Tips on getting a federal gov't job
March 15, 2009 12:54 AM   Subscribe

There are a lot of federal jobs available in my area that pay better than my current gig in state gov. Problem is, sending a resume in just seems to sink into a black hole.

Not only that but it seems like most decent fed jobs are only open to people already IN federal government. I have seen jobs come open that fit my skills but not even a rejection letter in response to my application. How in the holy heck do you get in the federal system... how do I even get my resume looked at? Is there a secret to getting an interview?
posted by Foam Pants to Work & Money (25 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Same rules/effects apply here that apply on or any other job-seeking website. Unless you have a contact (professional or personal) who can give you an "in", the best thing to do is to find the person who (1) is in charge of hiring or (2) would be your supervisor. Finding them (hard part) and talking to them (easy part) would definitely give you a good assessment of the situation. And MANY private companies, they would rather promote from within than hire an outsider.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 2:18 AM on March 15, 2009

hal_c_on is wrong. Federal hiring is a lot more complicated than that, and knowing someone is not how you get a civil service job. In fact, there are procedures in place to prevent exactly that sort of thing.

What you're seeing here is statutory and financial constraints imposed on agencies by Congress or the politically-appointed agency head, and many agencies are still under hiring freezes imposed years ago as a result of budgetary contractions imposed by the Bush administration. So when an agency posts an Internal or Public Status position, they're really inviting current (and occasionally former) employees to move around to new, higher priority positions. Applying for those won't even get you looked at, as the agency is not permitted to hire from the outside. It isn't a matter of preference. It's a matter of law. The agency does not have permission to hire from outside.

When an agency does hire from the outside, the process is pretty rigorous. They post a job online, usually with a very short window for accepting resumes, and they then get absolutely inundated with applications. They then keep the posting open until they receive enough resumes, at which point they close it. Sometimes this can take as little as 24 hours.

The resumes then go to some bureaucratic flunky who has no real knowledge of the position who checks off requirements on applications. Anything that is even slightly off of the stated requirements gets chucked. Why? Because federal law mandates that when an agency decides to interview someone for a position, they have to interview all potential candidates. This is why knowing someone really, really doesn't matter for non-political appointments. The flunky will thin the pool by talismanically checking off boxes. Then they will send out a survey to the remaining applicants asking them for more specific information. Questions not answered by basically regurgitating the question with exactly the right wording are chucked. The survivors get interviews.

From there the hiring process is pretty normal. Interviews are conducted and the person they like the most gets hired. But by that point, everyone interviewing is already pretty much guaranteed to be qualified, so it doesn't matter much who gets it.

But the idea that you can somehow game the federal system to get a job by knowing people on the inside is just flat out wrong. The system is designed in such a way that hiring based on personal networks is highly illegal.

As far as getting a job with the feds, you basically have to wait until a public non-status position comes up and then apply immediately. Most agencies' websites will allow you to set up an email notification as soon as this happens. You just gotta keep applying and cross your fingers.
posted by valkyryn at 4:22 AM on March 15, 2009 [20 favorites]

Are you applying through USA Jobs? If not, you are probably wasting your time. That is the official federal job portal for most federal jobs. If you apply in the manner specified, you should get a letter in response. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's required. But if you are not using USA Jobs, then you are indeed tossing it into a black hole. And don't trust what any local employment agencies may tell you. They are clueless when it come to federal employment. (I once had one tell me I had to join the military to get a civilian job I was applying for!)

Many federal jobs - and more all the time - only accept applications and resumes through the USA Jobs online system. Search for jobs that are open to the public, and apply. BIG HINT: Apply for ANY job you might be qualified for, even marginally. Don't look for your perfect job. Even a starting federal job often pays more and is better than a similar private sector job. And don't be put off by bureaucratic language that makes things sound more difficult than they are. ("Must be proficient in MS Office." Well, if you know the basics, but don't consider yourself "proficient" don't let that scare you!)

The object is to get to the interview stage, then get the job, even if it's not a great one. Because once you are in, and past your probationary period, you can apply for the inside jobs.

