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.

When looking at a vacancy announcement, pay special attention to what the agency wants to know about you; it may require information you don't have on your standard resume, such as your military service and a complete accounting of your jobs from the last 10 years. Make sure that goes in with your application. Otherwise, you probably won't make even the first cut.

Know How to Apply -- Applying for a federal job is a different experience than applying with other employers. Elsewhere, it might just be a matter of reading the announcement, deciding if you're qualified enough and sending a cover letter and resume. With government jobs, it's crucial to match your resume to the announcement.

"Using a boilerplate resume probably will not get you referred to a supervisor. You need to study the duties section to see what is involved in the job and look at the qualifications that describes the experience you have to have. That experience needs to be in your resume, very clearly stated," says Kathryn Troutman, president of The Resume Place, Inc., www.resume-place.com, which offers resume writing and other federal job search services.

In many cases, the first screen of job applicants is done not by a real person but by a computer program searching for key words. Those key words, found in the qualifications section and the duties section, generally have to be in the resume. "The resume is the key to success. You have to tweak your resume for each announcement" Troutman says.

For example, if the position requires serving as a "liaison" for the director, your resume should describe your experience serving as a "liaison" for your current manager, even if that isn't the term you normally use for those duties.

In addition, many vacancy announcements require a narrative statement of what the government calls KSAs (knowledge, skills and abilities) crucial to the job, along with various other paperwork. Again, make sure you know what they're looking for and give it to them.

Be Fast, Patient and Persistent -- Federal job vacancies sometimes are held open only for a week or two. You have to monitor for openings continuously and act fast when something comes up. USAJobs can notify you by email when positions matching your criteria are posted.

Don't expect promptness on the other end, though. The government's central personnel agency, the Office of Personnel Management, has set a goal of getting agencies to generally fill positions within 45 days from the application deadline to a job offer for a position, but the government is not there yet. Use the features on USAJobs and similar agency-run sites that allow you to track the progress of your application.

Keep applying for vacancies that fit you. That may mean revising your resume numerous times to make it best reflect the required qualifications for each position and rewriting a statement of your knowledge, skills and abilities over and over. The odds probably are against you -- possibly steeply -- in applying for any one federal job. But the government has lots of vacant jobs, and it won't go out of business. If at first you don't succeed . . .

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