November 2, 2010
How to find a job in the federal government
According to Where the Jobs Are, federal agencies will be hiring more than 270,000 workers for mission-critical jobs by the end of September, 2012. Most federal hiring will be concentrated in five professional fields: Medical and Public Health, Security and Protection, Compliance and Enforcement, Legal, and Program Management.
I recently interviewed Heather Krasna, director of career services at Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington, about how to go about getting one of these federal jobs. She's an expert on federal and non-profit jobs and recently wrote a book, "Jobs That Matter: Find a Stable, Fulfilling Career in Public Service," published by JIST Publishing.
In our conversation, Heather helped me to compare and contrast the difference between a corporate and federal resume, application process and search methods.
Finding the jobs
While networking is the primary way of finding openings that are not yet advertised for corporate jobs, by law, most government agencies must post positions that are open to outside applicants on their website, USAJOBS.gov.
While employee referrals and inside connections can help you with a corporate opening, hiring for most federal jobs is merit-based and you have to go through a competitive application process.
At this time, there are more than 650 openings in Washington State. According to Heather, these are the most stable jobs in the economy right now; they pay pretty well and many are mission-driven, such as protecting our country or strategically planting trees to preserve habitats, etc. My research into pay for these openings shows hourly positions at $9 per hour for a laborer, all the way up to $44 per hour for an assistant dispatcher trainee. Salaried jobs range from as low as $16,880 for a diagnostic radiologic technician all the way up to a range of $165,000 to $400,000 per year for medical officers.
One thing that is most confusing for candidates who aren't familiar with the federal application process is the Federal Government's General Schedule (GS), known in corporate terms as your pay grade. Grades and respective salaries are noted on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management website. GS levels relate to your education and years of experience. For example:
• If you've just finishing college and don't have a lot of experience yet, you would want to look at GS5 positions
• College graduates with at least one year of experience should consider GS7 positions
• Applicants with master's degrees can apply to GS9 openings
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management has created the Federal Classification and Job Grading Systems you can use to evaluate where you fall into the rating system.
If you're not already a current federal employee, Heather says positions above GS9 are very difficult to get unless you're very specialized with a lot of years of experience in a certain category such as nursing. If you look at the job descriptions, they usually require technologies or processes to which only a current employee would have access.
Tips on how to apply
It's also important to know that your current corporate resume will not get you an interview with the federal government. Heather points out that federal resumes are quite different from corporate resumes.
When you decide to apply to an opening on USAJOBS.gov, you have to use their federal resume builder. Don't be shocked when the resume asks for your social security number, name and phone numbers of all of your former supervisors, every salary you've ever earned, hours you've worked in each job, and all the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) performed in each job, etc. This process can create a resume that is at least six pages or longer - way more detailed than what you would have for your corporate resume.
Once you decide to apply, understand that the federal agencies might not use a sophisticated application tracking system (ATS) and therefore you will have to use exact keyword and phrase spellings to rank higher on their search results. Also be prepared to answer essay questions and make sure to incorporate short stories where you should optimize keyword matches to get the most points.
Talking about points, the maximum anyone can get is 99 points. You get so many points for matching keywords and phrases and then additional points once HR reviews your resume and decides whether you look like a great fit. If you're a military veteran, you get an additional five points and if you are an injured military veteran, you get an additional 10 points. Heather says sometimes these are all the points a veteran might need to score an interview over other candidates.
At the bottom of the job description there is usually contact information for a real person whom you can call to learn more about the job or ask about correct ways to submit your application. Make sure to use this feature to your advantage.
One problem Heather has seen several times is that jobs often disappear without notice, so if you find something interesting, copy and paste the entire job description (including the contact information) into your favorite word processor. You can later use this contact information to inquire about the status of the opening once the position is closed.
Heather notes that up until now, candidates who best know how to game the system are the ones who have been getting interviews. That's because HR was only allowed to select the top three candidates who received the highest scores for interviews. Heather says that will probably change in the near future.
Heather also suggests reviewing this website for a detailed list of tips and suggestions you might want to consider before applying.
Another way into the federal government is through a program called the Federal Career Intern Program (FCIP). While the typical applicants vying for these positions are fresh graduates, the jobs are also open to experienced professionals. It's a two-year paid internship program that includes rotational training. You typically find these positions at job fairs or by contacting the federal agencies directly.
The best way to find a list of federal agencies is to use the Blue Pages of your phone book. Another way is to visit USA.gov and search for agencies by branch, or location. Heather advocates informational interviews to learn about these agencies and get noticed. You can also reach out to Anne Tiernan, executive director of the Federal Executive Board for Seattle.
Also check out FedScope to learn about which agencies are in our state and whether or not they hire people with your background.
Last but not least, if you're a student, there is another internship program called the Student Career Experience Program. After completing a certain number of hours, you can transition to a permanent, full-time position and not have to go through the rigorous hiring process discussed above.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
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