As alluded to above, it can indeed be helpful to know the "selecting official" if your app gets that far. That's true of any job. But in reality, that's probably not going to be the case. So the best way to improve your odds is to answer all the questions accurately and with as much detail as possible. DO NOT FORGET VOLUNTEER OR HOBBY EXPERIENCE if asked about your skill in a certain area. For example, if one of the required skills ability to lead a team, don't disqualify yourself just because you haven't done it on a job. Think of times you may have done that for volunteer groups or school. Phrase in a way that gives solid details, but don't lie about it. "I lead a group of 10 volunteers in researching, choosing and implementing the most efficient method of marketing organization goals." Remember to add successful results. "This resulted in a successful campaign to raise awareness, including increased donations, and lower costs by partnering with local media, including radio, television, and newspapers, to help spread our message."

So, use USA Jobs, take your time, be persistent in filling out apps, and keep at it. Good luck.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 5:14 AM on March 15, 2009 [6 favorites]

Unless things have changed you need to fill out very specific federal applications for federal jobs, resumes just don't cut it. Veteran points will almost always assure you a job so if you've served then make sure you show that on the apps.
posted by JJ86 at 6:29 AM on March 15, 2009

Valkyrn is right about the federal prohibtions regarding hiring based on schmoozing, but presents a too-cynical view of the application vetting process. All applications do go to that office's HR/personnel shop, just as they would in any similar private organization. That shop makes an initial cut, based on criteria developed by the office with the vacancy. The critical thing here is the willingess and the ability of the hiring office to accurately specify those criteria. So, if they want someone who can generate and populate 6 Excel spreadsheets an hour, but only list "MS Office experience" as a criteria, they are only wasting everyone's time.

Frequently, the HR shop will send the hiring office a stack of applications that made it through the cut and ask that office to select who they want to interview. (Note that they don't have to interview all applicants, otherwise many offices would need to interview hundreds if not thousands of people.)

The process is bureaucratic and, if a security clearance is required, can take a very long time. Applicants won't have much success calling the hiring office to find out what's going on (they really don't want to talk to you unless you're in for an interview), but the HR office may often give you a status check. Don't expect anyone, however, to tell you anything someone else could perceive as giving you an advantage in the competition.
posted by justcorbly at 6:36 AM on March 15, 2009

Re: 3386 on resumes -- Yes. If you send a resume to the office with the vacancy, at best they will send it back and tell you to complete the required application. Very likely they will just trash it.
posted by justcorbly at 6:38 AM on March 15, 2009

My federal job application process worked nothing like the way Valkyryn described. I didn't have to fill out any additional form; I sent in my resume and was called in after a few weeks for an interview and then never heard back from them again. However, I was applying for a job as an attorney for an agency, and the political appointee involved, in retrospect, probably just wanted to get rid of me ASAP a la Monica Goodling. (I had worked for the agency's harshest critic...)
posted by footnote at 7:12 AM on March 15, 2009

Knowing someone at the agency can be helpful if/when you make it through the initial screens. In at least one of the jobs I applied for, the guy who was going to be doing the hiring claimed to have never met anyone from the office that does the initial screen. This separation of powers serves, I suppose, to ensure that even if a selecting official ends up hiring his cousin's brother-in-law, the new employee has been judged by a third party as having met some minimum qualification.

Depending on what you're applying for, I'd suggest looking for entry level/"internship" positions. In a low cost of living midwestern locale, for instance, I found an "internship" that starts in the high 30ks and assuming you met certain review standards, the pay rises to the mid 50ks in two years. You have the added advantage of not having to compete with current government employees. Or at least not as many of them.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 7:49 AM on March 15, 2009

Nthing valkyryn and Fuzzy Skinner. Apply for everything and don't give up. Some of the hoops you're going to have to jump through will seem bizarre. Some agencies are really might need to print things out and actually mail them.

Do not pay anyone, ever, for lists of Federal jobs! USA jobs is it.

It took me a really, really long time to get in but I'm glad I did. Not just for the job security either, but that's really nice these days.
posted by JoanArkham at 8:16 AM on March 15, 2009

Re: Footnote -- The vast majority of federal government jobs are Civil Service positions. A very small number of non-Civil Service jobs in some agencies fall under the purview of the political appointee heading the agency. The ratio is probably something like a few million to a few thousand, if that many.
posted by justcorbly at 8:28 AM on March 15, 2009

The object is to get to the interview stage, then get the job, even if it's not a great one. Because once you are in, and past your probationary period, you can apply for the inside jobs.

