I'm DESPERATE--HOW do fed employees get interviews?
May 18, 2015 9:30 PM   Subscribe

I am desperate for answers at this point. I've paid nearly a thousand dollars to have my resume customized for the [AWFUL] USAJobs website. I have worked in the federal government for ten years now, for two different agencies. But I have been absolutely STALLED the past 2.5 years in a job from hell. (I am currently in an organization in which EVERYONE is jumping ship, literally every week someone else has gotten a job. It feels like we are on the Titanic. We were basically told the organization has no future and if we want any type of promotion, we will need to find new jobs. Hence, people are swimming away for dear life. The rest of us are DYING here!) This question is for anyone who is familiar with the USAJobs website and has obtained some measure of success with utilizing it in your career.

I have tried EVERYTHING to get out. Beyond getting my resume done, I've taken classes, tapped into contacts, you name it. Still, I remain confused at why I have not been able to get even interviewed. I am at my wit's end. I'm not eating, barely sleeping, my head is itching like crazy in stress spots. I'm just so CONFUSED about why I can't get any headway.
If you are familiar with the federal government application process and have obtained success with getting interviews, specifically through the USAJobs website, please provide insight on the following:

1) Do you submit the Uploaded Resume or an attached resume for most jobs?

2) Do you go back and upload different information in your saved Uploaded Resume for each job you apply for?

3) How far back do you go with listing your jobs? Do you only list the jobs relevant to the job you are applying for or do you keep every job you've had on every resume for every job?

4) What do you do to make your resume stand out? Do you add a cover letter for each job?

Anything else you can add to help me better understand this process and get better results?

posted by GeniPalm to Work & Money (23 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I can't answer any of your questions, and I know this won't make you feel better, but I do know that - working for the federal government - our Human Resources Department is agonizingly slow. I mean, ridiculously slow. At times it's taken almost a year to hire someone onto our department. I can only imagine that other fed gov HR departments are equally as slow. No matter the application, the resume, or the person applying . . . for us it's always an extremely lengthy and slow process. I'm actually surprised anyone ever gets hired because the wait times are so long.
posted by canda at 10:13 PM on May 18, 2015

If you're desperate, are you applying for jobs outside of government? If it's anything like the UK government you're relying on the most opaque, frustrating and time consuming application process you could possibly choose.

Time to look at the private sector?
posted by dvrmmr at 10:42 PM on May 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

Seconding the sentiment that USAJobs is notoriously slow. There is also a preference for veterans, so if two people apply with the same qualifications and one of them is a veteran, the veteran is more likely to get the call. Sometimes postings also get removed months after they have been posted.

Eat something, get some sleep, and start using USAJobs as your backup job search tool instead of your primary one.
posted by donut_princess at 3:57 AM on May 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

USAJobs IS awful. I ended up getting a job I was pretty overqualified for, and I got through the initial round of HR one or two other times. It was a grueling process. The initial round of selection is all done by computer, as I understand it, so make sure you have basically all the words from the initial posting. What I ended up doing was having a giant master resume that had every framing of every skillset for every job, and then I always uploaded a custom (fill out the form) resume for each application with custom skills under each job. It took FOREVER, and I didn't include a cover letter.

But I wasn't very successful either.

For all their alleged attempts to make it transparent it was always an extremely opaque process to me. Good luck.
posted by ropeladder at 5:45 AM on May 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

1. Use the resume building feature of USAJobs. Last time I looked, you could have at least 3 versions. Send one of those through.

2. When you look at a new job posting, pay particular attention to the qualifications, "how you will be evaluated," and the occupational assesmemt questions. The HR person on the other end needs to be able to find as many of those items in your resume as possible. The HR person may also dictate your initial pay grade based on your resume content.

3. List everything. I just kept building it out with qualifications too.

4. DO NOT BE HUMBLE WHEN ANSWERING THE ASSESSMENT QUESTIONS. (But don't lie!) This is to help get your resume through to the "best qualified" list, which will put your resume in front of the hiring manager.
posted by zennie at 6:05 AM on May 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

Despite all the bureaucracy designed to make the playing field level, the selection for some* fed jobs are done independently/informally, and the formal hiring process is just done because the hiring manager is required to jump through those hoops. In some* cases, the posting is tailored to fit the preselected hire. When one hiring manager explained this to me, I said, "Well, that's great, but at least the formal hiring process will sometimes turn up someone who's even better qualified than the person you wanted." He explained that if that happened, they'd just withdraw the listing and repost, and repeat as necessary until they were able to hire the person they wanted.

