Crossroads: Stay in the military or become a federal employee?

It’s a decision that can creep up and catch service members by surprise. Those that choose to stay past the first few years will inevitably be promoted out of a production role and into management. This means they have two options: put down the camera and supervise…or become a GS (federal employee).

Below is a brief guide on the GS transition process.

First, here’s a quick background on enlisted rank structure. In every branch, E-1 to E-5 ranks are the worker bees. In the public affairs (PA) field, this means using cameras. E-6 to E-9 ranks are the senior enlisted. These are the people that manage the worker bees.

*An important rule to note is high year tenure. This means a service member must be promoted by certain deadlines or he will be forced out of the military. This is to prevent someone from spending his entire 20-year career at a low rank in order to avoid a management role.

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Breese with his weapon of choice, the Nikon D800 DSLR camera. Photo by Glenn Slaughter.

For some PA worker bees, the thought of being promoted away from their camera is too much to bear. They could realize they’ve had enough of military life, but want to stay in the U.S. government pipeline. These are the people who become GS employees. GS stands for “Government Schedule” and references the pay scale, with GS-1 being the lowest and GS-15 being the highest. GS is just an easy way to say federal employee, and differentiate such employees from government contractors.

Andrew Breese is a former Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class (E-5) who became a GS-11 in 2012. He currently works for Airman Magazine , creating award-winning videos. He said although the Navy taught him about leadership, he knew when it was time to move on.

“For me, it was just a transitional period in my life,” Breese said. “It wasn’t up to the Navy to decide my career path for me. Now I have much more freedom to create the products that I want.”

Transitioning from service member to civilian can lead to culture shock, but Breese found his job’s requirement of constant travel to be similar to his work in the Navy.

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Breese prefers the Mac laptop over the giant monitors right next to him. Photo by Glenn Slaughter.

“Besides not having to shave, the transition wasn’t very drastic,” he said. “But relationships…when you’re doing this type of job a relationship is hard to maintain, versus a desk job with a 9 to 5 schedule. It’s almost like I’m in the military still, because I’m deployed every week.”

Breese said there’s no one path to GS that everyone will share, and it’s not for everyone, but it can help you to improve your craft and be happier as a civilian. He also issued a warning to military PA worker bees.

“Don’t rely on what the military expects of you to be sufficient at a civilian job,” Breese said. “The military has a certain standard for the quality of your product that probably won’t be good enough for a civilian product.”

Breese hasn’t looked back since becoming a GS, but there is one thing he misses.

“I actually liked wearing a uniform every day, because I didn’t have to think about what I was going to wear.” -Andrew Breese


Bob Houlihan is editor-in-chief of Airman Magazine and is responsible for all GS hiring. He said experience is important but he’s really looking for the ability to play well with others.

“I can teach a skillset but I can’t teach people to be good teammates,” Houlihan said. “At Airman, our people work very closely together as a team. You may be a videographer but you may be holding the still guy’s light, for example.”

The number one piece of advice that Houlihan has for those looking to transition to GS is “know your audience.” An employer could very likely skip over you if the work you highlight doesn’t relate to the job.

“You may have a general portfolio that includes your news, sports and portraiture but if you’re applying to Sports Illustrated they don’t give a sh*t about your news trip to Iraq. They want to see your sports stuff.” -Bob Houlihan

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Starting the journey to become a federal employee is a big step. To begin, talk to your command career counselor and visit these sites for more information.
USA Jobs is a great place to see what jobs are available to you as a GS.
Monster has a nice to-do list for transitioning.
Career Attraction features a couple of articles, written by a military veteran, on how to prepare for the transition (and how to interview for jobs).