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Mary Ellen Slayter and Dennis Damp
Washington Post Staff Writer and guest
Monday, November 19, 2007; 2:00 PM

The Washington area is a magnet for smart and ambitious workers. Post columnist Mary Ellen Slayter writes a regular column for these professionals who are either establishing their careers or are looking to advance. She also offers advice online.

Mary Ellen Slayter is author of Career Track, a biweekly column in The Washington Post's Jobs section. She focuses her chat on issues affecting working professionals.

Read Mary Ellen's latest Career Track column.

Find more career-related news and advice in our Jobs section.

The transcript follows below.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Good afternoon! Today our guest is Dennis Damp, author of "The Book of U.S. Government Jobs." He is a great resource for any questions you have about getting into the federal sector.

Dennis Damp: Thanks for inviting me and I see there are lots of interesting questions to respond to.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Mary Ellen. I am currently taking evening grad school classes in a field that is unrelated to the one that I currently work in. I'm trying to get a job or internship in this new field (PR) but the problem is that my current job (sales, 100 percent commission) is literally not paying me enough money to cover my bills.

Long story short, I can't afford to stay at my current position any longer (I am dipping into savings, credit cards etc, three coworkers are about to give two-weeks notice) so in desperation I am probably going to have to get a job at a restaurant or something until a new position comes through. How do I go about explaining this to future employers? I've been told that a gap in your employment history is career kryptonite, but I don't really want to put "server for three weeks" on an otherwise good resume. Current employer has made it clear that they won't make help out employees with salary/hourly wage during this financial crisis, which has been going on for a few months.

Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: A three week gap isn't "career kryponite" either, especially not while you are in school. Do what you need to do to pay the bills. Do not worry about your resume right now; just worry about paying the rent.

Dennis Damp: You would benefit from researching federal student employment options under the "Student Career Experience Program"(SCEP). This progran can provide work related experience for your new career and particpants may qualify for conversion to a career or career-conditional appointment. Check out your options online at http://www.studentjobs.gov. We hired many students when I was working for the FAA and a good number were able to convert to full time employment after completing their education. It is a great opportunity for individuals in your situation.

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Washington, D.C.: Please help me. I went to school, my parents said they would pay for my loans when I graduated, but their finances took a turn for the worst and they are not able to help me.

That said, I am paying $1,700 a month in student loan payments - this will be for the next 30 yaers! I luckily have a job that I can manage that with. I'll probably make $80,000 this year with bonuses, but I hate my job. I hate it so much. I feel like I can't get out, though, because I need the money.

I only have a year's experience. Help.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Oh god, what a horrible feeling that must be, both for you and your parents.

Is there any way you can pare down expenses to pay ahead on the loan? What do you do for a living? Is it just this job, or the whole career that you hate?

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Community college: Mary Ellen, I've been trying to get a job teaching at the community college level but no luck so far. I have a Masters degree in the subject area, but a problem seems to be that I only have a year and a half of teaching experience -- and it wasn't at the college level. I've been out of school for a year and can't find a job. How can I get college level teaching experience if no one will hire me? Is there anything I can do to make myself a more desirable candidate? Thanks for your thoughts!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Academia is so competitive that even community college teaching jobs are held by people with PhDs, who were able to get teaching experience as part of their degree program.

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Anonymous: I have been retired for the past three years, I have been trying to get a job steadily since the summer and have gotten no job offers. I stated in my cover letter that I have been renovating my condo and that I have knowledge of MS Word, Excel and Office Access. Do you think my gap in employment is stopping me from being hired? I was employed at the same company for the past 18 + years. Please advise, thank you!

Dennis Damp: As long as you explain your break in service you should be fine. Employers need to know the reason why you had a 3 year break in service and retirement alone, may be sufficient to explain this on your resume. Many retirees return to work for many different reasons.

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Richmond, Va.: My son is getting ready to graduate (May 2008) from West Virginia University with a degree in mechanical engineering. He's not sure if he wants to move to the D.C. area and look for work there, or come back home to Richmond to start his career. Any advice as to the job opportunities for engineers in either of these to markets?

Mary Ellen Slayter: He should start with the career office at his school.

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Washington, D.C.: How do you provide salary history to an employer? Do you put it with your resume or as a separate attachment? I've never seen any guidelines on this. If it matters, this is only for what will hopefully be my second job out of college. Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: If they are absolutely insistent that you provide one (and y'all know how much I hate that expectation!), put it in a separate document.

