What You Need to Know: Searching for a Job

By Eric Yoder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 7, 2008; 3:10 PM

The federal government employs everything from pipefitters to psychologists. It's the biggest employer in the country and one that is growing steadily. In recent years, the government has been hiring about 80,000 permanent, full-time employees per year.

However, the government has a well deserved reputation for being a tough nut to crack, in terms of getting hired. Its hiring process is known as slow and not particularly user-friendly. Government officials are well aware of those issues and are working to address them. But improvement efforts are a work in progress, especially since the government only recently came out of a long period in which it did relatively little hiring and basically forgot how to do it.

The executive branch workforce (federal departments and agencies excluding the independent U.S. Postal Service) fell from about 2.1 million to 1.8 million from 1994 to 2000. Since then employment has moved up, now exceeding 1.9 million. Those numbers don't include intelligence agencies, whose employment is estimated at more than 100,000, nor congressional or judicial branch jobs, about 60,000 more.

When setting out on a job search, bear in mind that the federal hiring system operates to fill specific openings. The government wants to see if you have the skills a particular vacancy requires. It will not alter or create a job to fit you--chances are it has applications from other people who better fit its needs. Stay targeted in your search, and be realistic. Applying for jobs for which you are not qualified is a waste of your energy.

It also helps to:

Know Where the Jobs Are --By agency, the largest employers are Defense, with about a third of the workforce, Veterans Affairs, about a seventh, and Homeland Security, about a tenth. Those departments are doing the most hiring as well, along with Treasury, Commerce and Justice.

By occupation, over the last decade the numbers of employees working in blue collar jobs have declined by about a fifth, and those in clerical occupations have declined by about a quarter, while the greatest growth is in administrative jobs, up about a quarter in that time. Hiring is especially hot in social insurance administration, customs and border protection, contracting, auditing, IT management, biological sciences, nursing and other health care, criminal investigation, program analysis and various administrative fields.

By state, the largest concentrations of federal jobs are in California, the District of Columbia, Virginia, Texas and Maryland.

The government traditionally did most of its hiring at entry levels (in federal-speak, mostly general schedule grades 5, 7 and 9) but today it increasingly is looking for midcareer and senior level employees as well.

In addition to permanent, full-time positions, the government also offers part-time, seasonal and temporary work. It also offers various developmental programs which can be a foot in the door and often lead to career jobs.

Know Where to Look, and How -- Almost all applications for federal jobs are now taken online. The main job listing site is USAJobs, www.usajobs.com. Users can search job listings by geography, salary, college major, job title and other factors. The site also has a resume builder function, links to student hiring and other special recruitment programs, and other information.

It's also worth checking the sites of individual departments and agencies, because not every opening is listed on USAJobs. That's especially true of jobs in law enforcement, intelligence and other security-related fields. Many of them have online systems that operate similarly to USAJobs. A comprehensive listing of agencies is at usa.gov http://www.usa.gov/Agencies/Federal/All_Agencies/index.shtml.

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