Career Guide for Postal Mail Carriers

Postal mail carriers deliver mail and packages to businesses and residences across the United States. A postal mail carrier typically services the same route, getting to know the people they deliver to.

In this free career guide, we explore how to have a successful career as a postal mail carrier.

Postal Mail Carrier Summary

  • Little or no change in employment is projected over the 2008-18 period.
  • Keen competition for jobs is expected.
  • Qualification is based on an examination.
  • Applicants customarily wait 1 to 2 years or more after passing the examination before being hired.

Working as a Postal Mail Carrier

Postal Service mail carriers deliver mail to residences and businesses in cities, towns, and rural areas. Although carriers are classified by their type of route—either city or rural—duties of city and rural carriers are similar. Most travel established routes, delivering and collecting mail. Mail carriers start work at the post office early in the morning, when they arrange the mail in delivery sequence. Automated equipment has reduced the time that carriers need to sort the mail, allowing them to spend more of their time delivering it.

Mail carriers cover their routes on foot, by vehicle, or by a combination of both. On foot, they carry a heavy load of mail in a satchel or push it on a cart. In most urban and rural areas, they use a car or small truck. The Postal Service provides vehicles to city carriers; most rural carriers use their own vehicles and are reimbursed for that use. Deliveries are made to houses, to roadside mailboxes, and to large buildings such as offices or apartments, which generally have all of their tenants’ mailboxes in one location.

Besides delivering and collecting mail, carriers collect money for postage-due and COD (cash-on-delivery) fees and obtain signed receipts for registered, certified, and insured mail. If a customer is not home, the carrier leaves a notice that tells where special mail is being held. After completing their routes, carriers return to the post office with mail gathered from homes, businesses, and sometimes street collection boxes, and turn in the mail, receipts, and money collected during the day.

Some city carriers may have specialized duties such as delivering only parcels or picking up mail only from mail collection boxes. In comparison with city carriers, rural carriers perform a wider range of postal services, in addition to delivering and picking up mail. For example, rural carriers may sell stamps and money orders and register, certify, and insure parcels and letters. All carriers, however, must be able to answer customers’ questions about postal regulations and services and provide change-of-address cards and other postal forms when requested.

Work environment. Most carriers begin work early in the morning—those with routes in a business district can start as early as 4 a.m. Overtime hours are frequently required for urban carriers. Carriers spend most of their time outdoors, delivering mail in all kinds of weather. Though carriers face many natural hazards, such as extreme temperatures and wet and icy roads and sidewalks, serious injuries are often due to the nature of the work, which requires repetitive arm and hand movements, as well as constant lifting and bending. These activities can lead to repetitive stress injuries in various joints and muscles.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

All applicants for Postal Service mail carrier jobs are required to take an examination. After passing the exam, it may take 1 to 2 years or longer before being hired because the number of applicants generally exceeds the number of job openings.

Education and training. There are no specific education requirements to become a Postal Service mail carrier; however, all applicants must have a good command of the English language. Upon being hired, new carriers are trained on the job by experienced workers. Many post offices offer classroom instruction on safety and defensive driving. Workers receive additional instruction when new equipment or procedures are introduced. In these cases, usually another postal employee or a training specialist trains the workers.

Other qualifications. Postal Service mail carriers must be at least 18 years old. They must be U.S. citizens or have been granted permanent resident-alien status in the United States, and males must have registered with the Selective Service upon reaching age 18.

All applicants must pass a written examination that measures speed and accuracy at checking names and numbers and the ability to memorize mail distribution procedures. Jobseekers should contact the post office or mail processing center where they wish to work to determine when an exam will be given. Applicants’ names are listed in order of their examination scores. Five points are added to the score of an honorably discharged veteran and 10 points are added to the score of a veteran who was wounded in combat or is disabled. When a vacancy occurs, the appointing officer chooses one of the top three applicants; the rest of the names remain on the list to be considered for future openings until their eligibility expires—usually 2 years after the examination date.

When accepted, applicants must undergo a criminal-history check and pass a physical examination and a drug test. Applicants also may be asked to show that they can lift and handle mail sacks weighing 70 pounds. A safe driving record is required for mail carriers who drive at work, and applicants must receive a passing grade on a road test.

Good interpersonal skills are important because mail carriers must be courteous and tactful when dealing with the public, especially when answering questions or receiving complaints. A good memory and the ability to read rapidly and accurately are also important.

Advancement. Postal Service mail carriers may begin on a casual, transitional, part-time, or flexible basis and become regular or full-time employees in order of seniority, as vacancies occur. Carriers can look forward to obtaining preferred routes as their seniority increases. Postal Service mail carriers can advance to supervisory positions on a competitive basis.

Employment for Postal Mail Carriers

The U.S. Postal Service employed 343,300 mail carriers in 2008. The majority of mail carriers work in cities and suburbs, while the rest work in rural areas.

Postal Service mail carriers are classified as casual, transitional, part-time flexible, part-time regular, or full time. Casuals are hired for 90 days at a time to help process and deliver mail during peak mailing or vacation periods in rural areas. Transitional carriers are hired on a temporary basis in cities for a period of one year. Part-time, flexible workers do not have a regular work schedule or weekly guarantee of hours but are called as the need arises. Part-time regulars have a set work schedule of fewer than 40 hours per week, often replacing regular full-time workers on their scheduled day off. Few carriers are classified as part-time employees, especially among rural carriers. Full-time postal employees work a 40-hour week over a 5-day period and made up 85 percent of mail carriers in 2008.

Job Outlook

Employment of Postal Service mail carriers is expected experience little or no change through 2018. Keen competition is expected for mail carrier jobs because of the attractive wages and benefits and relatively low entry requirements.

Employment change. Employment of mail carriers is expected to decline by about 1 percent through 2018. Employment will be adversely affected by several factors. The use of automated “delivery point sequencing” systems to sort letter mail and flat mail directly, according to the order of delivery, reduces the amount of time that carriers spend sorting their mail, allowing them to spend more time on the streets delivering mail. The amount of time carriers save on sorting letter mail and flat mail will allow them to increase the size of their routes, which will reduce the need to hire more carriers. Additionally, the Postal Service is moving toward more centralized mail delivery, such as the use of cluster mailboxes, to cut down on the number of door-to-door deliveries. However, as the population continues to rise and the number of addresses to which mail must be delivered increases the demand for mail carriers in some areas of the country will grow.

Employment and schedules in the Postal Service fluctuate with the demand for its services. When mail volume is high, such as during holidays, full-time employees work overtime, part-time workers get additional hours, and casual workers may be hired.

Job prospects. Those seeking jobs as Postal Service mail carriers can expect to encounter keen competition. The number of applicants usually exceeds the number of job openings because of the occupation’s low entry requirements and attractive wages and benefits. The best employment opportunities for mail carriers are expected to be in areas of the country with significant population growth as the number of addresses to which mail must be delivered continues to grow.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Number Percent
Postal service mail carriers 43-5052 343,300 339,400 -3,900 -1
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings for Postal Mail Carriers

Median annual wages of Postal Service mail carriers were $49,800 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $41,270 and 51,250. The lowest 10 earned less than $37,400, while the top 10 percent earned more than $52,400. Rural mail carriers are reimbursed for mileage put on their own vehicles while delivering mail.

Postal Service mail carriers enjoy a variety of employer-provided benefits similar to those enjoyed by other Federal Government workers. The National Association of Letter Carriers and the National Rural Letter Carriers Association together represent most of these workers.

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