Good advice. I've seen it used very often. A guy I know worked for a contractor and was contractually prohibited from working at the contract agency for one year. He basically had a really sweet gig lined up inside the agency, but had to apply for and take some completely unrelated job for a year before he could take the good job.

(Or, stay in state government. In my state, for example, there are a couple of different unions that employees are represented by. The "regulars" are AFSCME, people who work for IDOT are Teamsters, and (I believe) some of the IT people are actually IBEW. After an agency realignment, they ended up with a situation where there were IT people doing the same jobs but represented by different unions. The AFSCME and Teamster people were making literally HALF of what the IBEW people were making. So, find out the nitty gritties of your state's details and see if you can weasel into a gig that has more bang for the buck.)

(Federal political considerations are possible for certain jobs, but you really can't know that from the outside. And you may not want to work for a department that makes that a part of the employment decisions- their priorities are out of whack and it probably wouldn't be a pleasant workplace. On the other hand, other agencies are great. I know a guy who worked for a fed agency. Started with a low salary, worked the system and ended up making nearly six figures. He was in a HIGHLY politically relevant position, but that wasn't an employment factor. Just a hassle...

And the nice thing about working for the feds is that the rules, while Byzantine, are spelled out and if you learn them and work the system, it can end up working out very nicely.)
posted by gjc at 8:29 AM on March 15, 2009

The vast majority of federal government jobs are Civil Service positions. A very small number of non-Civil Service jobs in some agencies fall under the purview of the political appointee heading the agency.

Yes but, the job I was applying for was a civil service job. It probably had a much smaller applicant pool and more contact with the political appointee than most civil service jobs would have, but this still doesn't justify the interference by the political appointee that may have happened during the process.
posted by footnote at 8:31 AM on March 15, 2009

Fuzzy Skinner has it. Typically you have to apply through USAJOBS, and just sending your resume won't cut it. However, the process of an office being allowed to post jobs can be kind of separated from the part where they're then given money and permission to actually hire, so in the past lots of jobs have been posted but never filled. When you do your application on USAJOBS, make sure you pay special attention to the KSAs and make sure your answers match them as much as possible.

All these applications will be processed by some office far away from the one with the job. However, qualified candidates' information will then often be forwarded to the work office to make a decision. So yeah, knowing someone probably can sometimes help, if you get that far and they can identify your info. My office often doesn't even interview, though - for some jobs they just look at the packets and decide.

And it can still be many months between the closing date of a posting and when you're contacted to ask if you're still interested and if you could fill out some more forms. As to the background check, if you get that far you're pretty much in, I think. It's a separate batch of paperwork and you get that later - it's not part of the application process.
posted by dilettante at 9:11 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been *asked* to apply for jobs and then not made it to the interview stage, simply because I filled out the form in such a way that the faceless HR bureaucrat weeding through all the applications thought I didn't qualify, even though I did. It's very frustrating as an applicant. You need to know that the first cut is made by people who may not have the slightest understanding of the job or why you would qualify or not qualify.

It's also frustrating as the person seeking to hire. When I've wanted to hire someone, I've learned to write the job description with the help of an experienced Administrative Officer to make sure I carefully list the qualifications in a way that will elicit the correct response in you, the applicant, so that the faceless HR bureacrat will clearly see that you qualify.

You need to read the job description very carefully to see a) the traps that have been written into it to keep out certain types of applicants or b) the inadvertant landmines the careless potential employer put in without realizing that the wording would cause the hapless faceless HR bureaucrat to disqualify exactly the people the employer actually wanted.
posted by acrasis at 10:55 AM on March 15, 2009

Adding on...

Fedweek is a great resource for current and potential federal employees. Their Career Section is worth checking out.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 11:04 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah - it's never a bad idea to network just as long as you don't try to get around federal hiring rules. For example, you can meet with someone to explain what it is you can do and ask what it is they are looking for to see if there are any positions you may be suited for. You can ask for advice on navigating the HR quagmire, etc.
posted by Pants! at 11:27 AM on March 15, 2009

...job I was applying for was a civil service job.... doesn't justify the interference by the political appointee that may have happened during the process.

