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Parsing the Fine Print on Federal Ads

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Sunday, November 4, 2007

Uncle Sam really does want you, even though at times it can be hard to figure out what exactly he wants you to do.

Federal job ads can seem particularly opaque to people looking to make the switch from the private sector. Or as one wannabe fed put it in my online chat recently: "What gives with USAJobs.com? The job descriptions on that site are incomprehensible to a person (like me) who hasn't worked for a government agency before. Seriously, they don't make any sense."

"The federal application process is complex to say the least," said Dennis Damp, author of "The Book of U.S. Government Jobs" and a retired senior manager for the Federal Aviation Administration. Part of that is for good reason, he said; the process is designed to be fair, judging applicants on the basis of their qualifications, without discrimination or nepotism.

Even when you agree that those are commendable goals, the process can be exasperating. But those frustrations can be overcome with a little patience -- and by making that seemingly dense job ad work for you.

Damp's book devotes a chapter to analyzing the job announcement, breaking it down piece by piece and showing applicants how to craft an effective r¿sum¿ based on the information given. He said a common mistake people make is not reading the whole announcement before throwing their hands up in bewilderment -- though he certainly sympathizes with them. "It's a ton of data that can be very confusing initially. You can't stop at the first paragraph, because if you do, you're probably bypassing positions that you're qualified for."

He also includes several cross-referenced indexes, which can be particularly helpful to the truly lost hunter who isn't sure if he's even looking at the right types of jobs to match his private-sector skill set.

"The announcement gives you so much content to use, if we slow down and appreciate what's in there," said Kathryn Kraemer Troutman, author of the "Federal Resume Guidebook" and president of the Resume Place, a consulting firm that specializes in helping applicants for federal jobs.

She offers a simple strategy for making sense of announcements: Start with the "duties" section. Count the sentences in the paragraph, and separate each one into a numbered line. Then read each sentence again slowly. Within each sentence, underline the key words.

"Then you will understand the position," she said. (This works, but "simple" does not mean "quick." It can easily take hours. If you ever had to explicate poems in English class, you get the idea.) Do the same thing with the "qualifications" section, which will probably cover five or six things. "Those key words must be in your r¿sum¿," Troutman said. "Don't be creative."

Something else to keep in mind: If the qualifications don't make sense to you after careful study, perhaps you're just not qualified. "Private industry people many times do not have the qualifications for federal jobs," Troutman said.

If that's the case, your work still wasn't a waste. If you dream of a fed job, make acquiring those qualifications your goals, she said. "Make this list your list, taking classes, volunteering."

But lack of qualifications isn't always the problem. Sometimes it's just a language barrier -- or a cultural one. "People from the private sector can't understand this language," Troutman said. "They just can't believe it." Others just "don't know how to play this paper game."

Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said that job seekers need to remember that all federal agencies are all different -- right down to their job ads.

"A lot of agencies still provide descriptions of job openings that are convoluted," he said, but not all. "Some agencies get it. Some understand."

But if you don't understand, he said, pick up the phone and call the agency. Announcements on USAJobs, the government's primary avenue for advertising new jobs, include contact information for the appropriate human resources officer.

"Even in the age of the Web, finding someone to speak with can help," Stier said.

And be patient. "There are more and more good tools out there," he said, "but obviously it's still not a hiring nirvana."

Seeking MBAs

What's the "best" time to get an MBA degree? How did you decide when to get yours? If you're willing to share your story for a column on the subject, e-mail me at slayterme@washpost.com. Please include your full name and a daytime phone number. No attachments.

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