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North Carolina: Is it ever a good idea to take a pay cut in order to move yourself into a position for future success? I currently work in higher education and would like to move into information technology. Currently, I'm discovering that I may need to take a slightly lower salary to get my foot in the IT door and then move up. Any suggestions?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Sure. People do this all the time. Can you live on the slightly lower salary for the time you (conservatively) estimate that you will need to catch back up?

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Lexington Park, Md.: I have no college education, a broken foot, and have been recently laid off. I have been looking for employment but either can't be on my feet for too long or don't have enough education. What should I do?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Is going to college an option?

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Baltimore, Md.: I'm the one who wrote in about my adult son and asking for information on career counselors. While you did give me advice on "potty training and making him eat his vegetables," I did not see any practical suggestions on the real question of job counselors and how I go about finding them!

Perhaps my question was not clear. My son does have a job, though not one in his career path. As to his being depressed, yes, I think he is depressed, but that has evolved with the many rejections; he has put in for numerous positions, many with the federal government, to no avail. That is why I was asking about career counselors, as I thought an unbiased third party could help. He would be receptive, but probably could not afford it. I wanted to give some names of places (and hoping you could help me with that) and offer to pay the fee.

Thanks for any information you can provide.

"Baltimore, Md.: My adult son has had a hard time in the job hunting process. We have lots of suggestions, but, as the adult child, I think it's hard to accept advice. There's only so much a parent can do without looking like a "helicopter parent," or without alienating the son.

I think the ideal thing would be to work with an employment coach, if there is such a thing. I know there are headhunters, employment agencies, but I'm thinking of a little more, someone who would work with the client on presentation/interview issues and written materials. Or does that not exist? We'd be happy to pay the fee, but there's too much emotion involved as parents for us to be the mentors in this case.

Do you have any suggestions?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Mostly, you might need to leave him alone. You couldn't -make- him eat his veggies or use the potty and you can't "make" him get a job.

That said, do you think he's depressed? I.e., is this a motivation problem or a skills problem? That would guide the type of professional help I think he might need. There are lots of career coaches out there who could help with the latter. But he has to want to work with them."

Mary Ellen Slayter: You're right, my answer was a bit smarmy. Sorry. I get a lot of questions from parents trying to direct their adult children's career paths.

What you (erm, your son) are looking for is a career coach or counselor. I can't recommend a specific one, but you shouldn't have trouble finding a good one after making a few phone calls. Your son should do this, by the way, since he's the one that has to click with this person.

Here's one resource to get started:

http://www.ncda.org/

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Baltimore, Md.: I am in the federal career intern program at HHS (CMS). I am new to the Federal government arena and am looking for a mentor as there is no mentoring program in place at my agency. I would like to know what are some of the qualities that I should look for in a mentor and if there are some pointers that I can have to best utilize the mentor-mentee relationship.

Dennis Damp: In the federal sector there are many options for you to consider. Since they don't have an offical mentoring program, look for someone in your office or agency that you know personnaly or that others may recommend that volunteers to help without asking, is congenial, and knowledgeable about your area of expertice. Start with your supervisor and ask him/her for assistance and a recommendation. Internships are designed to train potential new employees in complex areas of operations and interns need considerable guidance, training, and encouragement. This should be built into the Internship program. When you can't find a mentor rely on governing federal regulations, read the regs and any liturature that is available for your area to gain knowledge and experince, ask fellow workers and don't be afraid to ask for help.

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Baltimore, Md.: My sig. other just found out she's being let go from a job at which she's been very happy and has recieved kudos. The only reason that she's been given is that there are too many people ahead of her in line for promotions and that there's no room for her at the top. She's being given a while to find a new position and is expected to work in the interim. When she's interviewing, should she be honest about being let go or let people assume that she could continue working for the company if she wanted to?

Mary Ellen Slayter: They're going to ask why she is leaving, and she should be honest. Has she talked with her soon-to-be-former-supervisors about references? That will be key.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I have a resume-related issue that I am not sure how to address.

I have worked for two companies, including my current company, that have changed names while I worked there. One was bought out by a larger corporation, and the other one was spun off as a "new" company after another company purchased the old company. In both cases, my job remained exactly the same as before.

I am not sure how I should list these companies on my resume. Should I say something to the effect of "ABC, Inc. (formerly ACME, Co.)," or should I not list the previous company at all, even though I worked for another company my first few years of doing the same job?

Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I would go with the "ABC, Inc. (formerly ACME, Co.)" approach.

