What is the difference between classified and unclassified employment? The Wiktionary definition for classified is not helpful: top secret, secret, confidential, restricted. Does it relate to restricted? But faculty positions are listed as unclassified, and surely those are restricted to candidates with a PhD and considerably experience. So what does classified mean in the context of job opportunities?
In general, classified vs unclassified in terms of employment opportunities -- typically with US Federal or State agencies, and a state university is such a thing -- loosely maps to the definitions of nonexempt and exempt classifications set forth in the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Every organization I've come across that makes the distinction between classified and unclassified staff does it in their own slightly different way, and HR typically makes the distinction clear in their documentation.
In your specific example, University of Madison-Wisconsin describes classified staff this way: "Classified staff positions focus primarily on supporting education, research, and the campus infrastructure. If a position entails performing functions that are similar in nature to other positions in Wisconsin state government, the position is classified."
The differences from an employee's perspective tend to be in terms of salary, raises, leave policies, and so on, and these differences will differ slightly from organization to organization. Position classification is definitely something to clarify with HR reps at each organization.
Classified Positions- includes positions that are also found throughout State agencies. Examples at UW-Madison include: professional administrative, clerical, blue collar, trades, information processing, technical positions and administrative support. Current classified vacancies and employment policies can be found at the Classified Human Resources website.
Unclassified Positions- includes professional positions that are primarily associated with higher education and student employment. Within the unclassified category there are the following types: Faculty, Academic Staff, Limited Appointees, Employees-in-Training and student employment (Teaching Assistants, Project Assistants and Student Help). Examples at UW-Madison include: professors, lecturers, advisors, information processing professionals supporting research or instruction, deans, clinicians, researchers, student service professionals, and higher level administrative positions.
Both previous answers are correct, however it doesn't exactly describe what difference it really makes. Should you care if you are classified or unclassified - would you prefer one position to another, if you could pick?
jcmeloni is exactly on the money about the FLSA, but I would like to add this very nice explanation as to what the fundamental difference in the two types is:
Classified employees are sometimes called "blue collar" workers, named after the blue denim work shirts that laborers often wore. Any employee who doesn't fit into the unclassified category is automatically defined as a classified employee. Classified employees usually are paid an hourly rate, and their job duties are routine -- following a specific set of standards and rules. Examples of classified employees are maintenance and construction workers, clerical staff and technicians. An employer must be careful when defining a worker's status by examining the job requirements against FLSA standards. Job duties, not job titles, differentiate classified from unclassified employees. For example, a garbage man could be called a waste management administrator, but because his job duties are routine and standard, he is a classified employee.
Unclassified employees are sometimes called "white collar" workers, named after the white dress shirts often worn with a business suit. They are typically company executives, administrators, outside sales representatives and professionals, earning a salary or commission versus an hourly wage. With a few exceptions, an unclassified employee must still earn at least $455 per week, the federal minimum for executive, administrative and professional employees exempt from the FLSA, as of 2012. He also must be paid his full salary every week, no matter how many hours he worked.
Types of Unclassified Workers
Under the FLSA, unclassified job duties generally fall into one of three categories: executive, professional or administrative. An employee is considered an executive if his job description includes managing two or more employees, the primary job function is management, and his feedback can affect other employees, such as hiring, firing or promoting. Professional positions usually are jobs that require a specific type of education or licensing such as lawyers, teachers, accountants, doctors and scientists. An administrative position that qualifies as unclassified requires the employee to be capable of making independent decisions. Positions in finance, human resources, accounting, computer administration and marketing are examples of these positions.
There are some positions that are specifically excluded from being defined as unclassified or classified. For example, agricultural workers aren't covered under FLSA overtime rules. Railroad workers are covered by the Railway Labor Act, and truck drivers are covered by the Motor Carriers Act.
I couldn't explain it any better than that.
In short, this is almost purely a USA issue because the FLSA is federal legislation about workers rights and employer responsibilities with labor practices. It's a landmark piece of legislation, and one everyone working or employing workers in the US should make themselves very familiar with - it's really, really important.
It can at times seem like a purely bureaucratic categorization, but it can and likely will effect every aspect of your job, from pay to benefits to scheduling, performance reviews and promotions/firing.