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Civil Service Career

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

One of the greatest employers in the country, in whose service there are thousands of people comprising all kinds of workers, from unskilled laborers to the most highly trained scientists, is the government. Civil service includes all government service to which candidates are not elected, except service in the army, navy or marines. In the days when the "spoils system" existed, politics was practically the sole factor in the choice of men for, and their removal from, government positions. The man who had been elected to an executive office felt that he owed to the friends who had helped elect him some reward for their efforts. So he ousted from the government service those who were not of his party, and put into their places the men he favored. After the following election, the same thing was repeated, and so it continued for years.

This state of affairs brought about the double result of rendering civil service positions undesirable to their incumbents (since no one could be sure how long he would hold his place), and of rendering the civil service not a true serving of the public, but a graft and politics ridden proposition. And so progressive groups began to demand reforms in the entire conduct of the civil service, and the "merit system" was finally established.

The merit system is the system of competitive examinations held for all kinds of positions in the civil service. Through these examinations, lists of eligible candidates are obtained and appointments made from among those with the highest ratings. Most federal civil service positions come under the heading of "classified" civil service, or are, in other words, to be entered upon only through the successful passing of competitive examinations. In this way political pull is eliminated, and the public can be assured that only the most competent men are appointed to positions of public service.

State civil service also is practically always based upon the merit system. The cities and towns of the country have been the most backward in adopting this system. Although almost every large city has instituted it, a large number of the smaller towns still permit many of their municipal offices to be filled by the direct appointment of unexamined candidates.

There are as many different types of positions in the federal, state and municipal civil service, as there are kinds of trades and professions. All kinds of workers are needed to increase the comfort and convenience of the daily life of the nation, for that is what civil service workers do. They are the servants of the public, paid by the public, and working for its good. The post-office department of the United States, the various state auditing departments, the municipal police departments are but three of the best known examples of the type of work undertaken by the civil service. There are so many activities in which the government has a part that thousands of positions of the most diverse kinds exist in its service. Laborers, engineers, account-ants, doctors, clerks, mechanics, stenographers, architects, chemists, printers, firemen and lighthouse keepers may be mentioned as a few of the various sorts of workers employed by cities, states and the federal government.

The specific duties of the holders of various civil service positions cannot, of course, all be mentioned. There are thousands of such positions and each man must carry out the prescribed duties of the one he fills. Neither can any definite list of qualifications be given, for every office demands different abilities. All candidates for the federal civil service must, however, be citizens of the United States, and in most cases at least twenty-one years of age. Those who desire to do professional or technical work must be able to show their state license, and men who wish to undertake various other kinds of work must have sufficient knowledge, along the definite lines their work will cover, to pass the practical tests which are given in these subjects. In the Report of the Congressional Joint Commission on Reclassification of Salaries, published by the Government Printing Office, Washington, in 1920, there is a very complete list of positions in the federal civil service, together with the duties, qualifications and proposed compensation connected with these positions, and lines of promotion which they offer.

Certain innate qualities which are necessary in all government positions, of whatever kind, are loyalty, exactness, quickness and diligence. The quality of patience is also most desirable.

There is much red tape connected with all government operations. Often this will seem quite useless and unnecessary, but it no doubt has some purpose, and the civil service employee must be prepared to follow precedents and to employ methods with which he is in personal disagreement. Here both his loyalty and his patience will be called into play, and he must make use of both.

Perhaps the largest number of federal employees are to be found in the class of clerical workers. There is a steady, and it seems growing, demand for stenographers, typewriters, book-keepers and clerks. In order to qualify for a clerical appointment, it is necessary for the applicant to take certain "grade examinations," consisting of tests in spelling, penmanship, arithmetic and other elementary subjects and, in addition, special practical examinations which will test his efficiency in the particular branch of work he desires to do. If the candidate is among those who most successfully pass the examinations, he may be given an appointment for a probation period of six months; if at the end of that time his work has proved satisfactory, his appointment is made permanent. The average salaries paid to clerical workers by the government are generally a little higher than those paid men similarly employed by private firms.

The government is employing more and more highly trained technicians and scientists. Graduates of technical and professional schools and of the colleges are being sought for many important positions. These men also are required to undergo examinations which will test their fitness to accomplish the work they want to do. Chemists, statisticians, sociologists, physicians, librarians and engineers are among the types needed to fill various responsible posts requiring specially trained men. The pay which these men receive is often not as great as what they might earn in private life, ranging from about $1,000 to, in some unusual cases, $10,000 a year.