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Tysons Corner, Va.: Good afternoon. I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my question. I graduated in 2004 with a BS in marketing minor in economics and information technology. I have worked in an office/IT environment since graduation. I am one class a way from completing a federal contract management certification. I have started to look for jobs in the contract management area with the government, but I am bumping into the "no experience problem." How much if any is this certification weighed? Any suggestions on where to look for a job in this field? How can I balance the no work but education scenario?

Dennis Damp: To get a handle on the required experience and training for any position read the job announcement front to back and the job series qualification standards. If you are in IT look for job announcements on http://usajobs.gov for job series 2210. The announcement will outline the required minimum experience and education for that job. If you don't qualify for the job series and grade that is advertised, search for a lower grade position. For example, the GS-2210-13 grade requires considerably more experience and education than a GS-2210-110 grade. Also look up a copy of the qualitfication standards, go to http://federaljobs.net/quals2.htm for a listings of standards.

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If they are absolutely insistent that you provide one : Would you suggest that I just send the resume and wait and see if/when I'm contacted about the job is they ask for the salary history? I agree with you 100 percent on this topic and would prefer not to provide it. Very frustrating.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Where is the application going? To an actual person or to a faceless database? Do you know?

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Anonymous: Should the employeer approach an intern about a possible full-time job or should it be the other way around?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Either way is fine. Maybe they'll bump into each other in the hall!

I tell interns they need to take the initiative, but employers should keep in mind that interns are still new to the workplace and can find the whole office environment intimidating.

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Charlottesville, Va.: For the person with the student loan problem...Even with 200,000 in student loans, it shouldn't take more than 10 years of payments at $2,302 a month with an interest rate of 6.8 percent. Try to reconsolidate at a lower rate if you can and maybe a career in a different field will become more affordable with lower student loan payments.

If the field you are in is indeed unbearable, there are some career fields that will help you pay off or forgive your student loans (ie: military) in much less time that cater to almost any degree you may have received (from doctor to accounting).

Mary Ellen Slayter: Some help for the deeply in debt ...

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Dennis, what's the most important thing that a would-be federal worker needs to keep in mind as they are looking for a job?

Dennis Damp: One of the most important things to keep in mind is that your application isn't completed until ALL of the paperwork is done and DONE RIGHT. Many applicants don't read the job announcment thoroughly and they miss important submissions such as required Knowledge, Skills and Abilities (KSA) statments, or occupational Questionaires. They also submit insufficient or incomplete work histories and don't tailor their application to the job announcement. The Book of U.S. Government Jobs guides job seekers through the often complex federal hiring process and helps them focus on what they need to do to get noticed and hired by Uncle Sam. The book's complimentary web site at http://federaljobs.net also provides a lot of helpful information as well.

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Parental Career Advice: I find it sort of sad when parents insert themselves into their children's careers. It's good to be supportive, but adults do not need other adults to track down career counselors. It's a parent's responsibility to care and listen, but NOT to swoop in and fix things or find a career counselor.

(Or maybe I'm just bitter because I've actually gotten calls from colleague's parents, asking about work problems! Sheesh.)

Mary Ellen Slayter: At another newspaper where I used to work, our sports editor once fielded daily calls from this one guy's mother about getting an internship. The guy was a college graduate. She even dropped off his resume. We never even saw the guy!

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Silver Spring, Md.: My daughter will be graduating soon with a BA in graphic design. I told her that government jobs seem to have more security. Are there any agencies that hire graphic designers within the federal government?

Mary Ellen Slayter: All agencies hire graphic designers, I suspect.

But security isn't everything, you know. What does *she* want to do?

_______________________

Rockville, Md.: I'll be having my first ever formal performance review (been in the work force awhile but just always worked for super-small companies where raises/bonuses were handled with a casual conversation) and I'm really nervous. Lots of questions but will just ask about the $ part. In all honesty, I feel like I was hired at an outrageously high salary for my position. That said, I've worked extremely hard this year and benefited the company quite a bit. So, do I proceed with the assumption that they know what they're doing and obviously wouldn't be paying me what they are if they didn't think I was worth it, or figure that they realized their mistake and will make up for it with little or no raise/bonus?

Mary Ellen Slayter: If you made money for them, show them how. At the very least, ask for a cost of living raise.

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Fairfax, Va.: Are the internet job sites (monster.com, etc.) a good means of finding a job. How effective these are in terms of getting your resume in front of the right people?

