Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 38: Who Should Choose a Civil Service Career? (1946)

First of all, don’t think solely in terms of federal government employment. The national government represents not more than a third of all public jobs. This discussion so far has been almost entirely in federal terms because the national civil service system came first and because it illustrates the development of the merit system. But two-thirds of all public positions are in the city, county, and state governments.

Actually, most cities and states do not yet have the merit system. But the populous states and cities do, which means that the majority of positions are under the merit system.

New York State passed a Civil Service Act in 1883, the same year the national government did; Massachusetts, a year later; the rest waited until the twentieth century. In fact, up to March 1945 when the state of Oregon adopted the merit system, only 21 of the 48 states were covered. It should he noted too that the state systems, like the early federal civil service, are not complete. In some cases only a minor fraction of the employees are covered.

In 1944, there were about nine hundred cities in the United States under civil service. Nine out of ten cities with populations of 100,000 are under it. But, as in the case of the states, many cities include only a portion of their workers under merit provisions. In the smaller cities it is common to include only the fire and police forces. On the other hand, many cities, especially those with the city-manager form of government, practice the merit system although it may not be required by law.

A number of states include their cities under civil service on a state-wide basis. New York and Ohio are examples. In other states, such as New Jersey and Maryland, municipalities can come under the state civil service system on their own initiative.

Only a handful of county governments have civil service and less than a dozen have the “manager plan” whereby a well-paid professional manager runs the administration of the government under the policies of the elected county council or board.


What kinds of jobs are available in civil service?

Just about every known kind of occupation is represented in civil service, from the professional man—doctor, lawyer, teacher—at the top of the vocational ladder to the unskilled laborer at the bottom. Therefore, regardless of the skill or knowledge you possess, there is probably something you’re qualified to do in government service, national, state, or local.

Also, it is possible to start in government service without specific skill or knowledge. For example, if you are just a general high school graduate with an interest; in printing, you may become an apprentice with the Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C., or in a similar establishment in the capital of a state. If you are a general college graduate you may take the junior professional assistant examination for the federal service or the similar examination in the state services which use such a test. If you pass and are “certified” you can get on-the-job training for a large number of administrative and technical vocations.

Government jobs, national, state, and local, could be broken down into four or five major categories before the war. About 40 out of every 100 were teachers or employed by educational institutions. About 12 or 13 were in the postal service, 10 worked on highways, and 5 were policemen or firemen. Two or 3 worked on municipal public utilities such as water, gas, and electricity. The other 30 were in various kinds of jobs.

In other words, education, highways, police, and fire protection are the major activities of state and local government. The post office in normal times employs a third of all federal employees. The War Department was the second largest federal employer most of the time between the two wars.

Government jobs can also be described as:

  1. Administrative
  2. Professional, scientific, and technical
  3. Clerical
  4. Skilled trades
  5. Unskilled

The administrative group runs all the way from the non-political men at the top of the departments and bureaus to the personnel, budget, methods, and information technicians, and administrative aids and assistants at the bottom. Some of these jobs are found only in government service, but most of them have their counterparts in private enterprise. The ease with which thousands of administrative people shifted from business into the federal government during World War II demonstrated this similarity. College graduation is desirable but no longer essential to qualify for these jobs.

It is hard for the ordinary citizen to conceive of the almost endless variety of government jobs. Let’s take the chemist as an example and investigate only the federal service. At one time in the beginning of World War II, the following jobs were all open: The professional and scientific groups are well understood. The list extends from A for agronomist to Z for zoologist. It is riot possible to carry oil most of these jobs without college and professional school training. There are, however, a number of technicians’ positions which can be learned on the job.

Chemical aid, $1,800
Chemist, junior, $2,000
Chemist, various grades, $2,000 to $5,600
Chemist (explosives), various grades, $2,600 to $5,600
Chemical engineer, various grades, $2,600 to $8,000
Metallurgist, junior, $2,000
Metallurgist, various grades, $2,000 to $5,600
Pharmacologist, various grades, $2,600 to $4,600
Toxicologist, various grades, $2,600 to $4,600
Technologist (any specialized branch), $2,000 to $7,600
Technical and scientific aid, $1,620 to $2,000
Trainee, scientific and technical aid, $1,440

Every one of the departments and agencies in the following list was looking for chemists at that time, and each employed from 1 to 400 of them.

