Should I Go From GS-15 To SES? Pros And Cons Of SES Careers

By Sam •  Updated: 09/22/21 

You feel the gun in your back and someone whispers in your ear, “Your money or your life”. 

What do you do?

Vicki Robin is quick to point out that you hand over your wallet in this situation. Because- obviously, your life is worth more than your money.

But do we really act like we value our lives more than money? What about when it comes to our jobs?

What if someone puts your gun to your back and says, “GS-15 or SES  Career”? Which do you choose then? Your money? or Your life?

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Table of Contents

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What is the Senior Executive Service?

Congress created the Senior Executive Service (or SES) in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Prior to the establishment of the SES, all employees were paid on the General Schedule (GS) pay scale. However, the GS pay scale had “Supergrade” employees above a GS-15. (There were literally GS-16 and GS-18 employees running around the government).

The Civil Service Reform Act abolished supergrade employees and consolidated Executive Level IV and V employees within “Senior Level” positions (i.e. the SES, Senior Level (SL), and Senior Technical (ST) employees).

Congress established the SES to occupy key positions within federal agencies to lead technical agencies while interfacing with presidential appointees. They envisioned the SES acting as a “government-wide, mobile corps of managers” and they are one of the few types of government employees who are paid based upon their performance. 

The SES Careers are defined in 5 U.S. Code § 3132. The key characteristics of SES jobs are that

Most SES employees are “career appointees” and were selected for their position based upon their executive qualifications. However, up to 10% of SES positions can be filled with political appointees

SES employees salaries depend on their performance and can range from 120% of a GS-15 salary to a maximum of either Level III or Level II of the Executive Schedule depending on whether the agency has a Certified SES Performance Appraisal System. (5 U.S. Code § 5382)

In many ways, SES careers represent the pinnacle of public service.

Eligibility for the Senior Executive Service (SES)

Technically, any US Citizen can apply for a position in the Senior Executive Service. However, career appointees need to demonstrate that they meet the executive core qualifications.

In practice, this creates somewhat of a boundary within the federal service. While most positions only require you to have 1-year of experience at a lower grade, a GS-15 would likely not meet the executive core qualifications for a competitive service position no matter how long they’ve held the position. 

The people I’ve known that have moved from the General Schedule to a career appointment federal executive position have all gone to special trainings and classes that helped them establish their core qualifications.

Executive Core Qualifications

Candidates for the SES must demonstrate that they have competency across five “Executive Core Qualifications” or ECQs. The five ECQs are

To me, these ECQs are very vague business-speak. Who couldn’t say that they’ve built some sort of coalition or lead changes. However, OPM is looking for very specific types of accomplishments in the ECQs. 

Two Pathways

There are in general two different pathways to apply for an SES job- you can apply directly or go through a SES Candidate Development Program (SESCDP). If you graduate from SESCDP, then you are automatically eligible for career appointment to a Senior Executive Service position but are not guaranteed a spot (Furthermore, your ECQs need to be approved by an OPM-administered Qualifications Review Board (QRB).

Most federal employees I know who have gone from the GS to SES have gone through the candidate development program. To land a SES job from a direct application to a job opening, it seems like you’d need to have extensive experience as an executive in industry. (This is just based on my experience. If I’m wrong- shoot me an email!)

Differences between careers at the GS-15 and SES level

Now that I’ve gone through all of the qualification requirements for the Senior Executive Service and how you might apply for one of these executive management positions, we can dig into the heart of this blog post. 

Why would anyone want a career as a Senior Executive in the federal government?

To answer this, we need to get at the heart of the difference between an SES and a GS-15. 

An SES Employee

In contrast a GS-15 employee

Depending on your agency and your workplace, these differences may become somewhat blurred. However, any SES employee can be shuffled to a new job at any time to help maintain agency flexibility.  

