Going federal
September 20, 2018 12:17 PM   Subscribe

I’ve always worked in the private sector and now have the opportunity to get a “dream job” with a federal agency. The location, commute and pay are all roughly equivalent to my current job. What are some other things to consider? Details within.

I’ve been at my current company for 7ish years and it’s great but does have its issues, just like anywhere else. I’m not happy with my role right now and although my manager has been accommodating in maybe getting me to a new role that’s more suited for me, he hasn’t been able to make any promises or offer timelines.

The federal agency role is somewhat similar to what I’m doing now but is actually 100% what I want to be doing. I have all the necessary experience and certifications etc to be a good candidate for the role.

I’ve never worked in government- always private sector in small startups, big established companies and everything else in between. Any pitfalls, considerations, benefits, drawbacks to federal employment to think about as I go through the application process?
posted by drawfrommemory to Work & Money (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Federal employment can vary dramatically from agency to agency, but you should probably anticipate a level of bureaucracy commensurate with that of a big company but a much more outdated infrastructure. That can be frustrating at times.

In most areas, you will find much greater expectations that a person will work their hours and go home, not being constantly available to work. This is usually good (life!) but can present problems if you work in a field where sometimes long hours are truly needed to get the job done and the support isn't available.

Weird capitalist rhetoric will be replaced by weird public-service rhetoric. The latter is less offensive but kind of vicariously embarrassing.

The benefits are generally good and the salary structure is, in most cases, transparent. A yearly raise is routine (as a year of experience will usually make you go up a "step"), but of course that can be cut off for political reasons. Someone like our current president might decide you get nothing in order to make a point about how it's more virtuous to shovel the money into the pockets of his cronies than to the people who actually do the work.
posted by praemunire at 12:30 PM on September 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

What are some other things to consider?

I work in (non-software) tech and this consideration may be tech-specific.

I've seen many people go to government jobs for various reasons - interesting work, decent pay, good benefits, excellent job stability. I have seen many fewer people leave government jobs. Further, I have never hired someone from a government job. For better or worse, my experience is that government jobs tend to embrace skill sets that are irrelevant to professional companies. If you make this switch, consider that the switch may be permanent.
posted by saeculorum at 12:51 PM on September 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

Weird inflexibility about a lot of things scheduling that I wasn't use to in other systems ("mind if I work through lunch and then take an hour to do an errand at 2pm? Since this will have zero impact on the offices productivity or ability to manage necessary tasks?" "Sorry, no.") - this really only matters until you work up enough leave so that you don't care about taking an extra hour here or there.

As far as out of pocket expenses and premiums, I've found the healthcare to be good, but not as good as other systems I've been with.

IT sucks. God it sucks so bad. Have you ever heard of Lotus Notes or WordPerfect? Like maybe in a movie set in the late 1980's? They are both on my computer. The particular branch of the government I am in (connected to the Judiciary) is maybe worse on this than others. To be fair, I have a fairly nice modern computer, but I have no way of avoiding using some of these terribly dated and slow systems on daily basis.

Overall, it's been really great though.
posted by skewed at 12:54 PM on September 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm not knowledgable of specifically federal jobs, but government jobs tend to be harder to be separated from, either due to rules or just that hiring is a rather rare and well-regulated thing that people get the jobs they fit with. But, this comes with a "tenure" like situation, where people who have been doing a job for a huge part of their life may not be well-suited for working with others, or are now coasting because there's no incentive due to the lack of movement either upwards or downwards, so if you're more adjusted to the fast-paced corporate life where people come and go as projects and finances change, government work is far more monolithic and set in its ways, both bureaucratically and those doing bureaucratic things.
posted by AzraelBrown at 12:58 PM on September 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I worked in the public sector years ago (state, not federal.) Not sure if this is still the case, but outdated practices, and more frustratingly, bad employees at every level, became entrenched and were there to stay. Fine if you like the work and the people, bad if incompetent or worse people ruin your day/career.
posted by kapers at 12:59 PM on September 20, 2018

Federal employment can vary dramatically from agency to agency

This. Depending on how you count it, there are between about 2 million and 7 million federal workers. The best predictor of what the job will be like is an honest conversation with someone already there, ideally in the same unit and with the same boss. Did you have an opportunity to speak with future peers in the interviewing process?

