How to Zoom Up the Federal Career Ladder

By Lily Whiteman, author of How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job

Once a fed’s initial grade on the GS career ladder is set when s/he is hired into his first federal job, advancing further up the GS career ladder usually requires: 1) Climbing up higher grades sequentially without skipping any grades; and 2) Spending at least one year at each grade to become eligible for a promotion to the next grade or for a new job at the next grade.  (Salary tables for the GS system are posted here.)

These constraints—which comprise so-called “time-in-grade” (TIG) requirements—act like speed bumps on career advancement. But here is some information to help current feds glide over, or sidestep, some TIG speed bumps.

  • Most jobs in the Senior Executive Service (SES)—the federal government’s corps of executives—are filled by current SESers or GS-15s. But some SES jobs are open to GS-14s who have never worked a GS-15 job.  So if you’re a GS-14 targeting SES jobs, consider applying for SES jobs that are open to GS-14s.  (The announcement for each federal opening identifies required qualifications.) Also, consider strengthening your application by obtaining certification for SES jobs from an SES Candidate Development Program (CDP) that is open to GS-14s.
  • You may earn TIG that would qualify you for higher-graded jobs by working higher-graded temporary federal positions, such as detail assignments and acting positions, for at least one year. For example, a GS-12 who intermittently acted in GS-13 jobs for a cumulative total of one year could land a GS-14 job without ever working a permanent GS-13 job.  Note that non-SESers may act or be detailed into SES jobs.
  • You may land a higher graded job—and perhaps even skip a grade(s)—without meeting TIG requirements if you meet these two criteria: 1) Your credentials include nonfederal experience and/or educational credentials that would help you qualify for your target job; and 2) You’re targeting a job that is open to external, nonfederal applicants who are unbound to TIG requirements.

If you meet those two criteria, apply for your target job through its online application track that is “open to all U.S. citizens”—instead of, or in addition to, applying through its alternative online application track that is restricted to current feds.  Under that more expansive “all U.S. citizens” track, you probably would—like external applicants—be freed from TIG requirements.

If your experience in nonfederal jobs or temporary federal jobs is a key qualification for a target job, explicitly state in your cover letter, “I qualify for this GS-X job because….”  You’ll thereby compel hiring managers to consider your application before they reflexively reject it because you lack TIG.

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