Federal Job Classifications: Competitive vs. Excepted Service

What are the differences between competitive service and excepted service jobs and what does that ultimately mean for you?

The excepted service and the competitive service are two different classifications for federal jobs. Whether you are already a federal employee, or are applying for a federal job for the first time, either of these could present some significant advantages and disadvantages in your career. But what is the difference, and what do these differences mean to you?

What is the Excepted Service?

If you are in the excepted service, it means that you didn’t have to undergo the same hiring process as federal employees in the competitive service.  Simply put, the competitive service has to follow the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s hiring rules, pay scales, and so on.  Agencies or positions in the excepted service don’t. In addition, Veteran’s Preference — which means if there is a veteran who meets the qualifications of the job, he or she gets priority over other equally qualified candidates — applies to competitive service jobs, but not to the excepted service.

This has many implications for federal employees. If you have a job in the competitive service, you have already gone through the OPM’s hiring process, including the thorough hiring examination. Once you have done it once, you don’t have to do it again, even if you want to transfer to another job in the competitive service.

If you have a job in the excepted service, on the other hand, you may not have the same mobility. Some excepted service agencies have an agreement that allows employees to transfer to the competitive service without undergoing the hiring examination, but not all of them do. Usually, in order to have this sort of agreement, an excepted service agency must have a similar merit scale to what the competitive service uses.

Just because excepted service jobs use different a hiring process than the thorough OPM hiring exam, doesn’t mean they are necessarily easier jobs to get. Many excepted service jobs have much more difficult hiring standards, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which has an extensive background check that can take as long as a year to complete.  Because of the strict requirements and the sensitive nature of the job, the agency has to be excepted from OPM hiring standards.

Although calling it the excepted service makes these jobs sound like an exception, and therefore fewer than those in the competitive service, in fact the excepted service makes up about half of all federal jobs. Thirty-one percent of federal jobs are with the U.S. Post Office, the biggest excepted service agency, and about 20 percent are with other agencies within the excepted service. Individual positions can also fall under the excepted service, even if the agency the position is in is part of the competitive service, due to the unique requirements of the job.

How Do Positions or Agencies Become Excepted?

Positions and agencies in the excepted service are usually there for one of a few different reasons. As already discussed, jobs are often in the excepted service because the hiring requirements have to be stricter, such as in the case of the CIA. Agencies that require a very narrow specialty, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), may also be in the excepted service, which allows them to offer better pay scales and benefits in order to attract highl specialized professionals.

A third group of excepted service jobs are there because a person’s qualifications for the job can’t be judged as well as in other fields. A few examples are attorneys, special agents, and chaplains. And finally, if the position deals with confidential information, such as a cabinet advisor or secretary, it typically falls into the excepted service.

In order to become part of the excepted service, however, an agency or a position has to be defined as such by statute, by the President, or by OPM. Excepted service positions are further classified into Schedules A, B, and C, as well as non-career executive assignments.

Should I Take the Job?

Competitive service versus excepted service can limit your career options somewhat. For instance, if you already have a federal job, you may not be able to transfer easily if you are in the excepted service. Competitive service employees, on the other hand, can transfer to another federal job without having to undergo the OPM hiring exam again, as can employees in certain excepted service agencies, such as the NRC.

If you are applying for a federal job for the first time, you might want to consider this as a significant disadvantage of taking a job in the excepted service. Before taking the job, find out if the agency has an interchange agreement that would allow you to more easily move into a competitive service position at a later date.

One other disadvantage is the lengthy hiring process of some agencies or positions in the excepted service. The CIA is a good example, as its background check can take as long as a year.

However, there are some advantages to taking a job in the excepted service, whether or not you are already a federal employee. For instance, some excepted service agencies, such as the NRC, offer better pay scales and benefits packages than the competitive service. It is definitely worth comparing these factors to comparable jobs in the competitive service.

In addition, first-timers may find it easier to “break into” a federal job in the excepted service.  Whereas competitive service position openings often hire internally, only considering applicants who already work in the competitive service, excepted service positions are more often open to all applicants. Also, even though you cannot transfer as easily from the excepted service, you may still find it easier to move into a competitive service job later on, since you will be more likely to have the correct qualifications.

It’s impossible to say whether the competitive or excepted service is right for you, since this varies for everyone and every individual situation. The first step toward making this decision, however, is understanding the differences between the two, as well as the advantages and disadvantages offered by both.

About the Author

Jason Kay is a professional resume writer and regular contributor to KSADoctor.com, a professional federal resume service and repository of sample KSA statements.