To qualifty for a GS-13
June 6, 2014 1:46 PM   Subscribe

Looking for advice on obtaining employment with the federal government.

I currently live and work in DC. I am looking for a new job and would like to also explore my options within the federal government. I am aware of, but struggle with determining whether I am actually qualified for jobs that I am interested in. For example, how does one go about determining their GS Level? I have been working for a trade association for about 7 years. Is that a GS-09? GS-11?

Would appreciate any advice you may have.
posted by gagoumot to Work & Money (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Have you searched for specific jobs, or just looked at the overall list of available stuff? I was looking on USAjobs too recently and the positions I was interested in had pretty explicit explanations for what experience counted for each GS level, in terms of years of experience, schooling, ability, etc, but it wasn't obvious unless I clicked through to the individual job posting.
posted by dorque at 1:48 PM on June 6, 2014

I think that your GS level should be indicated on your pay stubs. If it is not, just contact the HR department or person at your trade association - they'll be able to tell you your current GS level.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 1:51 PM on June 6, 2014

Oh, wait. Are you not currently a federal employee? If you aren't, have a look at this.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 1:53 PM on June 6, 2014

It sounds to me like you are saying you have a civilian job and you are trying to determine what GS level would be the equivalent? Because if you do not have a federal job, you do not have a GS level. Period. It is an internal thing, like rank in the army. Your civilian job would not translate as a particular rank in the army and it does not translate as a particular GS level in the federal government.

Very high ranking federal jobs often require that you get promoted internally. So even if you are doing work equivalent to a GS-13, you may have to go in at a lower level and work your way up.

(I have a close relative with a high GS level and other relatives who were career military.)
posted by Michele in California at 1:55 PM on June 6, 2014

I work for the federal government. Much differs in the federal hiring process based on series and agency but there are basic general guidelines. Since you are coming from outside government, you may find this helpful from OPM and this is a simple and pretty accurate chart. As a basic rule of thumb, I expect that most of my candidates from outside government will have bachelor's degrees plus numerous years of experience to qualify at anything above a GS-7. Folks with bachelor's degrees and experience can qualify for 7s and 9s, masters degrees for 9s and some 11s, doctoral degrees for 11s and 12s. 13s and above require degrees and specialized experience.

It would help us some if you gave us a sense of what kind of agencies you're interested in, what your background is (education/experience), and what kinds of jobs you're looking at.
posted by arnicae at 1:56 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

By the way, spend the time to make USAJobs your new best friend. It is complicated, confusing and often internally conflicts with itself but it is your friend. Every job you're interested in will be there. Decoding USAJobs (and making sure that every single element of your application is in perfect order with nothing missing, misspelled or incomplete) is essential to your success getting a federal job.

Also, being relentlessly patient. Everything will take weeks or months (and occasionally years) longer than you expected it would. Be relentlessly patient not only with the system but also with the HR folks and hiring managers that you interact with. Remain aware that they are struggling with and challenged by the same system that you're finding complicated and slow. As frustrating as it can be, remain optimistic and recognize that they are feeling the same frustration from the other side of the table. (Also, word gets around - it will do you no good at all to vent your frustration with an employee of the agency you're interested in, and every bit of good to display understanding and empathy even in trying circumstances)
posted by arnicae at 2:01 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

arnicae's rule of thumb is about what I've always been told, growing up near DC. With the downturn in the economy it seems like more experience is required than used to be but I think it's still fairly accurate.
posted by brilliantine at 2:01 PM on June 6, 2014

With the downturn in the economy

Oh, yes - I don't mean to in any way discourage you but hiring is waaaay down across government. And my agency is undergoing restructuring in many units which results in displaced employees who get first preference for vacancies. So unless you have a particularly unusual skillset that some of those displaced employees may not have you may have a tougher time.

