By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010; B01
In a cramped glassed-in room in Crystal City, Kathryn Troutman, who last worked for the federal government as a secretary during the Vietnam War, faces 19 job seekers, the latest of thousands of would-be civil servants who have come to know her as the federal jobs guru.
The men and women crammed around the table -- mostly middle-aged federal employees who need a new position because their current job is moving or disappearing due to base closures or consolidation -- are shelling out hundreds of dollars to have Troutman guide them through Uncle Sam's bewildering application thicket.
With the economy inching out of the worst downturn in a generation, working for the feds has gained cachet as a source of stable employment in uncertain times. Because of the recession, Troutman's clientele, which used to consist of equal shares of federal workers and people who have never worked in government, is dominated by private sector refugees chasing what, on paper at least, look like favorable odds.
The government needs to fill 270,000 "mission-critical" -- non-clerical, non-support -- positions by 2012, an increase of 40 percent over the previous three years, according to a study last year by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that promotes government service. The feds employ about 2 million civilians, not including U.S. Postal Service workers.
Seeking a federal job, however, is often an exercise in frustration. Troutman, 62, spends much of her time explaining the inner workings of government to the uninitiated, whether it's translating phrases such as "overseeing costing" and "time-in-grade" or figuring out how to sell a sous chef as a program analyst to the Department of Agriculture.
Government hiring is "a foreign land for people," said one of Troutman's competitors, Lily Whiteman. "There's so much mystery to it."
"The fact that there is a market for the services Kathryn provides is an indictment of the current system," said John Palguta, a former federal human resources official who is with the Partnership for Public Service. "You can't figure it out without some help."
This month, the Obama administration announced reforms that underscore how trying the process can be. By November, agency heads must begin accepting cover letters and résumés and do away with the lengthy essay-style questions, known as KSAs, that are supposed to assess applicants' "knowledge, skills and abilities."
The questions are deceptively simple, such as one for a public affairs position at the State Department that asks applicants to "please describe an experience you have had in which you have successfully communicated complex information to a general audience."
But the people, and in some cases computers, who read and score the answers to such questions aren't looking for poetry or wisdom. Rather, they search for specific key words -- and that's where Troutman's expertise can be helpful.
Another challenge that federal job seekers face is getting a response to their applications. The Obama administration wants to relieve the enormous backlog by shortening to 80 days the time between a job posting and a hiring announcement, a gap that can now stretch up to 200 days.Neighborly advice
Even in a reformed system, many applicants will still want help, hiring experts said. Troutman says anything that simplifies the process will be a boon because "more people will consider applying for federal jobs."
When Troutman talks to clients, she sounds like a neighbor who has popped in for coffee: friendly, unfiltered and a tiny bit pushy. She never stops working, answering e-mails from befuddled job seekers before she gets out of bed in the morning and before she goes to sleep. Her days are consumed with writing (she helps clients draft résumés and application essays), teaching or one-on-one consulting. She spends evenings working on the latest editions of her many guides to getting a federal job. She doesn't vacation much.
During a phone consultation with a client in Texas, a small-business owner with a pilot's license, Troutman grilled him on his work experience. When he offered an anecdote about transporting dolphins from Sea World, her face lit up.
"That's a good pilot dolphin story," she said. She gave him a long writing assignment and promised to check back in a few days.
"I have to inspire him to write, because otherwise, he's not going to," she said.
Troutman, a divorced mother of three who never finished college, has had rough stretches on her way to gross annual sales of about $2 million, a figure that she says has tripled in the past three years. She nearly went out of business at least twice, she says.
Her firm, the Résumé Place, is based in an industrial park in Catonsville, where Troutman grew up. She's one of five children of a former English teacher and a medical X-ray equipment salesman. She employs 40 people, including more than a dozen contract writers, a brother to whom she gave a kidney and her 90-year-old mother, who proofreads her work.
She estimates that her company deals with about 400 job seekers a week.Self-marketing
Troutman's fees can add up fast. She charges $380 for two 45-minute sessions. After being laid off in February from an aviation software firm, Bob Jurasek, 58, of Miami Beach plunked down $1,500 for help getting a job as an inspector with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Troutman said the job was a creative stretch for Jurasek, given his background in customer service. But she emphasized other aspects of his work history that were more relevant, and the FAA recently called him for an interview.
"I thought that was money well spent, because there was no way I would ever come up with this," Jurasek said of the result. "You or I might shy away from bragging, but that's what they want. They want to know you are the best in the world."
Hiring someone to cast you in the best light can backfire, raising questions for prospective employers about whether they can trust what they see on paper.
"If you are on the agency side, the question is, are you reviewing someone's writing or someone who was paid to write for them?" Palguta said.
Troutman said she and her staff don't make anything up. Most people are just terrible at marketing themselves.
"When I see their résumé, man alive, they are qualified for the job," she said. "They just don't present it on paper."
Former federal hiring managers said they weren't bothered by applicants who got professional help, because if someone's qualifications have been oversold, that will become obvious in the interview.
And résumé doctors can't guarantee success. Troutman recently worked with an expert on bomb-sniffing dogs who had helped hunt for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. With Troutman's help, he made it past the first cut, but he didn't get an interview for the job he sought with the Transportation Security Administration.
Troutman and others in the business say they don't keep track of how many clients get hired. "People love you when they get the job, and they don't when they don't," Whiteman said.
Even with the best advice, Troutman said, the key to getting a federal job is perseverance.
"You have to consider this a campaign," she said.