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Tech Sector Salaries in the Federal Government

RF Cafe University"Factoids," "Kirt's Cogitations," and "Tech Topics Smorgasbord" are all manifestations of my rantings on various subjects relevant (usually) to the overall RF Cafe theme. All may be accessed on these pages:

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Tech Sector Salaries in the Federal Government - RF Cafe SmorgasbordWe have all seen news reports about the often exorbitant salaries of government employees as compared to the earnings of folks in equivalent private sector jobs. According to a March 2012 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average total compensation for the average private industry worker was $28.57 per hour worked whereas for the federal government worker it was $40.90 per hour - a 43% difference! When you look at the ranges of job titles and pay for government workers as compared to equivalent private industry workers there seems to be no logical correlation between which jobs pay more with the government versus private industry. There are currently about 22 million U.S. government employees - a staggering number indeed.

Asbury Park Press recently made available a database (not available anymore, try (federalpay.org) of year-2011 earnings for government employees, searchable by department/agency, division, job title, location, and even employee name. If you know someone who works for the government, this is your chance to find out how much they make. I wanted to find out what people in technical agencies were making, so I concentrated on organizations like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Institute of Standards (NIST), etc. The results are in the table below where I counted people whose base salaries are at or above $100,000 per year. It took a lot more time than I really had to spend on it, but after a while it gets addictive.

One thing to keep in mind is that government agencies are notoriously top-heavy in management, which tends to push the pay scale upward. Looking at the filtered results bears out that fact since it reveals that most top earners are in management positions. Also, I don't know about the social and financial type agencies, but the government employs a lot of Ph.D.s for science and engineering, so that also biases the pay upward. As an avid reader of technical publications, I can vouch for a lot of extremely high quality research and development performed by the good folks at NASA, NIST, et al. Private industry, under pressure from investors to turn profits at the expense of performing vital in-house R&D, has seen a dramatic reduction in staff dedicated to pure research. So this is one area where, even though I am basically a small-government person, I am glad to see some of our best and brightest being gainfully employed for the good of the country. In order to attract top talent into the positions, it is necessary to pay at a level commensurate with private industry.

What I detest is the number of people in social welfare and arts departments (typically slackers) making the same kind of pay as guys and gals actually producing useful information that will pay benefits down the road. That's not to say all of the former are lame-oids and all of the latter are alphas, but where are you most likely to see a government employee playing Solitaire on the computer - in a social services office or in a research lab? Oh, there is also a huge percentage of lawyers throughout all the government agencies. In which category would you tend to place them?

When the database is sorted according to salary, department heads bubble to the top - no surprise. It is the same as in private industry. I did find instances of people with engineering titles within the top ten positions for various agencies, but they tended to be not in places like NASA or the FCC, but in the Department of Health and Human Services; don't even try to make sense of it. Also no surprise is that it looks like the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia areas have the largest concentration of high earners. It is why that area of the country has some of the highest average household income zip codes and why the unemployment rate is so low locally. A few weeks ago Melanie and I went to my uncle's burial ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery and noted all the huge new buildings - all most all government - under construction. It's no wonder the cursed politicians don't seem to feel any urgency when it comes to the economy. From where they live, everything looks just fine.

Agency Total #

of Employees

# Employees


FCC (Federal Communications Commission) 1,784 1,242 69.6
NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) 18,632 12,644 67.9
NSF (National Science Foundation) 1,464 911 62.2
NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) 3,138 1,501 47.8
NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) 13,012 4,965 38.2
BBG (Broadcasting Board of Governors) 1,744 629 36.1
DOE (Department of Energy) 16,381 8,631 52.7
OSTP (Office of Science and Technical Policy) 34 20 58.8
EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) 18,777 11,297 60.2


A government job looks like good work if you can get it. Take the 2011 salary database for a test drive yourself and, if you have the stomach for it, look up what people in your most-despised government agencies are getting paid with your hard-earned tax money.

Hank Terlage (ostensibly), the guy in the now-famous video below, appears to have a base salary of $47,677. Well, he formerly had a salary of that amount. You won't find his name in the 2012 database because he has been fired. Not to worry, though, because Hawaii pays a tidy sum for unemployment and/or welfare. Throw in an EBT card (food stamps and other goodies), free medical care, maybe some free training if he wants it, who knows what else, and unemployment can be a pretty sweet deal. Maybe he can pursue a career in music. GSA manager Jeff[rey] Neely (ostensibly), who was responsible for the infamous Hawaiian vacation for department heads, made $172,000 in 2011 and even earned a $2,700 award for a job well done. You won't find him the the 2012 database, either.




Posted October 15, 2021
(updated from original post on 6/5/2012)

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