Also, you said you have an "opportunity" - does that mean you have an offer, saw a listing, or something in between. If you haven't started the process, know that the federal hiring process is its own maze. Your best chance is to try to contact the hiring manager directly. A manager who's interested in you may be able to guide you through the process.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:11 PM on September 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

In the US at least, once you're in the federal system it's a lot easier to get another job in the federal system. It can be very difficult to get hired from outside. So one big plus I haven't seen mentioned is opening up of future opportunities.
posted by emd3737 at 2:12 PM on September 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Any pitfalls, considerations, benefits, drawbacks to federal employment to think about as I go through the application process?

One pitfall of the application process is that it's bureaucratic to a fault. (I applied five times to get permanently into the job I was currently doing, and failed to get it.) Use the buzzwords in the position announcement in your resume/essay answers, no matter how awkward your phrasing is: if you don't, you want make the first cut, which is usually automated. Spell out acronyms, be very explicit about your background and qualifications, because the computer won't understand any of your shorthand or references.

The next level of review is at OPM, not by the hiring manager, and the OPM person won't necessarily know anything about your technical field. If you don't get through those two reviews, the hiring manager will never see your resume, no matter how qualified you are for the position.

Another pitfall is the question of veterans preferences. If you are not a vet, and you are applying to an organization that might have a lot of vets, or for a position that a vet might reasonably be able to fill because of their experience in the military, be prepared to not make the short list. This is less of a concern in a highly-technical field, but still might come up.

Make sure you upload all the required documentation.

Be prepared to wait. The shortest hiring process I've seen was four months from announcement to notice of selection, and most are much longer.

Other things to consider: the pension is pretty weak (1% of top-3 average salary per year of service), but the Thrift Savings Plan is an ok IRA, which the government matches up to 5% of your salary. The leave structure (currently sick and annual are separated) is fairly generous and after a certain point you won't use all the vacation you earn. If you spend your last 5 working years in the federal system, you can carry your medical plan into retirement with you.

Once you're in the federal system you're eligible to apply to other federal jobs not available to the general public. This is the most racially diverse workforce I have ever worked in. But most of the managers are white males.

I like many of my coworkers, but the ones who are just coasting, or are actively disruptive to the workflow, are not well-managed. It's too hard to get rid of people, and so they often just get handed on from one manager to the next, clogging up the next team's productivity. If you take your work seriously, this is a hard thing to accept. You might also be frustrated by how slowly everything happens: there is an enormous bureaucracy attached to everything, including buying office equipment, booking and expensing travel, procuring contract services, etc. Almost nothing happens fast. On the good side: many deadlines are somewhat flexible (other than the end-of-fiscal year rush to spend down the budget).

Our IT system is not quite as bad as others noted above, but it's intentionally hampered for security reasons. We have no WiFi, no free coffee/tea, limited telework (although that varies widely). We do have lots of office potlucks and the occasional hike or bbq. My office uses the compressed work schedule system, so every other weekend is a 3-day weekend, which I love. Many agencies cover transit costs.

I am lucky to have a cube with floor-to-ceiling windows looking west, but many many federal offices are kind of old and grimy. Again, it depends on the agency and the job.

As noted above, federal employees are currently feeling the squeeze from the administration w/rt wages and benefits. We are officially supposed to be paid something fairly close to what the private sector makes, but that shouldn't be relied upon (although the benefits might be better than some private industries).

In summary: my quality of life improved enormously when I moved to the federal government. I am much less stressed out and I like my coworkers and my office, although I probably make less than I would in the private sector.
posted by suelac at 3:00 PM on September 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

In this era of federal uncertainty, reorganization, and cuts, the hell of sequester may be magnified in the future. When the automatic budget cuts fell back in 2013, I had an unanticipated 12% pay cut and an expectation that I would work for free on the day we were supposed to be furloughed. It sucked. I am blissfully unconcerned when Congress is unable to get its budgetary stuff together now that I have left federal service.
posted by *s at 3:16 PM on September 20, 2018

"Weird inflexibility about a lot of things scheduling that I wasn't use to in other systems ("mind if I work through lunch and then take an hour to do an errand at 2pm? Since this will have zero impact on the offices productivity or ability to manage necessary tasks?" "Sorry, no.") - this really only matters until you work up enough leave so that you don't care about taking an extra hour here or there."