So the standard job application advice applies here: to the extent possible, try to get around HR. Network, which means not only talking to people you already know, as you are doing, but also by contacting managers in places you want to work, even if they don't have active job listings. (The more specific your skills, the more useful this would be. If you're an expert on Ecuadorian toad management in disaster areas, then other people who work in that field would probably be happy to talk with you. If you're a contract manager, I'd guess that won't work as well.)

*I don't know what some means. This applies to my limited knowledge of a specific field and a few agencies. The federal government is a big place, and I don't know how things work in the other 99.9 percent of places.

Good luck.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:31 AM on May 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

I met with a federal government recruiter, and his advice was basically that USAJobs sucks and the way to get a job is networking, just like in the private sector. So keep reaching out to those contacts. You do have a leg up with already being employed in the federal government -- definitely prioritize those jobs that are reserved for current federal employees. And finally, set up an alert that pings you every day with the new jobs that fit your search criteria -- many are only open for a day or two, or a week at most, these days just because there is so much interest.
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:58 AM on May 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

It's my impression that the majority of jobs are not posted with any candidate in mind. But even if there is someone in mind, the candidate still has to get their resume through HR selection. Networking can only get you so far.
posted by zennie at 7:17 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

With USAjobs, you actually dont' want your resume to stand out - they have automated sifters for the first run-through. Use the keywords that are in the job request and don't get fancy.
posted by corb at 7:18 AM on May 19, 2015

also yeah - are you a veteran? If so, I have some more specific advice, if not you're probably being beaten out by the horde of veterans recently unemployed and using their preference.
posted by corb at 7:19 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

The initial round of selection is all done by computer, as I understand it, so make sure you have basically all the words from the initial posting.

This is sort of true. It used to be that your resume was fed into a system that searched for keywords and the top X resumes according to keywords would get an interview. You'd also sometimes see Knowledge Skills and Abilities screenings (KSAs) where you'd report whether you had certain skills or not.

The jobs I've applied for (and interviewed for, and even been hired on occaision) have lately had sets of questions where you rate your skills on a "never heard of it" to "I'm an expert" scale. If you claim to be an expert or really good at something, you need to point to it in your resume. So if you absolutely want a job, it's worth spending the time to write your resume to the questions. And you want to claim "expert" on anything that isn't a complete lie. Beacuse everyone else is doing it.

Anyway, I do not use the USAJobs resume builder, but my resume is formatted the same way.

I definately do change my resume depending on the job I'm applying for (which is why I keep my own resume rather than using the USAJobs builder, I can have several resumes out at a given time and never have to worry about running out of space for resumes).

I keep all my federal jobs and a couple of relevant private sector jobs on my resume. Some are just a job title and a single line of explanation though.

I do not add a cover letter because it's not really supposed to be used in determining who interviews. I am considering changing this strategy though. I get the sense that hiring committees in distant regions are hesitant to interview long distance applicants because there's a diminished chance the applicant will pan out even if offered the job. They'll have plenty of local people to choose from and can come up with many reasons to chuck a paticular applicant. I'm going to begin including a cover letter for the same reason you'd include them on a private sector application: to indicate that I'm not just spamming resumes at every job (even when I am).

Are you willing to move? Are you willing to change job series? Look specifically for announcements for more than one vacancy (few, several, or even many) as those are your best bet for getting past the "Oh, Mary's nephew would be great for this job. He went to college!" factor.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 7:23 AM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

So as far as I know from my experience (8 yr fed whose applied to a few jobs), it's really the questions in the application that are most important. They should point to things that are on your resume but make sure the answer the question thoroughly.

I'm not sure I've heard of a situation where networking helped at all. Once we put a job out there, HR from a different bureau actually does the initial round of yes or nos. I think this is specifically in place so no one can say favoritism occurred.

If you want help with a specific job, I am more than willing to review your answers, just memail me. Good luck!
posted by whitetigereyes at 7:51 AM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure I've heard of a situation where networking helped at all. Once we put a job out there, HR from a different bureau actually does the initial round of yes or nos. I think this is specifically in place so no one can say favoritism occurred.

