May 30, 2018 11:40 AM   Subscribe

I am absolutely dead sick and tired of my career. I would love to get a job in local or county or state government, but it seems like an impenetrable fortress. Please give me your tips and tricks for getting hired for government work!

I've spent the past 10 years working in a demanding (AND underpaid! double trouble!) niche of publishing. I've been self-employed for the past 6 years. I love the actual work I do, which is editing materials for students and teachers, and I am pretty good at it, too. But the past 3 years have really been a meat grinder, and I am dreaming endlessly of a whole new life.

A few friends work for state/city governments and their lives seem pretty good. They don't work on Christmas, they go to the doctor sometimes, their governments don't get bought and destroyed by venture capitalists every 2.5 years...pretty amazing.

It seems like I would be capable of* any number of communications-based or editorial-type positions, but I don't know how to begin either a) making myself an appealing/viable candidate, or b) getting a foot in the door, once I've accomplished (a).

Of course my government-employee friends have all said they would vouch for me, but positions in their offices come available every 10-15 years on average, so that's more of a long-term plan.

How should a mid-career person package herself for the public sector? Are there types of agencies that are easier to transition into than others? Is there a job category with many of the same parameters as government work, but which is not government, for which I should aim first? I shudder at the thought of going into debt at this age but will give serious thought to a degree program if it's absolutely essential. (I have a BA from a very respectable school but no MA or MS.)

TL; DR: I want to work for a local/city/state government. What would be a good first step in this direction?

*but not necessarily qualified for, by the specific metrics of any particular government entity
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese to Work & Money (14 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Hiring processes are actually somewhat more transparent in the public sector than in the private, but they also vary dramatically based on governmental unit. You need to investigate the governments you have in mind and determine (a) what jobs they have that you might fit; (b) how they hire for those jobs (do they regularly post vacancies on an HR website? is there an examination process?); (c) what formal requirements they have (in my experience, while they have less room to vary from them, they are also less likely to pick arbitrary overqualifications to make themselves feel awesome or whatever reason it is corporations tend to do this). These days, for most places, this should be relatively easy to do online.

Public-sector people often worry that private-sector people applying to public-sector jobs are just looking to featherbed. Indeed, note that every desirable quality you identify in a public-sector job involves less work or stress for you. In interviews for professional jobs, at least, this attitude would be a death-knell. It is true that people choose these jobs in part for a better work-life balance, but no one wants to hear that the major reason you want a job with them is so that you can do less work. You need to recognize the positive aspects of public sector work and then try to demonstrate that you value them through your resume. Doing volunteer work in your field can definitely help.

Finally, while investigating those jobs, take careful note of the salaries. They aren't going to be negotiable. One of the reasons government employers look for public-spiritedness is that the pay isn't going to be gratifying, and even benefits have been cut back heavily in many places.
posted by praemunire at 11:57 AM on May 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

Have you looked at
posted by Seboshin at 11:57 AM on May 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think it depends where you are. I work for the county (as a social worker) and got the job through the senseless, plodding, nightmarishly bureaucratic system that is how county hiring works here. My sense is that you're going to need a more specific idea of what you want to do for a local government at least than you're presenting here, and then you just start looking at job listings and applying.

There's not a lot of room for "I'm smart so I'd be good at anything you give me" in this kind of hiring--the positions are at least nominally pretty specialized. In my state in particular, the interviews involve a list of questions that cannot be deviated from and a ban on follow-up questions, so it's really this weird funnel of: people applying for Collegiate Assessor III generally spent several years as Collegiate Assessor II and Collegiate Assessor I. I work with a lot of people who seem to work for the county less because they got a job they always wanted to do than because if you start early, you can retire from the county at 55.

So I guess kind of what I'm saying is you probably have to refine your search and you may have to start at the bottom. I hope that's not overly dyspeptic.
posted by Smearcase at 11:58 AM on May 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

P.S. Governments don't get bought and destroyed every 2.5 years, but, depending on what kind of job you have, your unit's mission may change drastically along with each election. Consider all the career employees of the Dept of State at the present moment, for instance. Just something to be conscious of.

P.P.S. Relatedly, no harm in looking at if you can find a nonpolitical position in an agency not threatened with effective shutdown, or if your goals are in tune with the present administration's. In normal times, there's no reason to rule out the feds. They have regular jobs, too.
posted by praemunire at 12:05 PM on May 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

In my state, and presumably in many states, there are civil service exams for various job titles. There are educational and experience requirements just to be allowed to sit for the exams, then a ranked list of results is used in hiring. There is also a program called Professional Career Opportunities for people with more generalist backgrounds. I don't know if other states have something similar. Each governmental entity is somewhat different, but the intent of the civil service system is to make the hiring process fair.

In my field, the exam is only given once every few years. I took it (back in 1999), and it wasn't until a year later that a job opening occurred. At the time of the opening, only people who have already taken the exam and scored well are eligible to be hired. I got the job and have been much happier than I was in my 17 years of private sector work.
posted by jkent at 12:05 PM on May 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

I work at a state university. If there are public colleges or universities near you look at the jobs available for someone with your skill set. Or even your local public school district, which, if it's big enough, might have jobs you could do.
posted by mareli at 12:23 PM on May 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

I work for a state government. The hiring process is very slow. One thing all hired candidates have in common is a job search that allowed them to go through an application process that lasted for months -- four in my case, even longer for management positions.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 12:43 PM on May 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

I work for a Canadian provincial government, so take what I say with a huge Canadian grain of salt.