On the other hand, we're also seeing a historic rate of retirements. So we are still posting a lot of vacancies!
posted by arnicae at 2:09 PM on June 6, 2014

Thanks for the feedback. Yes, I am currently employed in at a trade association (non-profit, non-governmental). I recognize that I don't have a GS-level right now, but was curious what my current level of experience would equate to so that I knew I was spending time looking at the right types of jobs. I was wondering if the length of time I worked was also factored in, but it appears from the responses received that might not be the case, which is disappointing.

My background is working for a trade association focusing on pharmaceuticals and vaccines for animals. I work in Regulatory Affairs but also manage several IT/Business-related Projects for the industry I represent. Ideally I would like to work for the USDA or the FDA. I have a bachelor’s of science degree.
posted by gagoumot at 2:13 PM on June 6, 2014

I have a relative who has a high GS level. Said relative worked for the government for many years then took a few years off. When said relative went back to work for the government, they first took a contract position a little below their old GS level. I think the contract position turned into a permanent position and they fairly quickly worked their way back up to their old high GS level and I think they are even higher now, iirc.

So you might try looking for contract positions. I guess it is kind of the federal government version of doing temp work to get your foot in the door and prove yourself.
posted by Michele in California at 2:40 PM on June 6, 2014

I work for one of the departments you're interested in. Bachelor's degree plus seven years of experience in your field - you're looking at GS-5, 7 and the veeeeery occasional 9. Focus on GS-5s and 7s.
posted by arnicae at 2:53 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

So you might try looking for contract positions. I guess it is kind of the federal government version of doing temp work to get your foot in the door and prove yourself.

Michele in California's got it in one. Finding some sort of way to become a known quantity in the areas you're interested in is another important element of being successful in federal job hunts. For sure when you apply for a job call the hiring manager (do sleuthing if necessary, talk to the hiring manager NOT HR), better yet have an "informational interview" with them in person.

For the best results, start having projects that bring you into the spheres of the offices in which you may be working. Be aware that no matter how much the hiring manager likes you, they can't just stick you in a job you don't qualify for (so they can't put you in as a GS-13, for example, if you only qualify for a 12). So, focus on what is achievable. Also consider getting a graduate degree and applying for positions through the Pathways program. There are some awesome programs there that give you a real "leg up" for a career in federal service.
posted by arnicae at 3:10 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's generally a LOT easier to get hired as a contractor than as a federal employee. Many agencies have hiring restrictions right now, but that doesn't mean they don't still need to do the work--so they may end up hiring contractors instead of federal employees (the money comes from a different budget item and they get to say they're not hiring, it's a political thing).

I'm a federal contractor: I sit in a federal office and do basically the same work as my GS colleagues, although of course I don't have the stability of a federal position. But my base salary is probably higher than it would be as a government employee.

As noted above, the benefits to this are obvious: if they like you as a contractor, you've got a better shot of being hired as a regular government employee, all else being equal. And even if you can't get hired into the job you're actually doing as a contractor, it's still useful government experience. Agency systems are bureaucratic and baroque, and having experience navigating them can be a big plus on your resume.

There are veterans' preferences in federal hiring, which may or may not come into play depending on the positions and the agencies you might be considering.
posted by suelac at 3:37 PM on June 6, 2014

Grade levels and the qualifications required for each grade level will vary by job series. You need to identify the job series in which you are interested, and research the standards for those jobs. Every job series has a four digit identifier, and the jobs are grouped by type. For example, everything in the 0900 series is Legal - attorneys, paralegals, judges, etc. In the 0900 series, people fresh out of law school are hired as GS-9s at most agencies, or GS-11 with certain special qualifications, such as being in the top 10% of their class. Generally, an attorney would be promoted fairly quickly (one grade per year) until reaching the GS-13 level - which is considered the journeyman grade for attorneys. The job series into which your skill set fits will be different, but this may give you some idea of where a GS -13 falls.

For a non-professional job series (and here I am using "professional" in the strictest, traditional sense of the word to mean jobs that require specific advanced degrees or professional certifications like doctors, lawyers and scientists), GS-13 is fairly senior, particularly outside of Washington D.C. Since you are at a trade organization, I assume you are in the DC area, since most are based here. I'm unclear on what skills you might have from working in "regulatory affairs," but you might want to look at the General Management series (0300), which is where generic "management analyst" jobs are found. Of course, if you have a more specific technical background you should research those series as well.

