic uncertainty, when workers seek the stability of Federal employment. In general, Federal employment is considered to be relatively stable because it is not affected by cyclical fluctuations in the economy, as are employment levels in many private sector industries.


Earnings

In an effort to give agencies more flexibility in how they pay their workers, there are now several different pay systems in effect or planning to be implemented over the next few years within the Federal Government. The two largest departments that are experimenting with new pay systems are the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. The new systems incorporate fewer, but wider, pay “bands,” instead of grade levels. Pay increases, under these new systems, are almost entirely based on performance, as opposed to length of service.

It is the case, however, that the majority of professional and administrative Federal workers are still paid under the General Schedule (GS). The General Schedule, shown in table 4, has 15 grades of pay for civilian white-collar and service workers, and smaller within-grade step increases that occur based on length of service and quality of performance. New employees usually start at the first step of a grade; however, if the position in question is difficult to fill, entrants may receive somewhat higher pay or special rates. Almost all physician and engineer positions, for example, fall into this category. In an effort to make Federal pay more responsive to local labor market conditions, Federal employees working in the continental U.S. receive locality pay. The specific amount of locality pay is determined by survey comparisons of private sector wage rates and Federal wage rates in the relevant geographic area. At its highest level, locality pay can lead to an increase of as much as 26 percent above the base salary. Every January a pay adjustment tied to changes in private sector pay levels is divided between an across-the-board pay increase in the General Schedule and locality pay increases.

In March 2005, the average earnings for full-time workers paid under the General Schedule were $61,735. General attorneys, who earned $105,557 on average, was one of the higher paid occupations, while average earnings for nursing assistants was only about half the average for all occupations.

For those in craft, repair, operator, and laborer jobs, the Federal Wage System (FWS) is used to pay these workers. This schedule sets Federal wages so that they are comparable with prevailing regional wage rates for similar types of jobs. As a result, wage rates paid under the FWS can vary significantly from one locality to another.

In addition to base pay and bonuses, Federal employees may receive incentive awards. These one-time awards, ranging from $25 to $10,000, are bestowed for a significant suggestion, a special act or service, or sustained high job performance. Some workers also may receive “premium” pay, which is granted when the employee must work overtime, on holidays, on weekends, at night, or under hazardous conditions.

Benefits are an important part of Federal employee compensation. Federal employees may choose from a number of health plans and life insurance options; premium payments for these policies are partially offset by the Government. In addition, workers hired after January 1, 1984, participate in the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), a three-tiered retirement plan including Social Security, a pension plan, and an optional Thrift Savings Plan. Worker participation in the Thrift Savings Plan is voluntary, but any contributions made are tax-deferred and, up to a point, matched by the Federal Government. In addition to other benefits, some Federal agencies provide public transit subsidies in an effort to encourage employee use of public transportation.

Federal employees receive both vacation and sick leave. They earn 13 days of vacation leave a year for the first 3 years, 20 days a year for the next 12 years, and 26 days a year after their 15th year of service. Workers also receive 13 days of sick leave a year, which may be accumulated indefinitely. About 23 percent of all Federal civilian employees outside the Postal Service were union members or covered by union contract in 2004, substantially more than the 14 percent found for salaried workers in all industries.


Related Occupations

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 duties translates into a much higher proportion of professional, management, business, and financial occupations in the Federal Government, compared with most industries. Conversely, the Government sells very little, so it employs relatively few sales workers.

Professional and related occupations accounted for about one third of Federal employment in 2004. The largest group of professional workers worked in life, physical, and social science occupations, such as biological scientists, conservation scientists and foresters, environmental scientists and geoscientists, and forest and conservation technicians. They do work such as determining the effects of drugs on living organisms, preventing fires in the National forests, and predicting earthquakes and hurricanes.

Many health professionals, such as licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses, registered nurses, and physicians and surgeons, were employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in VA hospitals.

Large numbers of Federal workers also held jobs as engineers, including aerospace, civil, computer hardware, electrical and electronics, environmental, industrial, mechanical, and nuclear 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.

The Federal Government hires many lawyers, judges and related workers, as well as law clerks to write, administer, and enforce many of the country’s laws and regulations.

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.

Management, business, and financial workers made up about 27 percent of Federal employment and were primarily responsible for overseeing operations. Managerial workers include a broad range of officials who, at the highest levels, may head Federal agencies or programs. Middle managers, on the other hand, usually oversee one activity or aspect of a program. One management occupation—legislators—are responsible for passing and amending laws and overseeing the executive branch of the government. Within the Federal Government, legislators are entirely found in Congress.

Other occupations in this category are 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. Purchasing agents handle Federal purchases of supplies and tax examiners, collectors, and revenue agents determine and collect taxes.

About 17 percent of Federal workers were in office and administrative support occupations. These employees aid management staff with administrative duties. Administrative support workers in the Federal Government include information and record clerks, general office clerks, and secretaries and administrative assistants.

Compared with the economy as a whole, workers in service occupations were relatively scarce in the Federal Government. About 7 out of 10 Federal workers in service occupations were protective service workers, such as correctional officers and jailers, detectives and criminal investigators, and police officers. These workers protect the public from crime and oversee Federal prisons.

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, antennas, radar, radio, and navigation systems.

The Federal Government employed a relatively small number of workers in transportation; production; construction; sales and related; and farming, fishing, and forestry occupations. However, they employ almost all the air traffic controllers in the country and a significant number of agricultural inspectors and bridge and lock tenders.


Sources of Additional Information

Information on obtaining a position with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) through USAJOBS, the Federal Government’s official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at http://www.usajobs.opm.gov or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724-1850 or TDD (978) 461-8404. These numbers are not tollfree, and charges may result.

For advice on finding a job with the Federal Government and more information on the Federal hiring process and employment system, contact: Partnership for Public Service, 1725 Eye St., NW., Suite 900, Washington, DC 20006. Internet: http://www.calltoserve.org
The duties of Federal Government workers are similar to those of their private sector counterparts. Further information on many Federal Government occupations, including those listed below, can be found in the 2006-07 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Accountants and auditors
  • Air traffic controllers
  • Aircraft and avionics
  • equipment mechanics and service technicians
  • Biological scientists
  • Computer software Engineers
  • Computer support specialists and systems administrators
  • Computer systems analysts
  • Conservation scientists and foresters
  • Correctional officers
  • Electrical and electronics installers and repairers
  • Engineers
  • Environmental scientists and hydrologists
  • Geoscientists
  • Inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers, and weighers
  • Judges, magistrates, and other judicial workers
  • Lawyers
  • Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses
  • Management analysts
  • Office clerks, general
  • Physicians and surgeons
  • Police and detectives
  • Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists
  • Purchasing managers, buyers, and purchasing agents
  • Registered nurses
  • Science technicians
  • Secretaries and administrative assistants
  • Tax examiners, collectors, and revenue agents
  • Top executives
  • Job opportunities in the Armed Forces


Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Career Guide to Industries, 2006-07 Edition, Federal Government, Excluding the Postal Service, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/oco/cg/cgs041.htm (visited July 10, 2006).


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