Become A Government Contractor In Public Health

career development government public health jobs Oct 17, 2023

What does it mean to be a contractor and for government-funded initiatives?

No, I’m not talking about working in construction or home repair. I’m talking about working as a government contractor in the field of public health. When I was hired almost three years ago for my first role working for the government in public health, this was a question that never really occurred to me. 

At that time, I was a graduate student working on my MPH amid the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. I saw many, many jobs posted on job boards looking for urgent support in COVID-19 related work and I hit apply not thinking twice, if even noticing at all, the word ‘contractor’ in the job description. Now, after almost three years of working as a government contractor, I’m happy to share what I’ve learned along the way so that you might pick up on that key word during your job search and understand what it implies.

The term ‘contractor’ is a general word to describe an employee who is employed by a contracting agency. The contracting agency is who pays the employee their salary or provides their benefits, but they typically do not assign the employee their day-to-day work. In the case of government contractors, this would be the government agency. It’s incredibly common for government agencies to hire contract workers. I, for example, work for a state health department and I do work requested by the health department but, technically speaking, I work for my contracting agency.

So, you may be wondering how this is relevant to you. Because it is so common for local, state, or federal agencies to use contracting agencies for hiring new staff, if you want to work in public health then there’s a strong possibility you’ll be applying for jobs as a contractor. Also, if you are looking for employment in public health, you should also know that being hired as a contractor and not directly by the government has important implications that you will want to know before you accept that dream job and join the public health workforce.

  • First, contractors are not always entitled to the same benefits such as paid leave or student loan forgiveness that government employees are typically entitled to. Why is this important? Well, for starters, everyone gets sick and there will be times you’ll be grateful for that sick leave! Also, working for the government in public health is generally considered public service. Public servants working for a government agency often qualify for certain types of student loan forgiveness. Sadly, this is not usually the case for contract workers.
  • Second, before accepting your job as a contract worker, you should know that typically your contract will be limited to a specified period of time. Often government agencies receive grant money to work on a specific project and with that funding, they will hire a contract worker to fill that role for the needed length of time. When that time is up, the contract might be terminated or if the funding is renewed, the contract might be extended. In my job working for the health department, my contract has been extended several times over the last three years. That being said, job security may be less certain than if you work directly for the government.
  • Third, and this one might actually be a benefit, sometimes contract work pays better than the equivalent role working directly for the government. I’ve seen that this is often the case in my role with the state health department that I earn a higher salary than my government-hired counterparts. Remember of course that they may have access to fuller benefits packages, paid leave, student loan forgiveness, etc. so how it balances out depends on what’s most important to you!

So, after all of this, why should you still consider being a contractor? Well, maybe that’s the best employment option out there for you right now. I can tell you that because of how common it is for government agencies to hire contract workers through contracting agencies, that that otherwise perfect job might only be available through a contracting agency. It may be a good way to get your foot in the door and that may help you land full time work directly with the government. Whatever route you choose, now you have the information to decide if working as a contract worker is right for you!

For additional tips as you search for your dream job in public health, head on over to the Public Health Hired Masterclass for additional resources or visit our Instagram community for the latest job alerts, which are posted weekly on our IG stories.

Contributor: Elizabeth Weaver, MPH graduated from George Washington University School of Public Health in 2021 with her Master's Degree in Public Health and currently works for the Virginia Department of Health in Communicable Disease Investigation. In her spare time, she enjoys running, traveling, and studying Spanish." Connect with her on LinkedIn. 

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