Alcohol Tax Unit, Bureau of Internal Revenue
Bureau of Agricultural and Industrial Chemistry
Bureau of Animal Industry
Bureau of Customs
Bureau of Dairy Industry
Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine
Bureau of Human Nutrition and Home Economics
Bureau of Mines
Bureau of the Mint
Bureau of Plant Industry, Soils and Agricultural Engineering
Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Bureau of Standards
Civil Service Commission
Fish and Wildlife Service
Food and Drug Administration
Forest Service
Geological Survey
National Archives
Navy Department
Patent Office
Public Health Service
Public Roads Administration
Tariff Commission
Veterans Administration
War Department:
Army Service Forces:
Ordnance Department
Corps of Engineers
Chemical Warfare Service
Quartermaster Corps
Signal Corps
Office of the Surgeon General
Other services:
Army Air Forces
War Production Board

The same, if not greater, variety holds for the social sciences too. People with training in business administration, economics, economic geography, statistics, accounting, public administration, or similar fields have opportunities for jobs in almost every government department and agency. Persons who can handle a specialty and are also qualified in one or more foreign languages have a second vocational channel in the foreign activities of the government.

But aren’t most government jobs clerical?

Only a fraction of government jobs are clerical, although the number is large. To dismiss these jobs as clerical is misleading, however, for the vary all the way from the general handy man (or woman) clerk-typist job to the statistical clerk who may actually be a junior mathematician or economist on the bottom rung of his professional career. They include many different kinds of machine operators too. In general, the clerk is the auxiliary to the professional and administrative employee.

The biggest single contingent in the clerical group is made up of the typists, stenographers, and secretaries. This channel still is one of the best ways for young women to enter government service. A number of the top women in government today started from such humble jobs.

The skilled trades and unskilled labor jobs of government are in the field establishments rather than in the capitals. The arsenals, navy yards, highway departments, and the like are the biggest employers of this kind of worker. Incidentally, a recent report indicates that some of the top federal government incomes during World War II were paid the master mechanics who worked long hours of overtime in these ordnance plants.

How do you get a government job?

The first thing to do is to address a letter to the appropriate civil service authority and ask for information about the kind of job you’re qualified to do.

If you want to work for the federal government, address your letter to the U. S. Civil Service Commission, Washington 25, D.C.

Regardless of where you live, the commission will advise you what the most appropriate tests are for you to take. You will be sent an application blank which you fill in and return. Then, when the time comes, you will be advised when and where the examination you are to take will be given. The more popular tests, such as those for typist and stenographer, are given in almost every city in the country. There are no fees or charges. After you have taken the test, you will be told whether or not you passed. If you do, your name will be placed—in the order of the grade you made on the test—on a list or register of eligibles.

When a government agency needs to hire new personnel, names from the top of the list are “certified” to it by the Civil Service Commission. If and when your name reaches an appointing officer, he may select you for further consideration. He will probably send you an inquiry as to your availability. If you are interested in the job he describes and so indicate, he may make you an offer of the position and name the day for you to start. Your acceptance will clinch the deal—except that your employment is on probation at first and that for some positions the Civil Service Commission in the meantime will conduct a searching investigation into your character, loyalty, and past associations.

Remember that the appointing officer, under the Constitution, has some freedom of choice. In some instances, he may request an interview or ask you to send him additional information about your training or experience before he goes ahead with the appointment. He may pass you over in favor of someone better qualified for the specific job.

Also, you have the right to decline an offer. In either case, your name goes back to the “eligible register” and is certified when the next request comes in. Further, the process need not be a blind one on your part. You may indicate on your application such things as the lowest salary you will accept, the place or places where you want to work (and where you don’t want to work!), whether you’ll accept a temporary appointment of say thirty days or six months, and whether you’ll take a traveling job.

If you want a job working for your state, county, or city government; the procedure is much the same as that outlined for federal civil service, if your governments are under the merit system. Get in touch with the civil service authority in the city hall, in the county courthouse, or in the state capitol. They’ll send you an application, notice of examination, and so forth, as described above. Also, don’t forget the U.S. Employment Service. They have information about public jobs.

The respective civil service commissions are of course only the agents for the appointing officers of the departments. However, in almost all cases, inquiries about jobs can be satisfied if addressed to the appropriate civil service authority. If not, questions can be sent directly to the department or agency in which you are interested. These should be addressed to the director of personnel of the department, at least for the national government.

Next section: Are Veterans Preferred in Civil Service?