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Should You Choose A Civil Service Career?

Updated on January 19, 2015

To Be or Not To Be

A civil service career can be very rewarding. But, is it for you? There are many different opinions about civil service jobs. Some believe that in such a career one will never make much money. Well, the field of civil service is structured so that entry-level positions are quite varied. A civil servant can be a federal, state, or municipal employee. While most people know that firefighters and police officers are civil servants, they seem to get confused with the comparisons to government employees. Civil service and unions are not one in the same. Both have their own history.

Will a career in civil service make you rich? You may not become monetarily rich. But, if you like helping people and have a pride in seeing things to the end, you may just feel rich. Most who begin a career in civil service will have to start at the bottom. There are classification plans in place so you will know the structure of the field you are working within. Some classification plans can be looked at like branches of a tree. There may be many different branches representing positions. You may begin a career on one branch and begin to notice and become curious about what it would be like in another position. When moving up in rank, it is much easier to do so within your own class or branch.

Positions in civil service vary from administration, clerical, maintenance, field operations, training, public education, internal affairs, investigation, and inspection just to name a few. There are structures in place that allow employees to compete for promotions. Most of the promotions that are available are only within the class an employee currently works. To compete for a promotion there is usually some paperwork involved like an application. In order to apply for the promotional position one needs to qualify. There will be qualification requirements spelled out in the classification plan. Qualifications can include years of service, degrees, and special certifications relating to the position. Those applying for a promotion are usually scheduled an exam and when all other requirements are equal, an exam score may be used to make the final decision. If there is an exam for the position, a passing score will be needed to be considered. Promotional positions are only opened as needed. Different jurisdictions have different rules of law so this is just a general appreciation for how promotions may be employed.

Competitive positions are usually the entry level positions with a few exceptions, like the highest ranking position within an organization. The highest ranking position may have a title that of "Chief". While the entry level position has its own qualification requirements, the position for the "Chief" will probably be much more substantial. Competitive positions unlike promotional ones are open to the general public as long as qualification requirements are met. The head of the organization is usually a competitive position and when vacant is open to allow candidates from other jurisdictions to apply along with someone who meets the requirements but may not currently be employed in a civil service position. Anyone who has the qualifications to compete for this open position can apply. Entry level candidates can sometimes be competing with hundreds of other applicants. If this is so, any special certifications and experiences may be used for consideration. All things being equal, again the score can be used to separate even further.

Whether taking a competitive or promotional exam, those with a passing score are placed on an eligibility list. This means those on the list are legally eligible to be hired. And while the score is not the only factor in the decision, one cannot be placed on the eligibility list without a passing score. Some exams allow preference points for persons who served in the military. What this means is that if a person qualifying for preference points passes the exam, an additional amount of points will be added to the final score but not without making a passing score. Some competitive exams allow applicants to transfer a passing score to other jurisdictions for hiring consideration also.

Preference Points

Preference points are required at most jurisdictions. Preference points are additional points added to civil service exams for persons with military backgrounds. So, if a passing score is 70 and the candidate reaches the passing score, 5 or 10 points would be added to the score making it a score of 75 or 80 depending on the rules governing preference points for that jurisdiction. This can make a difference when many applicants are going after a limited amount of positions. The scores in a sense can break a tie. What can a candidate look forward to in terms of the exam? Well, that depends on the exam itself. The exam is structured for each individual classified position. Some exams will be like aptitude tests, testing an individuals ability to comprehend and learn in the future. Other exams are for specialized positions even though entry level. An exam for a specialized entry level position can be much more difficult than other entry level exams. These exams can require the reading of certain books whereas other entry level exams may test an individual's ability to learn.

Study Guides

In order to score well on the civil service exam, preparation is key. A study guide should be available for the exact exam being scheduled and should be available at the jurisdiction the exam is applied. If one is not available at the jurisdiction where the exam is applied, seek the testing facility for reference materials. Civil service for each jurisdiction has a secretary performing clerical duties. This person should accept applications whether by mail or in person. This secretary should make available the resources for the exam. If this person cannot help with study materials, get the name of the testing facility and phone number.

Sometimes study material can be downloaded but getting the material from the correct source is paramount. It will do absolutely no good to download or purchase study material not referenced for that exam no matter how cheap or free it may be. Competitive exams are just as it sounds, competitive. You may be competing with hundreds of other candidates. Books referenced can sometimes be of a certain edition and a certain printing. Either way, the person actually administering the exam will not be affiliated with the jurisdiction. Exams are revised periodically. One should be well prepared.

