Government Jobs: How to Get Them

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Last Updated Dec 18, 2009 2:23 PM EST

Not so long ago, government jobs were a punch line; the joke usually had something to do with unresponsive bureaucrats earning lousy pay and punching out the second they had worked eight hours. Then came a couple of years in which hundreds of thousands of private-sector jobs disappeared every month, and that joke isn't so funny any more. Not only is the federal government one of the few employers hiring in substantial numbers — one estimate is that Uncle Sam will need to sign up more than 270,000 workers in the next three years to replace retiring baby boomers and staff new agencies and initiatives — the pay for some Federal jobs is actually competitive with the private sector (and stacks up really well against an unemployment check). One recent opening at the Department of Homeland Security for a computer and systems-information manager listed a potential salary up to $160,000, and the average pay next year for a federal employee is expected to surpass $75,000. Throw in a sweet pension, the aforementioned eight-hour day, and the fact that it's easier to find a Prius at an NRA rally than to get fired from a civil-service gig, and, all of a sudden, that job with the feds isn't looking so bad anymore.

Unfortunately, a lot of people have begun to realize this. One recent hire at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who requested anonymity says that she was lucky to have landed a secretarial job there despite having a master's degree — her competition included more than one Ph.D. "When the economy is not doing well, the federal government becomes the employer of choice," says Karol Taylor, co-author of the recent Guide to America's Federal Jobs. A government job is not, however, a quick solution to your job-hunting problems, since the time from initial application to job offer can take from four months to a year.

That said, if you're willing to invest the time, a government job can offer long-term rewards or a great place to ride out the downturn. Here's how to compete for one.

Find Out About Less-Publicized Openings

All federal agencies are required to list all openings publicly, and many do so on the government’s main job site at USAJOBS, but they aren’t obligated to use this site. So make sure you also do a daily check of the Web site of the agency where you want to work (in particular, law-enforcement agencies such as the FBI and the federal courts tend to use their own sites to advertise jobs). Jeffrey Allsteadt found his job as assistant deputy of the federal court system in California’s Orange County by religiously checking the careers section of the U.S. Courts Web site for several months; he was previously a chief law clerk in Michigan’s state courts but decided the state’s poor economy was dimming his opportunities to advance.

To find out about new positions and get tips on how to tailor your application for them, join professional networking groups, advises Teri Black-Brann, president of Teri Black & Co., a recruiting company that specializes in placing government executives. A travel planner might, for instance, join the Society of Government Travel Professionals (700 members strong). “Just like in the private sector, there are professional associations for government workers for every discipline,” she says. Many agencies also hold regular job fairs where you can talk to current employees and network with other job seekers.

It’s also worth checking in with your college’s career-services department since many universities have particularly good relationships with certain agencies as a result of past hiring, says Price Mason, an executive consultant at the Barrett Group, which helps clients find government jobs. “When I worked in career development for Johnson & Wales University, the Defense Contract Audit Agency and IRS recruited a number of accountants from there because they had good experiences in the past,” says Mason. If you have specialized technical or professional skills in an area such as technology, you may be able to speed up your search by going through recruiters who have contracts to fill government jobs; you should be able to find recruiters by networking with government employees in your field.

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Where the Federal Jobs Are

According to the Partnership for Public Service, the fields in which the federal government will be doing the most hiring in the next three years are medical and public health (54,000 jobs), security and protection (52,000 jobs), compliance and enforcement (31,000 jobs), legal (24,000 jobs), and administrative and program management (17,000 jobs). The agencies that will most likely be adding workers are the Department of Veteran Affairs, Homeland Security, the Justice Department, and intelligence agencies such as the CIA and the NSA.

Rack Up Points on the Government’s Applicant Scoring System

You’ll only be filing one application for that government job, but that application has to do two things — one, get you past the lower-level screeners (and sometimes even computers) that are looking to make sure you meet minimum requirements; and two, impress the hiring managers who will eventually be evaluating your application.

To do the first, you need to make sure you use on your resume as many of the exact keywords as possible from the requirements in the job listing itself; more matches will get you a higher score (most applications for federal jobs are rated on a scale from 1 to 100) and increase your chances of making it to the next level. Other things that will get you points include military service, disabled status, and volunteer work related to the position, provided you use the right keywords to describe it. Janet Ruck, the co-author of Guide to America’s Federal Jobs, recommends bullet-pointing your qualifications to make it especially easy for the resume readers to run through their list.

When it comes to impressing hiring managers, don’t just list responsibilities — cite and quantify results you achieved in past positions, just as you would with a private-sector resume. “Highlight money saved, time saved, and processes expedited,” Ruck says. Also mention any policy goals your work helped to achieve. Getting all this information in will obviously take some space, but not to worry — resumes for federal jobs typically average three to five pages.

Some jobs may also require you to submit a Knowledge Skills and Abilities document, or KSA, which usually include essays. For example, an opening for an analyst position might ask you to write about your ability to communicate orally. To get the most points on these essays, you should provide specific anecdotes that show how you successfully demonstrated this skill in the past (bear in mind that government officials may call your references to verify these anecdotes, so be careful about embellishing). Rosalyn Johnson, an attorney who started her job working in adoptions at D.C. Superior Court in May, used her KSA essays to discuss everything from her previous experience working with children at a nursery school to her projects at Legal Aid.

Ace the Federal Jobs Interview

A government interview is quite different from the usual one-on-one conversation you’re probably used to when applying for a corporate job. For one thing, it’s likely to be a panel interview with two or more questioners interviewing you at the same time (the idea is to reduce the potential for bias), and secondly, the interview will likely be much more focused on what you’ve done in the past than anything you hope or plan to do in the future.

For the panel interview, though, don’t worry — it’s not going to be like a Congressional hearing. The interviews tend to be very organized, where one person will ask you his or her questions before moving on to the next person, with very little overlap. To get more comfortable with this type of interview, you might practice by cajoling a few friends to get together and ask you interview questions.

Those questions will focus on your ability to meet the requirements mentioned in the job posting. As with the KSA essays, the government tends to think that the best proof of these abilities is evidence that you have demonstrated them in the past. So the best way to prepare is to come up with a list of relevant anecdotes and practice discussing them in a clear and confident way. While interviews for private-sector jobs might require you to discuss how you’d deal with hypothetical situations and try to get a sense for your personality, interviews for government jobs will be almost entirely about how you handled specific, job-related situations in the past. “The theory is that the best predictor of the future is past performance.” says Ruck.

Yes, this smells like the rigid thinking and bureaucracy that repelled you from becoming a bureaucrat in the first place. In that case, it’s time for a gut check: Is your first priority to feed your creativity and imagination, avoid hierarchy, and have fun? Or are you looking for a stable, benefit-laden job in a time when such things are rare? Alright then. Take a deep breath, and remember to follow the rules.

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  • Elaine Pofeldt

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