In searching for a job, knowledge is power

By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, April 19, 2010; 30

Last month, the nation had its strongest job growth in three years, but the competition is still fierce for job openings. That leaves many candidates wondering if they have any room for negotiation in the process, especially for those seeking coveted positions with government agencies or contractors -- often seen as beacons of stability in what has been a fickle employment environment.

Here's how to make sure you take your best shot at checking off your next job wish list.

1. Use your Washington work history to your benefit. Know how to navigate the bureaucracy of scoring government contracts? Already have a security clearance? As Washington becomes a more attractive market for those outside the region, your history here can be your greatest asset. Previous government or military experience, or any experience working with government contractors, can save an agency or firm a lot of money and time, so play up your value. You'll be able to start working on sensitive projects immediately, plus your experience can help bring in a particular niche client for the firm and makes you more valuable.

2. Do your research. Preparation is critical, especially in this economy. That means collect whatever internal salary and compensation information you can get about the agency or organization. Use your network to reach out to current employees to find out what people are earning. You also need to do your external market research to determine what the offer should look like based on your work experience and the other things you bring to the table, as well as the market averages for this region. Several Web tools -- such as PayScale and -- can help you figure this out.

3. Know the job. Ask a lot of questions about the level of the job and the scope of the responsibilities. This will help you determine how you should be compensated or a fair pay grade if you're applying for a government position.

4. Prioritize. Think about what is most important to you -- in this economy you're never going to get everything you want. Order your priorities -- Salary? Signing bonus? Location? Start date? Vacation days? Focus on the one or two most important things and getting those first.

5. Have an alternative. If you don't get the job, or you don't get the offer you want, what will you do? Ideally you don't want to take a job at a lower starting salary because that salary will haunt you for your career and is linked to future salary increases, bonuses, moving up through the government's General Schedule pay scale, etc. But if you can't keep looking financially, then try to see what flexibility the organization may have with other compensation pieces, such as bonuses, relocation costs, etc. -- any additional money. If you can't get the compensation, then find ways for the organization to provide additional training, development, certifications, security clearances, workshops -- all of that will help you in your own marketability. We're all "free agents" now, and if you can continually enhance your skills, that will be worth something in dollars.

Have a question for the Career Coach? Send an e-mail to Joyce E.A. Russell is a Ralph J. Tyser Distinguished Teaching Fellow at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on career development.

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