Transitioning From Federal Service

By Derrick Dortch
Special to
Friday, September 7, 2007 6:00 PM

Many job seekers see getting a job with the federal government as a dream come true. Job security and good benefits are a few reasons why many remain in federal jobs until retirement. For some, however, there comes a time when change is much needed. And that change may not necessarily come within the public sector.

Some workers will decide to retire while others feel better opportunities are available outside the government. But before crossing over into the private industry or retiring, there are a few things to consider.

Crossing Over

For those who decide to leave the public sector, there are several steps you can take to ensure a smooth transition -- and return to federal service if the new job doesn't work out:

Look before you leap. Before leaving the federal workforce, talk to those who have done it, says John Palguta, vice president of policy for the Partnership for Public Service. "Find people with similar circumstances who have made the move and ask whether they have any regrets, if they would do anything different and if they have any advice to offer," he says. Doing this may make your transition from the federal government an easier process.

Keep a strong network. Regardless of whether you're in the public or privater sector, building a solid network is key to professional success. If you decide to leave the federal government, be sure to ask for both the work and personal contact information of colleagues and friends you have acquired along the way.

Keep in touch with those in your former agency through e-mail, phone calls or occasional lunch dates. Although you no longer work together, you never know if they may be helpful in your new job or be able to help you return to the government.

Should you hold on to a security clearance? If you work for an agency related to national or homeland security, there is a good chance you have a Confidential, Secret, Top Secret or Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information security clearance. With clearances, especially high-level ones, you become very marketable and an attractive candidate to many government contractors. Contractors will often offer salaries, incentives and work opportunities that some cannot pass up.

If you leave the federal service before you retire (or after) and work for a contractor in a job that requires your same level of clearance, then your security clearance will remain active. If you decide to pursue jobs in other sectors, however, or take time off from government work, you have 24 months before your clearance becomes invalid. After that time you'll be subject to a new security clearance investigation.

According to the Defense Security Service (DSS), federal workers or military service members with clearances can be reissued a clearance for another position if the date you left prior federal or military service occurred within 24 months. However, there can't be any adverse information on file that would prevent you from being issued a new clearance. DSS also says that if your initial investigation or periodic reinvestigation was not completed within the timeframe described, an investigation may have to be requested before you are granted another clearance.

Planning Ahead for Retirement

While some federal workers decide to leave before retirement age for new opportunities, others stay and make a career of federal service. For those who stay, however, planning for retirement should start early on, Palguta says.

Evaluate your benefits. Are you under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) or Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS)? Each is different in regards to the benefits they provide.

If you entered the government before 1983, then you fall under CSRS. It's similar to a pension, because it provides a set monthly income that you receive in retirement and is based on your years of federal service. If you entered the government after 1983 or are leaving before normal retirement age, more than likely you are under FERS. It's equivalent to a 401(k) in the private sector. With this, workers will want to contribute the maximum dollar amount to ensure financial stability after retirement, Palguta states. With FERS, if you decide to leave early, you can ask that your retirement contributions be returned to you in a lump sum payment or you can wait until you are of retirement age to apply for monthly retirement benefit payments, according to OPM.

If you are deciding to retire under either system, make sure you know when you'll be eligible for benefits. The goal,, Palguta explains, is to get a comprehensive picture of all your retirement income, Palguta says. And from there you can decide whether or not you can afford to retire.

Will You Ever Want to Come Back?

Sometimes those who leave the federal government for another industry or retire will want to return. Pursuing other opportunities does not always work out, says Palguta. "I am amazed at how many people go into retirement to live and relax in Florida or leave to take contractor jobs, and they realize it's not what they expected." It's for this reason, that you should leave your job on positive terms, he advises, so that the door will always be open if you want to return.

Before leaving your current position, check to see if you have a career or career-conditional appointment. If you do, then you have what is called reinstatement eligibility. This option allows a worker to re-enter the federal competitive service workforce without competing with the public in a civil service examination, according to OPM.

Keep in mind that even after conducting a job search and ensuring reinstatement eligibility, it doesn't guarantee a job offer, Palguta adds. It is at the hiring agency's discretion to determine the sources of applicants they will consider. That's why keeping your contacts within the federal government is vital. Should you to come back to your old agency or go to another one, they may be able to help get your foot back in the door.

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