The advice about looking for jobs with contractors is excellent. Several of my non-legal coworkers started as contract employees with one of our principle contractors. Find out who has large contracts with FDA and USDA, and see if they are hiring.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 4:10 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Basically, the way it works is HR has to send the office that requests a job opening the names of the three most “qualified” candidates after factoring in veterans preference. The requesting office then has the ability to choose any of these three to interview or hire. (The process may vary depending on the type of “cert” used to request the opening).

As mentioned above, graduate level education will get you a GS-9 or 11 depending on the field. X years of experience doing something very similar to the job you are applying for might get you GS-12 or it might not. Coming in at GS-13 is going to be tough. Even PhDs generally start at GS-11 or 12.

In my experience, government HR people don’t have a good grasp on what is equivalent to a GS position in the private sector. The problem is that HR officers are not trained in the technical nuances enough to understand why your experience is the equivalent to what they are looking for. All they know is that your previous job titles don’t match what OPM says should be the prerequisite for a particular job. That will get you bumped off the list even when it's essentially the same work.

The other thing that adds to the level of difficulty is veterans preference. Because of the last decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are a metric shitload of people with service connected disabilities. All things being equal, they will bump you off the list entirely even if HR determines you are qualified.

I would advise you to shoot for something in the GS-7-9 range to get your foot in the door. Once you become a “status candidate” (after 3 years, I think?) the process becomes somewhat easier.
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 7:38 PM on June 6, 2014

And here's another fun thing about federal hiring: it differs by department and agency. For example, this:

Basically, the way it works is HR has to send the office that requests a job opening the names of the three most “qualified” candidates after factoring in veterans preference. The requesting office then has the ability to choose any of these three to interview or hire. (The process may vary depending on the type of “cert” used to request the opening).

Is not true in my Department. After the position closes, as a hiring manager I request that HR send me my cert (and usually there are more than one - I get a separate cert for each grade, if it is a ladder or career-graded position and a separate cert for Merit [internal] and Demo [external]. So if I flew a 12/13 and did Demo and Merit, I'd get four certs. Not every applicant would be on my cert. HR roughly weeds out those that don't qualify at their most basic - Merit candidates who don't have the time in grade at and 11 to qualify for a 12, people who did not meet the standard on the qualification questions, etc. But my certs usually run about a dozen people each. I had a cert last fall for an entry level role in a desirable city and with all the certs ended up with 200+ people. Making the cert is certainly a hurdle to pass, but it isn't an extraordinarily big hurdle.

In my experience, government HR people don’t have a good grasp on what is equivalent to a GS position in the private sector

Totally true. Each of your applications should be carefully tailored to make it clear how your previous role perfect prepares you for the role you're after. You should be spending a LOT of time on each of them.

. . . The other thing that adds to the level of difficulty is veterans preference . . .

QFT. See my previous suggestions about patience and creativity.
posted by arnicae at 5:37 AM on June 7, 2014

You can specify what you want on the cert. You can get all the candidates, or you can ask for the top three. It's much more elastic than it was in the old days, when you got one cert and you got the top three candidates, and you had to hire from those top three. Now you can hire from below the top three, but you have to have a compelling reason. I've done a few panels in the last couple of years, and what was posted above about veterans' preference is true. The top spots on the cert are often taken up by folks who don't necessarily have the specialty qualifications, but do have veterans' preference - and not just 5 or 10 point preference, but 20 or 30 points. And that trend will only grow as the military force shrinks.

The HR process has gotten more streamlined (believe it or not) since I started my federal service (a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away). The old rules were designed to prevent cronyism, and were very effective at that. The relaxation of the hiring process means some shenanigans have crept back in, but it's a decent trade off if you can fill a position in three months instead of two years.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 10:00 PM on June 7, 2014

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