Yeah, you have to get through this barrier, but then all the resulting resumes come "in-house" for evalaution/interviews and eventual hiring. This is when Mary's nephew who went to college gets hired. Or if he doesn't make it through, they cancel the announcement and reissue it on Friday night (or Christmas Eve! I've seen it!) closing the next day to make sure Mary's nephew who went to college gets spit out of the CPOC (or equivalent) process.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 8:12 AM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

4. DO NOT BE HUMBLE WHEN ANSWERING THE ASSESSMENT QUESTIONS. (But don't lie!) This is to help get your resume through to the "best qualified" list, which will put your resume in front of the hiring manager.

This really bears repeating. I work in state government, not federal, but we have similar assessment questions. My mom and my stepfather had the exact same job, knowledge, and skillset, and they both took an assessment questionnaire for the classification above theirs. My mom is a positive thinker and has amazing self-esteem, and my stepfather is an unfailingly honest and humble man. Which is why mom ranked 1 on the assessment and my stepfather ranked 5.

So when I have friends who are about to take an assessment I tell them to answer it as though they were the best and brightest version of themselves possible, taking into consideration every bit of potential they have and removing every negative self perception from their mind. Don't answer it as who you think you are, answer it as who Mr. Rogers thinks you are.
posted by elsietheeel at 8:38 AM on May 19, 2015 [12 favorites]

Best answer: ALWAYS tailor your USAJobs resume for the specific position. This is what I did on my last round:

-- Copy the job announcement/position descriptions/questions into a text file. Highlight every buzz word in it: "managed" "cost estimates" "reviewed" "supervised" "ArgleBlargle Software" "Jabberwock Application" etc.

-- Pull up a copy of your resume & save it as that position-name on your hard drive. Now go through the last 2-3 jobs and insert every single highlighted phrase from the position description. They all must be in there, but not necessarily all in the one place. This will (hopefully) get you through the automated screening.

-- The next part depends on the questions. If it's just questions with radio buttons, ranking your experience 1-5, you should know that nearly EVERYBODY lies on these. (Unless it's a low-ranking position, like a GS-5 or something, in which case they don't want an expert and would down-score you for that.)

-- You know about veterans preferences, right? One reason you're not getting picked may be that you're competing with veterans and even as a federal employee you're losing out to veterans. The veterans automatically go to the top of the pool so the only way to make the short list with them is to score perfectly on the questions. (And yes, the veterans lie too. Pretty much everybody lies, or at least exaggerates.)

-- Some agencies will require you to substantiate your responses by referencing which position gave you that experience, which I think is very helpful.

-- If the agency is using essay questions, again: use the buzzwords from the position description and the questions in your answers.

-- Try to focus on positions which are ONLY open to federal employees, which might decrease the field of possible competitors.

In conclusion: TAILOR your resume & your answers. Assume that everyone you're competing with is exaggerating their experience. Apply for positions only open to other federal employees.

Also, you know about Federal Soup, right? It's a forum for federal employees. If you ignore the perpetual flamewar about veteran preferences, there's some useful support/information there.

As for networking, I have failed to be hired for the job I've done for the last 7 years: networking only gets you so far. The agency hiring manager has to understand and be able to navigate the process, to get to someone specific, and few of them are capable of it. In the last 7 years, I have not seen my agency hire anyone who was not either a veteran or someone from another federal agency. It's just too hard to justify not hiring a veteran, and they don't want to bother. (In order to pick a civilian over an equally-qualified veteran, the hiring manager has to go pretty far up the chain of command for approval, and they don't like to do that.)
posted by suelac at 9:34 AM on May 19, 2015 [16 favorites]

Just nthing the veteran thing - a coworker who just came from the federal government said that they had been trying to hire someone qualified for YEARS because the top X resumes were all (unqualified) veterans that had certain key words in their applications.
posted by Pax at 10:07 AM on May 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

USAjobs is positively awful. In all my job searches I have never had any interviews come from there. Have you considered working for a contractor? Most of my jobs have been on federal Government contracts at private sector companies.
posted by tckma at 10:55 AM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Couple of things from a 25-year fed, who has worked in four different job series:

suelac's advice is the most thorough, although several others provided sound advice.

Get over the idea that a concise resume is a good resume. There is a limit to length, but it's ridiculously long. A five-page resume that captures the right things is a good thing.

