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Understanding Federal Job Types in the Executive Branch


There are three categories of federal jobs in the Executive Branch: Competitive Service, Excepted Service and Senior Executive Service. Understanding under what category your desired job falls will help you prepare understand the hiring practices – including veterans preferences – that apply.

Competitive Service: These jobs are part of the US federal government civil service, under the jurisdiction of the Office of Personnel Management and subject to civil service laws. These laws were passed by Congress to ensure that applicants and employees receive fair and equal treatment in the hiring process, and give hiring officials the authority to review a large pool of candidates during the hiring process. A job opening that is classified as part of competitive service essentially means that the applicant must compete with others within the OPMs merit system.

Most civilian jobs in federal government are part of the competitive service. Jobs within the Competitive Service include all civil service positions in the executive branch with the exception of:

  1. Those jobs specifically excepted from the competitive service by or under statute
  2. Those positions to which appointments are made by nomination for confirmation by the US Senate (unless otherwise noted by the Senate)
  3. Positions in the Senior Executive Service

Once an applicant for a competitive civil service job is hired, the laws pertaining to personnel action (firing, demoting) are quite extensive. These laws were created in order to protect the employment rights of the civil servant as well as provide the government with a structured, fair method with which to manage its employees.

Excepted Service: These positions are, as the name suggests, excepted by law, executive order, or OPM. For example, the Postal Service and the Central Intelligence Agency are excepted by law. In other cases, certain jobs classifications within an agency are excepted, such as chaplains, student trainees, attorneys or others. Excepted Service is subject to veterans’ preference unless otherwise noted.

Excepted Service agencies usually hire on a merit basis similar to OPM, but they also have their own evaluation criteria. The main shared characteristic of many of these Excepted Service agencies and jobs is they have national security and/or intelligence functions. The Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Secret Service. Attorney positions, Presidential Management Fellows, and Foreign Service positions are examples of positions excepted across-the-board in all Federal agencies. However, not all excepted service members serve in sensitive areas—patent examiners, and teachers and administrators at DOD schools, both in the U.S. and overseas, are also excepted.

Unlike Competitive Service employees, Excepted Service employees have fewer rights to appeal disciplinary actions or termination.

Some of the main excepted agencies in the federal government are:

  • United States Congress - Personal Office Staff
  • Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts
  • Corporation for National and Community Service
  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
  • Department of Transportation (DOT)
  • Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS)
  • Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)
  • Homeland Security Investigations (HSI)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • United States Department of Justice (DOJ)
  • United States Secret Service - Uniformed Division (USSS)
  • Federal Reserve Board
  • Government Accountability Office (GAO)
  • Military Sealift Command (MSC)
  • National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA)
  • National Security Agency (NSA)
  • National Science Foundation (NSF)
  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)
  • Office of the Solicitor (SOL)
  • Peace Corps
  • Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)
  • United States Postal Service (USPS)
  • Federal Reserve System, Board of Governors
  • Foreign Commercial Service (DoC)
  • United States Agency for International Development (USAID)
  • Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)
  • United States Department of State*(Civil Service positions are competitive service, but Foreign Service positions are ES.)
  • United States Election Assistance Commission
  • U.S. Supreme Court, Personnel Office
  • National Maritime Intelligence Center
  • US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) - Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
  • Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA)
  • Naval Acquisition Career Center or Naval Acquisition Intern Program - NACC Interns also called NAIP interns
  • National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)
  • Federal Election Commission (FEC)

Senior Executive Service: The SES was established in 1978 by Title IV of the Civil Service Reform Act. Designed to be a corps of executives, it was set up separate from competitive and excepted services and charged with leading the transformation of government. Leaders in the SES typically have advanced executive skills, a broad perspective of government and a high level of public service commitment. SES positions are classified above GS-15 (or the equivalent). Veterans do not receive hiring preference for SES positions.

Generally speaking, SES members serve in key roles below the top Presidential appointees. In military protocol terms, these positions are equivalent to generals or admirals. They operate and oversee virtually every government activity, covering about 75 federal agencies. OPM oversees the SES program.

Senior level employees of the NSA, TSA, FAA, FBI, Government Accountability Office, members of the Foreign Service and government corporations are exempt from the SES.

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