In the state and municipal civil service, there are numerous positions similar to those in the federal service. The state and city have need of all kinds of people from regents' clerks to printers, from agricultural experts to public accountants, and from policemen to tenement-house inspectors. One should have the same general qualifications for state and municipal as for federal civil service—loyalty, honesty, diligence and the ability to pass the preliminary examinations with high grades. In order to be posted on the type of examination the prospective candidate will have to undergo, it is well for him to obtain the most recent Manual of Examinations from the U. S. Civil Service Commission at Washington, from the State Civil Service Commission, or from the local Municipal Commission. These manuals give full information as to the requirements which must be met for appointment to a position in the civil service, and contain also examples of past examinations similar to the ones which will again be held. Information as to when and where definite examinations will be held can also be obtained from these commissions.

In order to pass the tests, certain definite preparation is usually required. For people who must take the grade tests, a high school education will be of great help, though not absolutely necessary. Then the candidate must, of course, have had training in the particular branch or subject with which his position will deal. Thus, if he is trying for an appointment as a stenographer, he should have a course in a business or commercial school; if as an engineer, he must be able to prove that he is a technical school graduate, or has had equivalent training. There are some special schools which coach one for the grade examinations. Usually, however, a short course in an evening high school or in a commercial school will help one to master the subjects required. For the more important positions in the civil service, a good general education is necessary and, in addition, some training in the principles of government and along one special line of professional effort.

Salaries of men of the unskilled or semi-skilled laboring class, and of those who receive appointments as clerks and mechanics, have, in the past, been higher than those paid by private employers for similar work. But for the technical or professional man the inducement of high salary is lacking, for, though the government demands a high grade of service, it has till now not rewarded this with an adequate financial return. Men of real scientific worth, doing work of the utmost importance, have seldom received much above $5,000 a year. There is now a movement under way looking towards a readjustment of the scale of salaries, however, and it is to be hoped that the government will realize that it is thoroughly worth while to offer big men some financial inducement to enter its service.

It seems that men of the clerk class have a large number of advantages all along the line. Their work is simple, their hours short, their vacation long and, provided they do reasonably good work, they are sure of retaining their positions till old age or voluntary retirement removes them. Security of tenure is an advantage found in practically every government position nowadays. It is certainly most gratifying to feel that, whether times be good or bad, one's pay and one's position will be certain. This very fact may, however, dull a man's ambition, and the monotonous routine of the work may succeed in obliterating his individuality. This danger may be averted by displaying the same qualities which are likely to stand one in good stead in the business world—initiative and ambition. The civil service worker must, as has been said, yield to certain precedents, but this does not mean that he will necessarily have to become little more than a human machine. There are plenty of chances for advancement, and the man who does his work in the proper spirit usually does get ahead.

In the higher positions, where professional, technical and scientific men are employed, there is ample opportunity for work of a more individual and original nature, and for the expression of one's own personality through one's work. Many men enter the civil service with no idea of staying in it. Numerous young men, anxious to prepare themselves for one of the professions, accept appointments as clerks, studying after hours and during vacations, and, when they have completed their education, resign from the government service in order to practice their professions. Others, young scientists or technicians enter the civil service for a short time to obtain experience in their chosen field. But the men who do remain in the service of the government may feel that they are doing work of the most useful kind for they directly serve the people of the nation and, if their work is well done, materially add to the prosperity and happiness of their fellow-men.

There are so many kinds of service of which the public has need that it should not be difficult for any young man contemplating the civil service as a career to select some one kind of work which will be congenial to him and, with the highest post in this line as his goal, to work himself up to a good position, in which he will find personal satisfaction, and which will give him, as a government employee, a certain dignity and standing in his community.


COOPER, E. H.: "How to Prepare for Civil Service," Gregg Publishing Co., New York, 1918.

FITZPATRICK, EDWARD A.: "Experts in City Government," D. Appleton & Co., New York, 1919.

FOLTZ, EL BIE K.: "The Federal Civil Service as a Career," G. B. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1909.

HOPKINS, EARL PALMER: "Civil Service as a Career," Model Printing Co., Washington, D. C., 1919.

O'REILLY, J. J.: "Handbook on Civil Service," The Chief Publishing Co., New York, 1908.

Report of the Congressional Joint Commission on Reclassification of Salaries, Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C.


Chief, Civil Service Employes Publishing Co., New York.

Civil Service Chronicle, Civil Service Chronicle, Inc., New York. Federal Employe, Federal Employes Union, Washington, D. C.

Good Government, National Civil Service Reform League, New York.

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