No, it doesn't, if that's what happened.
posted by justcorbly at 12:52 PM on March 15, 2009

If you know somebody, and that person is the person who comes up with the keywords that the auto-resume-search uses to compile the first stack of possibilities, AND you know some of the people who get calls when non-technical HR drone isn't sure what something means, especially if those people have seen your resume ahead of time, you have a better equal chance than most.

And that's all I'll say about that. Do your networking, even for government jobs.
posted by ctmf at 1:13 PM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am a Federal employee. I have hired people through the process as a supervisor but am not doing that now. Here's the advice I would give you just based on my experience: yes, go through USAJobs. Read the qualifications very carefully and make sure your résumé addresses every single qualification. As someone stated above, your application is usually read by someone in the HR department who has no direct knowledge of the job qualifications. They are basically going down a checklist of qualifications to see who rates the highest and rate job seekers in order of preference. In my agency we were usually sent the top 3-5 applications.

Veterans do get bonus points that might increase their rating but that doesn't assure them of a job or of an interview.

Also, it is a known issue that applicants often never hear from hiring agencies. If memory serves me there was recently an article in the Washington Post about it. The Fed government hiring process isn't perfect. But they seem committed to working on that.

Even a starting federal job often pays more and is better than a similar private sector job.

Fuzzy Skinner, you're kidding, right? Federal jobs are usually lower paying and the government is trying to address that in order not to suffer brain drain.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 1:32 PM on March 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

p.s. Even if your networking doesn't help you get the interview or the job (which I say it can, if indirectly), it can definitely help you with knowing what's going on - what stage in the process they're in, how many candidates they're looking for, etc. The system itself does not notify candidates of anything, but individual people are often not prohibited from doing that on their own.

A friend in the right place may even be able to give you some advice in the initial stages on how exactly your experience translates to key words and tricky phrases being used for screening. It's not cheating if you really do have the skills and experience you claim. It's just using all the resources and advantages available to you, and it would be foolish not to do that.
posted by ctmf at 1:48 PM on March 15, 2009

Note that I tagged this question with so I am aware of the need to use the official site. When I say sending in a resume, I mean filing the information requested in the manner requested on the official website. I am already employed in state government so I know that government doesn't hire from resumes. I guess I chose the wrong word. Sorry.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:42 PM on March 15, 2009

Even a starting federal job often pays more and is better than a similar private sector job.
Fuzzy Skinner, you're kidding, right? Federal jobs are usually lower paying and the government is trying to address that in order not to suffer brain drain.

Well, actually you do make a good point. In many areas, federal pay lags so far behind that It does depend on the job and the location. For example, although national average salary for, say, a civil engineer may be much higher in the private sector, I know that federally employed engineers make quite a but more, with better benefits, than their counterparts in my local area. So, you do have to do your homework.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 3:37 PM on March 15, 2009

Foam Pants, when I said talismanic, I really meant it. Putting something which is materially equivalent to the listed requirements which does not use the precise language in the posting will get you automatically dinged by HR, because you didn't say exactly what the job posting asked for. Because the people making these cuts usually have no knowledge of what the people actually doing the hiring are looking for, they're very, very mechanical about it.

HR does this because it's their job to send a specified, small number of resumes on to be interviewed. If you aren't in the top five (or whatever) most "qualified" people applying for the job, you probably won't get any response whatsoever, and "qualified" is determined by HR people basically checking off little boxes. It's just that arbitrary. And because federal positions are usually highly desirable--good job stability, fantastic benefits, better pay and prestige than state government positions, etc.--there are usually a ton of qualified people who apply for each and every posting.
posted by valkyryn at 3:59 PM on March 15, 2009

or example, you can meet with someone to explain what it is you can do and ask what it is they are looking for to see if there are any positions you may be suited for.

Yes, but just don't offer to buy them a beer or a cup of coffee, or they will freak out and say they have to ask their agency ethics officer if they're allowed.
posted by footnote at 6:26 PM on March 15, 2009

Anecdotal, but the first two federal jobs I was hired for (in 2009) were both due in large part to personal networks.
posted by dead_ at 11:47 PM on April 11, 2009

« Older A complete MAT acceptance list eludes me.   |   Any survival tips for a non-Spanish speaker going... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.