Senior Executive Service: Trends over 25 years

Senior Executive Service: Trends over 25 years

Established by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, the Senior Executive Service, or SES, is the executive branch’s corps of senior leaders serving in key positions just below agencies’ top political appointees. Members of the SES, most of whom are career civil servants, oversee significant federal programs and functions, and manage thousands of employees. They serve as a critical bridge between the career workforce and the political appointees who change from administration to administration.

Given their leadership role and the vital part they play in ensuring the federal government achieves its mission, it’s important to understand more about the composition of the SES. We analyzed SES data over the past 25 years, examining the size of the corps, its demographics and trends related to the top occupations and agencies. We found that although the SES has grown as the workforce has grown and has become more diverse over time, it still is not fully representative of the composition of the federal workforce as a whole

Unless otherwise noted, all data in this analysis are for the full-time, nonseasonal, permanent, civilian workforce of the executive branch, and do not include employees of the legislative or judicial branches, the intelligence community, the U.S. Postal Service, foreign service officers or locally employed staff within the Department of State, or uniformed military personnel.

Percentages throughout may not appear to add up to 100 due to rounding.

The Size of the SES

There are two types of SES positions: career and non-career. Career SES are the top level of career civil service leadership in the federal government, and non-career SES are a type of political appointment. Career SES account for the vast majority of the SES, with non-career SES limited by law to 10% or less of the total. Recognizing this, the majority of the analysis below centers on career SES.

During the presidential transition years, the number of non-career SES in place decreases as a new administration begins to build out its team. Career SES enable agencies to smoothly operate and ease in the new political appointees of each new administration.   

The total number of SES members working in the federal government has grown consistently over the past 25 years, increasing from 6,846 in 1998 to 8,222 in 2022. The growth of the SES has mirrored the growth in the full-time, nonseasonal, permanent federal workforce overall, with the percentage of SES to career workforce remaining constant at just over 0.4% from 1998 to 2022.  

Career SES by Sex

In 1998, 20.1% of members of the career SES were female. By 2022, the SES was comprised of 37.6% female members, showing a steady increase during the past two decades. However, the balance continues to lag behind the federal workforce as a whole, which was 44% female in 2022. 

Career SES by Race

Publicly available data on the race and ethnicity of federal employees is only available beginning with fiscal year 2007 data. Thus, we can only analyze trends over the past 15 years. 

In 2007, just 16% of career SES identified as people of color. By 2022, this number had risen to 24.7%. By contrast, 39.2% of the total federal workforce identified as people of color in 2022.

Career SES by Age

In 1998, 11.5% of members of the career SES were above the age of 60 and 58% were between the ages of 50-59. In 2022, career SES members above the age of 60 had risen to 26.6% and those in their 50s still made up a majority of the SES.  

Length of Service

In 1998, career SES members who had served 25-29 years in federal service accounted for approximately 29.6% of the career SES, while just 8.2% had served for 35 years or more. By 2022, the percentage of career SES who had served between 25-29 years had dropped to 13.9%, while the proportion of those who had served 35 years or more increased to 13.3%.

It is natural that SES members have longer lengths of government service since those in these high-level roles have often worked their way up through decades-long careers.


While the federal government is most often closely associated with Washington, D.C. and its suburbs, 80% of the full-time, nonseasonal permanent federal workforce works outside of the D.C. region.

For the career SES, however, the story is different. From 1998 to 2022, about 7 in 10 career SES members have been located inside the D.C. area.

It makes sense that members of the SES, as senior leaders, would most often be located in agency headquarters near top appointed officials. However, it also means that SES may be located far from the geographically dispersed workforces they lead.

The majority of career SES, like the majority of federal employees, work in the 15 Cabinet departments. Since 1998, the percentage of career SES in Cabinet departments has increased slightly from 72.6% to 77.8% in 2022. 

Another approximately 20% of career SES work in large independent agencies, those with more than 1,000 employees. Very few career SES work in medium or small independent agencies, consistent with the fact that these agencies employ less than 1% of the overall federal workforce.

Career SES in Cabinet Agencies

Within the Cabinet, the distribution of career SES among departments has shifted over the last 25 years. The most significant shift came with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in late 2002. DHS absorbed subcomponents from many other Cabinet and previously independent agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In 2003, shortly after its creation, DHS employed 3.4% of career SES. By 2022, 9.2% of career SES worked at DHS.

Other agencies that saw increases in their share of career SES from 1998 to 2022 include the Department of Veterans Affairs, which increased from 4.2% to 5.7%, and the Department of Labor, which increased its share from 1.9% to 2.4%, a 24.7% change.

Other Cabinet agencies have seen a decrease in the percentage of total career SES they employ over the past 25 years. The Department of Defense, for example, experienced a 26.8% decrease in its share of career SES, from 6.6% of total career SES in 1998 to 4.9% in 2022. 

During the past 25 years, the General Administrative, Clerical and Office Services occupational series has been the largest occupational series among career SES, accounting for between one-third and one-half of all career SES. The percentage of career SES in this occupational series has steadily increased, even as the percentage of the total workforce in these occupations has dropped from 21.2% in 1998 to 14.7% in 2022. Specific occupations within this series include Program Management—the most common occupation for career SES—as well as Logistics Management and Management & Program Analysis.

Other consistently common occupational series for career SES include the Engineering and Architecture, Legal and Kindred and the Investigation series. Each of these groupings contain multiple specific occupations.

The largest growth has been in the Information Technology occupational series. In 2002—the first year for which there is data—just 0.5% of career SES worked in this occupational series. In 2022, it jumped to 3.4%, an increase of 542.6%.

The largest decrease has been in the Physical Sciences occupational series, although it remains one of the top six occupational series for career SES. In 1998, 6.7% of career SES worked in physical science occupations. By 2022, physical scientists made up only 2.4% of career SES, a decrease of 64.4%.

New Hires

There are about 200 new hires into career SES positions every fiscal year. These include those who are hired from outside the federal government, as well as those who transfer into a career SES position from another type of position at another agency. Those who transfer from one SES position to another or who enter SES positions within their current agency are not included. 

Career SES new hires peaked at 245 in fiscal 2011. The lowest number of new hires was 100 in fiscal 2018.


The annual number of separations by career SES—including those who transfer to another agency and those who leave federal civil service altogether—has increased since fiscal 2005, the first year for which data is available. There were 694 career SES separations in fiscal 2005, which increased to 903 in fiscal 2022. 

The noticeable dips in separations in fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2020 are likely due to the uncertainties of the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic during those years. 

The vast majority of career SES separations are due to retirement. Between 65% and 75% of career SES separations each fiscal year are retirements. 

Quits and transfers out of one agency to another are also significant sources of career SES separations, with each comprising between 10% and 20% each fiscal year. Terminations for cause and other separations comprise only a small percentage of career SES separations each fiscal year. 

Retirement Eligibility

With retirements comprising the majority of SES separations, and much of the SES workforce nearing retirement age, retirement eligibility is an important factor to understand. Many people choose to delay retirement beyond when they become eligible, so retirement eligibility numbers are not predictions of how much of the workforce will retire. However, they can help indicate where potential losses of institutional knowledge and leadership could emerge.

Of both career and non-career SES who were on board at the end of fiscal 2020, 40.6% were eligible to retire by the end of fiscal 2021, 62.2% will be eligible to retire by the end of fiscal 2025 and 79.8% by the end of fiscal 2030. 

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