Benefits of SES Careers

So- what’s the biggest benefit of an SES Career? Pay is the most tangible benefit. Not only do you get paid more than a GS-15 (the minimum pay level is set at 120% of a GS-15) but your pay is also merit based. Depending on your performance you may be compensated up to the maximum pay level of Level II of the Executive Schedule ($199,300 in 2021).

Another measurable benefit is that you are able to carry over more leave each year (720 hours, or 3 times as much as a typical GS-employee). If you are close to retirement, you could build up a bank of 720 hours to carry into your last year of employment and retire with a whopping 928 hours of leave (720 +26*8). This would result in a payout of approximately 44% of your final salary.

While these increases in benefits are tangible, they may not be a great reason to move into an SES Career (see next section). Instead, many people choose an SES career because they feel that it allows them to influence broad perspective policy decisions and shape the path of their agency.

In a recent discussion within a Facebook group for federal employees many Senior Executives talked about how they enjoyed the feeling that they created positive outcomes for their agency and for the American public. These individuals had a strong public service commitment mindset and felt that they were best able to serve their country in an executive level job.

Downsides of SES Careers

While I’m glad we have SES employees, I don’t understand why anyone would want to be one.

Real hourly wage

On the other hand, in that same Facebook discussion, there were many career employees who had absolutely no interest in moving into an SES job. (I’m in that camp).

SES employees are expected to work until the job is done and I have never known an SES employee that has a work-life balance that I’d like to emulate. 

While SES employees do get paid more, I am sure that if you calculated their real hourly wage, they’d get paid much less than a GS-15 per hour worked.

I think executive pay is a problem within the government that is not being addressed. In my agency we cannot seem to fill SES positions. As a result, we’ve had positions filled with recurring long-term details and SES employees covering two jobs. Furthermore, in my own office we couldn’t fill a GS-15 position for 3 years because no qualified applicants applied for it. 

If the government wants employees with these types of qualifications, it really needs to be able to pay them what they’re worth. They also probably need to hire more of them so these positions don’t seem like death sentences.

Job security

While people within the SES have civil service protections as GS-employees in theory, they can be reassigned to any SES position for any reason at any time with 15 days notice. Sure, you have a job. But would you want to move your family from Alaska to Arkansas to Arizona within a single school year?

Increased scrutiny

As public servants, everything we do is scrutinized heavily by the media, interests groups, and concerned tax-payers. Ultimately, when mistakes are made, someone needs to pay the price. If the mistake is big enough, Congress will hold hearings and federal employees will need to testify. Typically, it’s the senior executives that are fed into the lion’s den. 

Remember that GSA boondoggle that was all over the news? Several SES members lost their jobs over that controversy even though it’s unlikely that they were the ones ordering the $7,000 sushi (or for that matter any of the conference details other than the overall budget). Martha Johnson lost her job even though she was only in the role for a few months before the excess spending took place. (And now Googling her name only shows her in an unflattering light).

Summary- why would anyone move from a GS-15 to an SES career?

SES careers should represent the pinnacle of public service. And in many ways, SES Careers are where public servants can make the biggest impact with considerable agency authority. 

However, this level of public service comes at a great cost to the individual. Senior Executive Service members are required to work incredibly long hours, with less job security, and increased scrutiny than their GS-15 counterparts. 

In return, they earn a small increase in base salary and the opportunity to earn merit based pay bonuses each year. 

In my mind, this is a horrible trade-off. While I’m glad we have SES employees, I don’t understand why anyone would want to be one.

Worse, I can’t see how the government plans on developing the next crop of SES career or career-type employees when American culture has shifted from valuing career advancement to valuing work-life balance. 

I’d love to know what you think! Share this article and tag me on Twitter and we can continue the discussion.


Sam i.e. "Gov Worker" started working for the government at age 18 and loved it so much that he never left. He started GovernmentWorkerFI in 2019 to help fellow federal employees understand their benefits, take control of their finances, and live their best lives.

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