By Joe Davidson
Thursday, May 27, 2010; B03
What do you do if much of your livelihood is devoted to repairing something that is no longer broken?
That's a question facing consultants who help people navigate a federal hiring process that President Obama and Congress want to fix.
A directive signed by Obama and legislation passed by the Senate, both this month, promise an overhaul of a badly damaged system. Much of what the administration and Congress are planning is designed to make the hiring process easier and faster.
"For far too long, our HR systems have been a hindrance," said John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel, as he announced the presidential memorandum this month.
That hindrance created a market. Application hassles resulted in a demand for assistance in navigating the federal hiring maze.
So, with major changes on the horizon, do consultants fear business disappearing?
In fact, Lily Whiteman, author of "How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job," says she's confident "business will continue to boom." One reason is the theory of supply and demand.
"If I lost only a fraction of the number who ask me for help, I'd still be overloaded," she said. "There's a huge volume of people who want to get into the system, and there's only a handful of people like me, who help people get into the system."
Ironically, previous hiring reforms nourished the cottage industry of federal jobs gurus. After a consent decree abolished the old standard civil service test in the 1980s, federal agencies began using more essay-style questions to help select applicants. In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration decided to phase out a standard job application form called the SF-171, spurring employees to convert their SF-171s into another optional form or a regular résumé. Both changes created a demand for paid help.
Increased emphasis on résumés (not in a set government style) is a primary feature of the planned reforms. Members of Congress and the White House want to move away from candidates' writing essays, known as KSAs, about their knowledge, skills and abilities, and toward the cover letter/résumé-based system common in the private sector.
"This will save applicants millions of person-hours and money too," Berry predicted.
Helping people write KSAs constitutes a good chunk of her business -- about 25 percent, Whiteman said. All of that won't disappear under a new federal hiring system.
"KSAs might be gone, and most feel like 'Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead,' but the last nail on them has not been hit," she said.
Obama's plan eliminates essay questions as an initial requirement. They may continue to be used, however, once a candidate advances in the application process. And Whiteman, who is employed full time as a government writer, thinks some agencies "might try to slip them in under different names."
One reason Whiteman and another consultant, Derrick T. Dortch, president of Diversa Group (both have written for The Washington Post), expect their business forecasts to remain bright is that a good portion of their work is with federal employees who want to change jobs.
"I get a lot of clients who are BRAC-impacted," Dortch said of workers affected by military base closings ordered by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission. Their offices could be moving across the country, but Dortch's clients want to stay in the D.C. area by changing agencies.
A lot of his work in these cases is assisting clients in writing a package of materials devoid of the military jargon that's a foreign language to hiring managers in other departments.
He mentioned a National Science Foundation recruiter who complained that résumés from some federal workers are so filled with acronyms that he didn't understand them. Employees may know the ins and outs of their own agencies, but helping them find a good fit in the vast federal government requires help, the consultants said.
Whiteman said many people don't realize that "excepted-service" positions, those not included in the regular competitive hiring process, often offer higher pay. "If you move from a competitive agency to an excepted-service agency you can get a huge boost in salary," she said.
Agencies that regulate the financial sector "compete with Wall Street for people, so their salaries are way higher than a comparable job in another agency," Whiteman said.
Between people trying to get into the government and those trying to move around in it, the federal job consultants see fat times ahead.
"I get e-mails and phone calls every day from desperate people begging for help," Whiteman said.
Staff writer Annys Shin contributed to this column.