I always thought government jobs were kind of like a permanent condition, once you got in, you were basically set there for good. I had a roommate a couple years ago who had a government job but hated it. He didn't show up for several days, electing to stay home and get drunk and watch bitcoin prices all day. After a few days, cops came to check on his well being to see if he was even alive, and he was, and he went back to work until he decided to to not go anymore. Even then he was bragging about how he could go back even then and keep his job if he had wanted to. Granted, this person was massively full of shit on every level and the only reason I haven't chucked out that anecdote is that I've seen it seemingly reflected in other ways in other government job anecdotes.

Is it a thing where if you ask the answer is no, but if you just do, you don't really have to ask forgiveness or care?
posted by GoblinHoney at 3:53 PM on September 20, 2018

the pension is pretty weak

I can tell you've been in the public sector for a while because you think even a weak pension is uncompetitive compared to the private sector, where the default is no pension!

Having observed a couple of different levels, I think government jobs where people do work similar to that in the private sector but at lower pay (many professional jobs) attract a majority of two kinds of people: quixotic and possibly actually demented idealists (even if they won't admit it out loud), and featherbedders. In a good office with a good boss, you get mostly the former; in a bad office, some more of the latter. It's not true that you can't fire a federal employee, but it is true that it's not as easy as in the private sector, so even good bosses will probably have inherited a few bums from prior regimes. However, I would gently invite people to reflect on whether some of the friend-of-a-friend anecdotes they may have heard about lazy and unproductive government workers engaging in malfeasance with impunity might possibly, just possibly, have certain political biases embedded in them that they may not want to thoughtlessly perpetuate.
posted by praemunire at 4:06 PM on September 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

For better or worse, my experience is that government jobs tend to embrace skill sets that are irrelevant to professional companies. If you make this switch, consider that the switch may be permanent.

As a federal employee looking to get out, I can't emphasize this enough. I'm an engineer with what I consider strong technical aptitude, but have been working in a niche field for several years that has zero equivalent in the private sector. It has made the job search painfully hard. This may or may not apply to you - but is more common with Feds than you'd think.

As to why I'd leave - I'm in a federal job requiring insanely long hours and apparent 24/7 availability. I have friends in similar situations elsewhere in the government, thanks to staffing and budget cuts it is more common than you'd think. Just food for thought.
posted by photo guy at 4:42 PM on September 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Depending on where you are currently, and where you want to spend most of your life, you may be better served by looking at state employment. I know that my state has better a better pension system/retirement plan than the feds do, and it's a lot easier to get hired into the state system than it is into the feds. But if you're looking to move around, or have a plan to head toward a specific federal job/department, then I guess head in that direction.

But ultimately, if you're the sort of person who can't aggressively save and invest and plan for your retirement? A government job is the way to go. But once you're in the federal system then that's where you should stay until you're vested. Some state employment systems have pension reciprocity with city/county governments within them, so that's also another path to consider.

Good luck!
posted by elsietheeel at 5:28 PM on September 20, 2018

Few things can beat a defined pension benefit, paid monthly to you or your beneficiary, for life.

There is still interesting, important work to be done for the Federal government. If this job is important and interesting, this Fed says do it.
posted by kinsey at 5:31 PM on September 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I went from private to the federal government about 10 years ago. I LOVE IT. One big thing is the cultural mission change goes from making money for the upper echelon of the company to providing a public service and solving problems. I feel like I went from having my skill set selling me out to make money for the CEO to actually using my skills for the sake of performing work that needs to be done. It’s a total paradigm shift and I find it really much more motivating to do a good job.

