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Government jobs offer good pay, benefits

When we think of government jobs, we often think of safe but low-paying jobs that will put food on the table, but never put you in a top tax bracket. So you may be surprised to find out that government jobs, when you include benefits, pay on average twice as much as jobs in the private sector. Throw in job security, and government service starts to look very good indeed.

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"According to the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis, federal employees earn an average annual compensation of $106,871, including pay and benefits, compared to just $53,288 in the private sector," says Dennis Damp, author of "The Book of U.S. Government Jobs," citing statistics gathered in late 2005 and early 2006.

Damp adds that the average federal salary alone, not counting benefits, is more than $67,000.

The benefits, of course, are what many employees say make government employment so attractive. These perks include job security, good health insurance, a retirement plan and steady raises.

"The benefits at the federal level are much, much better than in the private sector," says Nick Farr, a federal employee in Washington, D.C. "Every private-sector job I've had, even when moving up career and salary-wise, had a less generous benefits package."

Plus, Damp says, "Each year, regardless of the economic situation, they receive substantial raises averaging approximately 3.5 percent."

Of course, pay and benefits aren't the only components to consider in selecting a career. Individuals who have worked for the government and the private sector say salary and benefits influenced their job choices, but weren't the only factors weighed. Flexibility, responsibilities and creativity also played into their decisions.

Many government workers complain of the bureaucracy and regulation, finding it stifling.

"The prolific rules and regulations that govern every aspect of your work life can be frustrating ... and that environment can suppress creativity," Damp says.

Still, money is generally the first thing job-hunters consider when contemplating a change.

Just as in the private sector, pay and benefits are going to vary by position. Most government jobs are arranged in pay grades and steps, or levels, within each pay grade.

For example, the federal government uses a "general schedule," or GS, pay grade for most of its white-collar workers. A little more than two-thirds of the federal civilian work force is classified under this system.

Senior executives have their own pay schedules, as do blue-collar workers, the foreign service and a number of federal agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission.

There are 15 GS classifications. Each step within each grade has an automatic raise built into it, a structure many state and local employers have also adopted.

Added into the federal pay scale are cost-of-living adjustments. Extra cash is paid to employees who live in more expensive places. The basic range for a GS-5 (a classification held by 5.3 percent of the federal work force) without locality pay is $29,725 to $38,641.

A GS-5 in Sacramento, Calif., would have a pay range of $31,584 to $41,057. By comparison, the same GS-5 would make from $32,345 to $42,048 in Chicago, from $31,184 to $40,539 in Dallas-Fort Worth and from $31,750 to $41,275 in Washington, D.C.

In many cases, the government wages compare favorably to private-sector pay. But certainly not in all fields or locations.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for an accountant in the private sector is $49,690. That is, half the accountants made more, half made less.

Comparing wages
Federal: $58,360.
State: $46,320.
Local: $37,050.

Mean wages for accountants vary from state to state. Connecticut's mean salary is $66,110, while Hawaii's pay for the same position checks in at $65,400. Alaska, New Jersey and Illinois, with salaries ranging from about $60,000 to $65,000, round out the top five, which all pay accountants more on the average than the federal government.

 
 
Next: " ... The real draw wasn't the pay -- it was the benefits."
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