I wonder if my American counterparts can comment on this: what about informational interviews? Could you ask your government employee friends if you can talk to their managers about what the hiring process is like, whether or not you need a degree, how you can find out more about doing x for the government, who you can talk to about doing x for the government? If you do go back to school, find a program where they have internships/co-op placements with the government.

Keep pounding the pavement like this (if I were you I'd give it a year, but maybe you'd be way more efficient than me :) and I'm sure you'll gain some valuable insights. It's a process.

Things you should ask your government employee friends: how do elections impact their job security and what work they do? Do they end up having to follow direction that they're actively against? (An extreme example is that they are pro-choice and the government wants to repeal abortion rights. How do they deal with that?) How much bureacracy do they have to deal with and how do they cope? Do they feel like they're making a difference in the lives of citizens?
posted by foxjacket at 1:56 PM on May 30, 2018

Would you be willing to share your state with us, and whether or not you live in or near the state capitol? There are state jobs all over, of course, but most are usually located in the capitol.

Ultimately, most public sector jobs require that you take a test or meet Minimum Qualifications or both. You most likely qualify for more than a few jobs, you just have to check the duty statements and MQs. The hiring process varies depending on the government doing the hiring; if you live in California, MeMail me and I'll walk you through what you need to do for a state job.

Heck, even if you don't live in CA and if you're comfortable with sharing more information, MeMail me and I can probably figure out the steps you need to take to get a public job where you are.
posted by elsietheeel at 2:10 PM on May 30, 2018

You could probably get informational interviews if you have personal connections, but important to keep in mind two things: (a) these will NOT be back doors into actual jobs, as sometimes happens in the private sector and (b) the person will probably only be able to advise you on the hiring process and likely types of jobs for their agency or other subunit. An accountant with the department of revenue won't be able to tell you much about the nature of the job of or the hiring process for lawyers in the office of the attorney general. Someone in a competitive civil service position will probably only know about that, and not about positions which are filled outside that process, and which is which may vary by agency or even within agency. Someone working for the city may have no knowledge at all about working for the state. So it would be best to prioritize talking to people who are in areas and units of government that you think might actually work in; generic advice, while not worthless (you can certainly ask whether they find public service generally satisfying, etc.), will be of limited value.
posted by praemunire at 2:10 PM on May 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm a government employee, but I have limited experience in applications (3 states, two state-level jobs, one county-level job). Still, based on this, I've never had to take a test, but rather list years of experience and/or relevant education.

Federal government jobs are a weird thing, but once you're in, it's a lot easier (so I've heard from federal staff), but state and county jobs (again, from my limited experience) are pretty straight-forward.

You may be required to create an account on a specific website, or use a general portal like Government Jobs.

Getting an interview depends on the volume of applications, and how you write your answers. Depending on the agency, there may be some automated pre-screening, HR may score applicants and give the interviewer a list of 15-20 to pick from, or the interviewer might get everyone and have to sort themselves. And getting support from friends in the agencies only helps if you fall in scenario 2 or 3 here and your friend knows the person in charge of hiring, and if it's #2, you'd have to still get through HR's review.

My first job took a ridiculous amount of time to get into the position - about 9 months in total, from the application deadline to starting work, but that was because of budget issues, which lead to a hiring "chill" (not a full freeze). My second job was a faster turn-around, about two months from applying to starting work. For a counter-example of public agency turn-around, my wife applied to teach at a tiny school (~100 students total for high school), and she applied on Sunday night, and had the position by the end of that week, which included an interview and getting the paperwork signed by the district superintendent -- that's a benefit of a really small agency, even a public one.

In short: understand the application system(s) in use, including the complete flow of events from submitting your application to having the job, because there are many ways you could go astray, and it might just take a lot of patience on your end (in addition to a lot of applying, particularly if the positions are not common ones, relatively speaking).
posted by filthy light thief at 2:54 PM on May 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have been both a state government employee (Texas) and a Federal employee (NTSB). Unlike with a corporate employer, there is a strict, tedious, and often-lengthy hiring process that has to be followed. Look at the listings, and apply. If you get to the interview stage, that is where any "leeway" the hiring manager has can come into play - but there is often machine-assisted culling of the pile of initial applicants first. If you do not follow the instructions, minimum qualifications, etc., you will not make it past the cut. This is to ensure that you as a hiree can function as a cog in the bureaucratic machine (only slightly joking). It was worth it to me - both positions were rewarding and they did feel comfortably stable (unlike the employer I had between the two - bankruptcy-era WorldCom).
posted by candyland at 4:33 PM on May 30, 2018

Another way into government is to work for a campaign, as a volunteer. It gives you a great opportunity to show off your skills to a candidate and those closest to him/her. I volunteered for a candidate in 2005, for the worst reasons you can imagine - I liked the guy, thought he was competent, found his ideas appealing and I thought he should win.

He did. He offered me a job in his administration, I still work for him.
posted by Colonel Sun at 6:08 PM on May 30, 2018

You can also try to get a foot in the door by downgrading to jobs you apply to. Around here there's hiring priority for people already working in the city and state govnts as long as they meet the min job reqs
posted by WeekendJen at 2:37 PM on May 31, 2018

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