Another big thing in my industry, I did not get paid overtime in private and I do in my gov job. Just awesome.
posted by cakebatter at 6:05 PM on September 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

Your profile says female ... not sure where you are with the issue of having babies, but beware that there's no federal maternity leave and you'd have to save up sick leave/vacation time to take any time off with a new baby. Depending on what's offered at your private-sector job, that might be something to consider...
posted by mccxxiii at 6:29 PM on September 20, 2018

One pitfall of the application process is that it's bureaucratic to a fault.

So much this. Immediately the first question I thought of was "What do you mean you have an opportunity?" BC if it's that you know of a position and you know someone in the hiring process of that position, your questions now would maybe be better focused on how to navigate the application and interview process to get to the point of an offer before you bother worrying about whether the details of the position itself make it worthwhile (which, the answers would largely be in the offer letter). Getting hired in a full-time federal position is tough generally, and particularly so currently.
posted by solotoro at 6:33 PM on September 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I’m not sure what federal agencies don’t have maternity leave but at the Department of the Interior we have both maternity and paternity leave! And both of the federal centers I’ve worked at have on site day cares that are awesome. It is a pretty supportive place for young families, especially since I get a lot more AL and sick leave than when I was a consultant.
posted by cakebatter at 8:17 PM on September 20, 2018

Both of my federal employers (current and previous) were extremely meticulous regarding leave, as in accruing it, taking it, etc. At my current agency, I earn leave with every pay period which really sucks at four hours a pay period. Under this system, I'm maxed at 12 days of annual leave every year. Fortunately, my agency allows comp time but even that is a bit of a bureaucratic PITA. If you are starting in Senior Executive Service (SES) I think you accrue 8 hours per pay period.

Basically, be extremely mindful of the fact that you may have exactly ZERO leave - sick or annual - when you start and just hope that no one gets sick. If you have a vacation planned, you might be able to get leave advanced, but you still have to earn it back. Seriously, they get you coming and going.

Also, I am not in the headquarters of my agency, but rather in a remote outpost. Our facilities are just fine and we have free covered parking, but none of the daycares and gyms that are offered at main HQ. We're thrilled that we finally got food trucks that come around a few days a week.

On balance, though, I am so glad I made the switch from private to federal service.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 8:40 PM on September 20, 2018

>>It's too hard to get rid of people, and so they often just get handed on from one manager to the next, clogging up the next team's productivity.

This sums it up perfectly for me. 3 years ago, I switched from a corporate environment to a large agency, after working in the private sector for 10+ years. The change in organizational psychology has been the biggest hurdle for me. I have coworkers who cannot adhere to even the most basic business norms and practices. Too much of institutional knowledge is "this is how I was taught to do it, I don't know why, the person who trained me doesn't know why, but it's the procedure." And too many processes are a daisy chain of accumulated procedures without any whole-of-process overview; because adding steps is easier than removing them.

This Reddit thread is pretty interesting.

Don't get me wrong, there are many benefits to working for the federal government. I get sent on more paid travel than ever before in my career, and I've made some great friendships in my agency. But some days, I really miss aspects of my old job. YMMV.
posted by invisible ink at 10:21 PM on September 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Things to add to my earlier post:

There are so many different working situations that it is almost as hard to generalize about federal jobs as it is about private sector jobs. There are lots of federal jobs that pay the same or more as my current position and that I'm eligible for that I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. Things to consider that may turn a so-so job into a really good or bad one: how nice is your office, what amenities or perks do they offer (gyms, free parking, etc.), how are you supervised, how is productivity measured, how much freedom do you have to accomplish your tasks in the way you see fit, how much do you have to document how you spend your time, how much training do they offer, how quickly can you progress to the top of your salary potential, do they give you opportunities to develop professionally, do they pay for your professional certifications, does this job open up future opportunities or are you pretty much stuck where you are? The answers to all of these questions varies dramatically from job to job, even in federal government.

The last thing, and it may be a big deal to you or not. For me it is a game changer. When I'm giving over most of my waking hours to accomplish something for an organization whose purpose is to generate profit for its owners or shareholders, I get bitter working conditions, don't feel properly valued, wonder why I'm even bothering, etc. When I'm working my ass off for an organization whose purpose is to benefit the public, I can deal with the same pay, same working conditions and feel okay or even good.
posted by skewed at 7:05 AM on September 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

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