Classification plans are mandated by civil service law. One of the reasons for civil service is to take favoritism out of the equation. A candidate is not given a position merely because of a supervisor liking that person. In order to be legally promoted into a position a candidate must be qualified. Seniority should trump if all of the other parts of the equation (qualifications) are the same. If seniority of candidates and other qualification requirements are equal, then scores on exams can break ties. Civil service is intended to ensure fairness to candidates. Candidates apply for positions through an application process. After the deadline of applications, a civil service board has a meeting to go over the applications. Applications are approved or denied depending if qualification requirements are met or not. The approved applicants are scheduled an exam. Candidates test and wait for grades to come in at a later date. All those scoring above passing grades are notified in writing and placed on an eligibility list for consideration for hire. Again, if a military veteran scores above the passing grade preference points are added to the score.

Appointing Authority

The civil service board uses open public meetings to ensure fairness of the hiring process. But the actual hiring is done by what some agencies call the "Appointing Authority". The Appointing Authority can be an individual or group of individuals like another board. It cannot be the civil service board. The civil service board ensures the fairness by providing the eligibility list to the Appointing Authority. Although the Appointing Authority does the actual hiring; that hiring must be from the list. These candidates are interviewed, usually by supervisors. Supervisors make recommendations to the Appointing Authority. The Appointing Authority has the authority to hire and terminate employment.

Once candidates are chosen for employment, they will go through a probationary period. Some positions require a formal training and/or departmental training period. There is no guarantee a candidate will become a permanent employee just by entering the probationary period. The probationary period is a time allowed by the hiring jurisdiction before the new candidates are made permanent. During this time new candidates must reach a designated level of progression. For example, many departments send firefighters and police officers through an academy, usually at a third party facility. They are put through physical fitness training as well as mental training. They are required to take exams. By the end of the academy they would be expected to have certain physical abilities and score a certain percentage on both a practical and a written exam.

During this probationary period a jurisdiction has the legal authority to dismiss a candidate for lack of performance. A candidate dismissed during this time period cannot appeal to the civil service board because of not being a permanent employee. Of course, another reason for dismissal would be conduct violation as mandated by policy manual. The reason for training is to ensure a well rounded candidate. Candidates are not competing against each other during the probationary period. But they must successfully complete this time period in order to be confirmed. In order for candidates to officially become permanent employees, the civil service board has a meeting to approve personnel action forms.



This confirmation process includes a personnel action form by a supervisor. It is the paper trail that follows the actions being performed by the candidate. In order for candidates to officially become permanent employees, the civil service board has a meeting to acknowledge the acceptance of the new employees by the jurisdiction. In a sense, the new employees are ratified or confirmed. Once employees are confirmed as permanent they receive a classified title as spelled out in the classification plan. Confirmation dates of new employees can make a difference later when applying for promotions. Unlike private industry, civil service employees are not promoted at the whim of a supervisor. They must apply and be qualified for the promotion.

Again, the civil service board will ensure the fairness. And, since seniority plays a major role in promotion, employees hired at the same time may later be competing for a spot. Jurisdictions are encouraged to use a calender day as the date of hire for multiple employees, and not separate them by a time of day; like in the event of twins being born- one at 1:15 and another at 1:25 for example. It is rare that it would happen and most jurisdictions have corrected such filings, but employees have missed out on promotions due to the fact that different times were used on personnel action forms for employees hired on the same day. This gave seniority to the person whose paperwork was completed first.



Civil service employees do not receive monetary bonuses as employees in private industry do. There are different ways employees can earn incentive pay increases. They are paid salary increases on a schedule sometimes known as a cost of living increase. This increase is paid after an employees anniversary date of hire but usually not before a few years of service. There are different laws governing pay increases for each jurisdiction. Employees can increase their pay by earning certifications of training and earning college degrees. They can also have tuition and trainings paid for by the jurisdiction in which they are employed. Although, one may not expect to compete monetarily with a position in the private sector, there are other factors that weigh in favor of the public sector.

Job security is a factor because in general public agencies don't go out of business.They do work on a budget and sometimes have to 'right-size' as it is better known today but still have more security in a public sector job. Another advantage in the civil service field is job security when department heads are replaced. A new department head can't just terminate employees just because he is the new sheriff or chief in town. Employees terminated without just cause can appeal to the civil service board and will have a strong case for reinstatement. Employees in civil service can retire at a fairly young age, collect full retirement pay, and gain employment at another agency doing what they so love to do.

