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Career Handbook - Federal Government, Excluding the Postal Service Introduction
Federal Government, Excluding the Postal Service

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Key Points of Interest:
  • About 3 out of 5 Federal workers held managerial, business, financial, or professional jobs in 2002, double the proportion for the workforce as a whole.
  • About 4 out of 5 Federal employees worked outside the Washington, DC, metropolitan area.
  • Employment in the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will include new hires, as well as workers transferring from other agencies - mostly from within the Departments of Justice, Transportation, Agriculture, and the Treasury.
  • 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.

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. (While career opportunities in the U.S. Postal Service and the Armed Forces are not covered here, both are described in the 2004-05 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook. See the Handbook statements on Postal Service workers and Job opportunities in the Armed Forces.)

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 1 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 about 98 percent of all Federal civilian employees (excluding Postal Service workers) in 2002. 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. Conceived after the September 11, 2001, attacks and officially established in early 2003, the DHS will include new hires, as well as workers transferring from other agencies—mostly from within the Departments of Justice, Transportation, Agriculture, and the Treasury. Agencies will be housed in 1 of 4 major directorates: Border and Transportation Security, Emergency Preparedness and Response, Science and Technology, and Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection.
  • Treasury: Regulates banks and other financial institutions, administers the public debt, prints currency, and collects Federal income taxes.
  • Justice: Enforces Federal laws, prosecutes cases in Federal courts, and runs Federal prisons.
  • Agriculture: Promotes U.S. agriculture domestically and internationally and sets standards governing quality, quantity, and labeling of food sold in the United States.
  • Interior: Manages Federal lands, including the national parks and forests; runs hydroelectric power systems; and promotes conservation of natural resources.
  • Health and Human Services: Sponsors medical research, approves use of new drugs and medical devices, runs the Public Health Service, and administers Medicare.
  • 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: Provides scholarships, student loans, and aid to schools.

Table 1. Federal Government executive branch civilian employment, except U.S. Postal Service, March 2003
(Employment in thousands)
DC area




1,871 281


Executive departments 1,687 231

Defense, total

664 62


230 19


184 25

Air Force

151 5


99 13

Veterans Affairs

225 7

Homeland Security

152 16


132 16


101 22


99 12


71 8

Health and Human Services

67 30


59 10


37 20


32 11


16 5


16 5

Housing and Urban Development

11 3


5 3


Independent agencies 183 49

Social Security Administration

64 2

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

19 4

Environmental Protection Agency

18 6

Tennessee Valley Authority

13 0

General Services Administration

13 5

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation

5 2


50 32


SOURCE: U.S. Office of Personnel Management

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 retirement and disability programs and Medicaid.
  • 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.
  • Tennessee Valley Authority: Operates the hydroelectric power system in the Tennessee River Valley.
  • 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.


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Data Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2004-05 Edition