Look at the KSAs (Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities). Those have been mentioned or alluded to in other posts, and are listed in numbered format on the announcement. Yes, for many positions, you can address the KSAs by simply answering the online questions. HOWEVER, it is also good to include a narrative statement that addresses each one of those KSAs. So, if the KSA is "Ability to give oral presentations and training to large groups," you would describe the past experience (one really good example, or several lesser examples) that gave you that ability. You would identify the job, and the years in which you demonstrated that skill. The way I do this is by restating each KSA, and then providing the narrative. You want to be as clear as possible that the narrative is addressing that specific skill. You can add this to the end of your resume.

Finally, yes, you are competing in a very tough environment right now. I've on a few selection panels over the last couple of years for GS-13/14 level jobs. The certs (list of candidates who have been rated qualified) are filled with people with Veteran's Preference. In fact, the high three (top three candidates) are almost always vets. You could score as highly qualified in the assessment process, but a vet whose application only puts him in the qualified pool might end up higher than you once his 10-, 20-, or 30-point preference is added. I imagine this pressure is even greater for lower-graded jobs with less specific technical skills.

Good luck. Feel free to PM me, if you want specific advice on your resume or KSAs. There's no need to pay for that shit. There are plenty of feds who are willing to offer a helping hand.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 3:04 PM on May 19, 2015 [9 favorites]

Or if he doesn't make it through, they cancel the announcement and reissue it on Friday night (or Christmas Eve! I've seen it!) closing the next day to make sure Mary's nephew who went to college gets spit out of the CPOC (or equivalent) process.

Some agencies are notorious for this. (I'm looking at you, Corps of Engineers.) If the open period for the job is a week or less, don't bother to apply. That job is wired, and the candidate has already been (improperly) pre-selected.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 3:07 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Most postings are open for a week or less these days. Open periods have gotten shorter and shorter as more people apply. The length of the open period says little to nothing about preselection.
posted by zennie at 4:25 PM on May 19, 2015

gah... not most, but many. It varies widely by agency as well.

*grumble grumble hitting post*

Done here, I think.

posted by zennie at 4:52 PM on May 19, 2015

What do you do? I'm hiring a crap ton of people in the next... forever, until they tell me to stop. I need over a hundred more, and every shipyard is in the same situation (which is why I can't borrow my way out of this.) If you meet the basic qualifications, you will get an interview from someone.

Here's one open right now. They open for a limited time, then close, then open again because I can't wait forever and neither can the applicants. The pay grade varies, too. I just closed a 4/5/6 and after I see how many I get I'll be opening it up again for another round.

HR is only screening out those that clearly do not meet the requirements (for us). So in general, if your resume doesn't say you have the college credit required or clearly indicate to someone not familiar with the work that your experience is substantially the same thing, I won't see it. Don't use industry acronyms or leave "obvious" stuff out. You didn't use a Thermo Electron E-600, you used radiation detection equipment including... etc. Imagine handing your resume and a printout of the job posting to any random person on the street. Can they tell you qualify, just from those two pieces of paper?
posted by ctmf at 11:08 PM on May 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm a supervisor in the federal government hiring a position right now.

4. DO NOT BE HUMBLE WHEN ANSWERING THE ASSESSMENT QUESTIONS. (But don't lie!) This is to help get your resume through to the "best qualified" list, which will put your resume in front of the hiring manager.

That is very good advice.

Otherwise, I'm sure it varies a lot by agency and job series, but in my office (excepted service attorney series) we want to see an application package that would fly in a law firm or NGO - in other words, we want an on point resume, a cover letter customized to us, otherwise appropriate credentials, and a solid writing sample. We want the application documents to be well written, concise, and typo-free. We prefer a pdf of the resume. We don't want more than a 2-page resume generally and 1 page is great too. For the section on professional experience, we are are only interested in relevant professional experience, though we don't care how far back it goes. We may have our interest piqued by non professional experience or information like "interests." We care about academics - which schools, grades, honors. We don't want a long cover letter - 1 page is ideal.

We absolutely are interested in people who networked to make sure their application caught our attention. We are fortunate to have a huge group of applicants (300-1000+ in the past) with more than 50 candidates with very strong experience and spotless applications among them. The bulk of the applications are almost junk - nothing is customized to us, the experience is off point.

Besides a refined application that is typo-free, my number one recommendation is to network so that someone in a hiring position in the office sees your application independent of usajobs so it doesn't slip through the cracks.

Also, with all due respect, do you think you have a reputation as a smart, hard working employee who gets stuff done and doesn't cause drama? If your reputation could be working against you the networking will do nothing.

Good luck! I know this process absolutely stinks.
posted by semacd at 9:20 AM on May 20, 2015

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