How do GS Step Promotions Work?

GS promotions

We often get asked about the General Schedule (GS) system and GS step promotions. We certainly understand why we get so many questions. The federal employee compensation system is complex and can be quite confusing.

For example, GS step promotions do lead to pay increases, but not all pay increases are the result of promotions. When you’re promoted, your GS level increases, but your step level decreases. You can expect to receive an automatic raise on a yearly basis unless the President of the United States decides to cancel raises for the year. And it only gets more complex from there.

The good news is that we’ve helped thousands of Veterans transition into the civilian workforce and federal employment. We are experts when it comes to the GS system, GS step promotions, and pay increases. We’re breaking it all down for you in today’s blog.

What’s the General Schedule? 

Before we go into GS step promotions, you’ll need a bit of background on how the General Schedule system is set up.

The GS system is the principal pay scale for federal employees. Enacted in 1949, the main goals of the GS were to standardize positions across federal agencies and prevent a pay gap with the private sector.

Today, more than 70% of government civilian pay jobs are classified under the General Schedule. The jobs within the GS are mostly white-collar positions such as technicians, accountants, analysts, administrative professionals, programmers, and so on. 

The GS system consists of 15 grades. Within those 15 grades are 10 steps. The grade level and step level determine the amount of pay a federal worker receives.

The grade levels are below:

  • GS-1 to GS-4 includes trainees and interns
  • GS-5 to GS-7 include entry-level positions
  • GS-8 to GS-12 include mid-level positions
  • GS-13 to GS-15 include top-level supervisory positions

It’s important to note that all positions beyond GS-15 are part of the Senior Executive Service and paid on a different scale. Learn more about the Senior Executive Service here. 

Grade Increases vs. Pay Steps

GS promotions

Grade increases are equivalent to promotions in the private sector. A grade increase will impact your job title, level of responsibility, salary, and how many people you manage. Your level of education, job performance, and overall experience are factors that go into determining whether you will receive a promotion.

Pay steps, on the other hand, are solely based on how many years you’ve worked at your current grade level. Pay step increases are raises in your salary that are not tied to a promotion.

If you’ve performed satisfactorily in your job and you’ve worked the required amount of time, you’ll automatically receive a pay step increase. These increases are usually equivalent to 2% to 3% of your current salary.

When do Pay Step Increases Occur? 

Each of the GS grades has 10 steps. Pay increases within each grade are divided as follows:

  • The first three step increases occur every year.
  • The next three step increases occur every two years.
  • The last three step increases occur every three years.

After 18 years, you’ll advance to step 10 of your grade.

How Does a GS Promotion Impact My Pay Increase? 

If you receive a GS promotion, you’ll go up a grade, but down two steps.

For example, if you are currently GS-10, step 8 and you are promoted to GS-11, you’ll be a step 6. But your salary at the new grade will always be higher, despite being assigned to a lower step level. In general, when being promoted from one grade to another, your raise will equal two pay step raises in your previous grade, or about 10% of your current salary.

How Can I Increase My GS Grade?

GS promotions

You may qualify for an increase in your GS grade level after you’ve received increased responsibility in your current position, or you’ve transferred to a new position that has more duties. Grade increases may also be the result of achieving a higher level of education. For example, getting a master’s degree or obtaining relevant certifications may qualify you for a grade increase.

In addition, you may also be entitled to a grade increase as you gain experience in your current position. It’s not uncommon for federal employees to advance one or two grades every two or three years they perform satisfactorily on the job. These grade increases typically occur within the first five years a worker has held the position.

Promotions up to GS-12 and below can be given automatically or at management’s discretion. All jobs that are rated GS-13 and above, must be listed on Any current federal employee must apply for jobs rated GS-13 or higher just as any qualified, non-federal employee would. 

Will a Federal Employee’s Salary Ever Be Capped? 

Once a federal employee reaches the highest grade within their respective pay schedule, their pay may be capped.

At that point, the employee can only receive a pay increase if they advance to a higher grade, or if the entire pay schedule increases.

Some pay schedules are increased on an annual basis. These are considered cost-of-living increases. Whether or not these increases occur and how large the increases are depends on the sole discretion of the President of the United States. Typically, the pay schedules increase between 1% and 3%.

However, these increases aren’t guaranteed, and the president can choose to freeze the increases at any time.

Empire Resume Will Help You Transition into the Civilian Workforce

GS promotions

We specialize in writing military resumes!

Dr. Phillip Gold is President/CEO of Empire Resume and has vast experience writing resumes for both professionals and servicemembers transitioning from the military into civilian roles. He served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and was responsible for leading nuclear missile security. Phillip is a Certified Professional Resume Writer and holds a BA in Communications from The Ohio State University, an MS in Instructional Technology, an MBA in Finance, and a PhD in Finance.

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