Employess in the classified service receive medical, holiday, vacation leave, sick leave, and many other benefits. In some jurisdictions firefighters receive 18 days of vacation leave per year up until the tenth year. On the eleventh year a day is added to make it 19 days per year. Then a day is added every year until a maximum of 30 days per year. In most situations vacation time for civil servants can't be taken away. Remaining vacation days accumulate unlike in private industry. But supervisors do have the authority to schedule vacation for an employee if too much vacation time has accumulated. Employees having seniority have the first choice in scheduling vacation time off.

Sick leave is also different than in private industry. Employees cannot save sick time and be paid for it later. Sick leave may be the greatest of all the benefits available to civil servants, though. Employees in civil service commonly have 52 weeks of sick leave if needed. The amount of time sounds extreme but an injured firefighter or police officer is taken care of because of the hazardous work they perform. A back or other serious injury would not necessarily cause an employee to lose their job. There is no need for sick leave to accumulate.

Holidays worked are treated similarly to private industry. If an employee works on a holiday, normally they are paid 2 days for 1. Administrative employees would have the holiday off and would be paid for that day, as they are considered non-essential employees and are not necessarily needed for normal emergencies. Holidays are established in the civil service board rules. Some departments put a list of holidays out at the beginning of the year so that employees can know ahead of time.

Vacation leave is normally allowed into 2 separate times off per year, depending on the size of the department. But some jurisdictions may allow multiple vacations per year because of the amount of vacation days that can accumulate. And some employees may be hard to do without for long lengths of time while on vacation. Either way, the employee is entitled to the vacation time and cannot lose it except for extenuating circumstances. Vacation time is meant to refresh a civil servant because of the type of work they do on a regular basis.

Another benefit of civil servants is taking days off and still being paid for it. How is this done? Well, employees swap days with each other so that important functions can be attended. What is a swap? A swap is when two or more employees make an arrangement to work one another's days. Example: Employee A may be scheduled to work on Monday but makes an arrangement with Employee B to work Monday instead. These are shift work employees and Employee B was scheduled Monday off that week. Employee B agrees with Employee A and works that Monday and Employee A will owe Employee B a day later in the future. Because these employees work on a salary schedule, no administrative adjustments have to be done to either employees pay. This is done quite often and is a very useful benefit.

Appealing Disciplinary Actions

Although not a benefit another consideration for working in civil service is the ability to appeal disciplinary actions to the civil service board. Employees can appeal disciplinary actions to the civil service board whereas the disciplinary action would have to be substantiated. There are rules set in place sometimes called civil service board rules. These rules are law. Supervisors and employees are subject to following these rules. Any actions taken toward employees must be followed by personnel action forms. These personnel action forms are taken to the civil service board and approved at an open meeting. No disciplinary action can go undocumented. Like the saying goes, "If it isn't written down, it wasn't done."

An employee has a legal right to appeal any disciplinary action to the civil service board. The employee has a limited amount of days to appeal the disciplinary action and the civil service board has a limited amount of days to address the matter. The matter is handled by the civil service board at a hearing. All hearings and meetings are open to the general public. The initial hearing is conducted to bring out the appeal that the employee has made about the disciplinary action and warrant if an appeal is legal. Just because an employee has a legal right to appeal doesn't mean the disciplinary action was illegal. The employee must make an initial case against the disciplinary action in order for the appeal to proceed.

Because the law is a major factor and legal rights come into the matter, legal counsel is often hired by the employee making the appeal. And because a supervisor can't legally discipline a civil service employee only recommend it up the chain of command, the case will be against the Appointing Authority who will also seek legal counsel. Depending on the scope of the matter it can go on for months or be settled the first hearing. Final outcomes can vary. Lawyers would use prior court cases to compare the situation. If a decision is made in favor of the employee the Appointing Authority would be liable for attorneys fees, other costs, and loss of wages. If the decision is made in favor of the Appointing Authority the employee would be responsible for those costs.


To Choose or Not To Choose

Whether or not you decide to chose a career in civil service or not should be through an informed decision. Much of the information here is generalized to help cover a wide range of positions and fields in public service. The information here is not intended to imply rigid rules as there is no "one civil service" to fit all careers. The more one is able to learn about the field in which a career change may be made toward the better.

Many people jump into a career in civil service not knowing what they are getting into. Again, civil service and unions are different, although many fields of civil service are represented by unions for protection. Civil service employees are your friends and neighbors. They are sometimes members of your family. They are just regular people willing to do things not-so regular.

The events of September 11, 2001 have brought plenty of spotlight to firefighters and police officers around the United States of America. It is a tragedy that will never be forgotten by those involved in these fields. It is a brotherhood like no other. When everyone is running the other way these civil servants are going directly into the point of contact. They do it without regard for their own safety and are compelled to save whoever they can. There is great accomplishment in just one day of work as a civil servant. Just think what a career might be like.


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