Dennis Damp: Monster.com and other posting sites are helpful and many employers will be able to view your resume instantly. The search features they offer are very helfpul for employers. Monster resume postings are free. Don't stop there, look for job classifieds in your local newspaper, explore federal government jobs online at http://usajobs.gov and at http://federaljobs.net/federal.htm. Uncle sam typically advertises 20,000 plus jobs weekly. Look for state and local govenment jobs as well. Expand your search and your chances of success will multiply ten fold.

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Washington, D.C.: For administrative professionals, what types of things should be expected during a background check?

Mary Ellen Slayter: It depends on where you will be working. A criminal record check is standard, along with calling your former employers (not just the ones you list as references). They may also pull your credit.

If it's for a job that requires a security clearance, it will be more involved.

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Washington, D.C.: I can't seem to get an interview for a federal job -- though I am qualified for and have applied through US Jobs. Any advice on how to make it to the interview stage?

Dennis Damp: The key is tailoring your federal style resume to the job announcement. Many that apply for federal jobs spend too little time compiling their work history and focusing on their special qualifications. Take a highlighter and under Duties and Specialized Experience on the Job Announcement that you are bidding on highlight the key words and phrases. Then use those EXACT SAME words and pharses in your work history and KSA writeups if you in fact have that experience. So many don't do this and talk all around the required duties and never mention them. This alone can help.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm seriously considering switching from political consulting to corporate consulting. Basically for a change in lifestyle--don't want to give up my personal life completely every September and October, and also need to leave the D.C. area for my husband's job.

What's the best way to explain this desired switch to potential employers? Obviously not that I want to work less hours.

And how can I convince them that this is serious desire to change careers? I applied for one corporate position three years ago, and they told me they were concerened I'd be bored by non-political work.

Any advice is appreciated.

Dennis Damp: What have you done to prepare for this change to corporate consulting? If you have taken related courses or other self development initiatives expand on them in your job application and during the interview. It isn't enough to want a change you have to plan and prepare for it, and anything that you can do to learn about your new area of interst will help. A change of pace can be refreshing and good for not only you but the new company you approach. You have to prove to them that you have much to bring to the table and think about what you are doing now in your job that many be benefical on the other side such as contacts, your network of clients, and associates, etc.

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Student loans, hate job: To follow up - I hate the whole career path that it is. I have cut back on EVERYTHING - I can't cut back anymore.

Mary Ellen Slayter: What's the total amount of the loans?

Do you know what other kind of work you'd like to do?

_______________________

WVU Engineering Graduate: There are PLENTY of opportunities in the DC Area for engineering graduates. I work for an engineering company and we do recruit from there. If I'm able to I'm more than happy to give the name of the company. We also have an office in Richmond but I'm not sure what type of engineering they specialize in.

If your son has good grades he should do well here. Good luck to him!

Mary Ellen Slayter: For our engineering grad ...

_______________________

Wallingford, Conn.: I am a 66-year-old senior who has been out of the workforce for two years (voluntarily).

I would like to return to the workplace. What should my approach be?

Dennis Damp: Your approach depends on your needs and desires. To retire successfully you have to be emotionally, financially, and physically able and prepared. I would visit my retirement planning site at http://federaljobs.net/retire that may give you some points to ponder with your retirement and job search. There are many options for you to consider and most are determined by what you need to gain from the work. Many reitees need income, others desire the social interaction, etc.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Damp: I work for a federal agency through the Career Entry Program, which is a two-year exempted service position. I would very much like to continue to work at this agency after the two years are up, but my current office has basically stated that they don't have the funds to hire me on.

In the meantime, I have been informed that I don't qualify as an agency employee for the purpose of applying for additional jobs.

I'm feeling kind of stuck. I finish this program at a GS-9 level, and it seems like no jobs come up in my agency at that level except specialized work for which I am not qualified (ie IT).

Any suggestions?

Dennis Damp: There are many options for you to consider. You are currently an exempted employee and that is why you can't bid on internal jobs with this agency. However, you can apply for any job you qualify for with any agency through the competative process. Visit http://usajobs.gov and seach the job listings for the jobs series you qualify for and apply for any and all vacancies. Also visit http://federaljobs.net/federal.htm for a list of 143 federal personnel offices and other listing services to locate opportunities at ALL federal offices in your area. Look at all agencies in your area and remember you have two years of federal wrok experience that can help get you in the door. Focus on you federal style resume. It will be the key that opens the doors for you especially with your two years of federal work history behind you.

_______________________

Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for all your comments and questions! And thanks to Mr. Damp for joining us.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving holiday!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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