Federal Diary Live

Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, April 2, 2008; 12:00 PM

The Post's Stephen Barr is the author of The Federal Diary, which runs Monday through Friday in the Business news section. Steve has been a reporter and editor at The Post since 1979, including stints as Federal Page editor, congressional editor and a National staff writer covering federal management and workplace issues. He began writing the column in May 2000, and takes the column live to answer your questions Wednesdays at noon ET.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Federal Diary Live transcripts


Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining in this discussion today. In a cab returning from Capitol Hill this morning, the driver remarked that spring has brought him new energy. Nothing like sunshine! Look forwarding to hearing from you about where the spotlight should be in this discussion. Thanks again for your participation!


Detroit: I'm a 26-year Department of Defense employee with about seven years to go. I have the worst of all worlds: a younger boss's who doesn't care about me, awful demographics (male, white and 50s), a job that is leading me nowhere and a Defense Department organization that is bent on hiring Millennials rather than experience. How do I get out of this?

Stephen Barr: You go home, pull up that comfortable chair, and mentally walk back through your professional life and figure out what you offer that other people cannot, and then write it into your resume and a cover letter and start looking for a new place.

That's almost a stock, glib response, but my larger point is that you've got to create new options for, basically, a second career or a next-step job. It is not easy. We start our careers with a range of options, and they do seem to narrow or disappear about the time we hit mid-career. That is a shock, in a way. And charting out new choices involves tough questions -- can I afford the financial risk, will I be as happy as I have been at work, am I willing to move, etc.?

If your job is leading you nowhere, then, to me, that's a sign you are ready for change. Best of luck!


zendrell: Hell, the federal government is just as bad as the civilian sector. Not only do they not want military types, they do all they can to make them unhappy and drive them away if they do get a job. Why? We upset the good ol' boy/girl system by being smarter and able to think in broader terms than they do. Oh yes, it ruins the friends-and-family hiring plan.

washingtonpost.com: Veterans Return To Bleak Job Market (Post, April 1)

Stephen Barr: Some agencies do better than others in recruiting veterans. And I expect the next White House to refocus agencies on the importance of hiring veterans as the stage(s) of the Iraq-Afghanistan wars unfold. But the government is not the right place for all returning veterans, and let's give a tip of our hat to the VA for commissioning studies aimed at fine-tuning job and benefit programs so that they better serve the troops.


173rd: "Private-sector personnel officials, for example, reported that many veterans 'were not prepared to market themselves to the business environment -- they did not seem to understand the culture and expectations; thus were not career ready,' the study says."

Seems more like an indictment of the private sector culture. They've already "marketed" themselves for you, and shouldn't have to jump through more hoops to win your appreciation. Seems that the current climate of corporate self-centeredness permeates every level of America. How about reframing the problem: Private sector personnel officials have done little to understand the training and discipline these fine young men and women bring from a culture that corporate America doesn't fully appreciate or embrace. The more I read that quote, the more annoying, patronizing and self-serving I find it.

Stephen Barr: No doubt that many Americans have little understanding of the rigors of military service or identify with its values.

In talking to business people, the VA consultants found that they are concerned that returning military troops often cannot demonstrate a business aptitude based on past experiences and are not ready to quickly contribute to a profit-making environment.

These business people admired the work ethic, discipline, integrity and maturity of veterans, but were concerned about possible lack of creativity, lack of specific business knowledge and perhaps rigid or inflexible attitudes.

This is where the VA can play a big role -- helping both parties better understand one another.


panamajack: To those who say our returning young veterans have no appreciable job skills, I respectfully say "hogwash." At this very moment, 18- and 19-year-old kids are jockeying fighter jets into position for takeoff from a pitching carrier deck at sea. I know because I witnessed them first-hand. They are taking point in patrols in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are caring for the wounded in combat zones and field hospitals. I could go on, but there simply isn't enough space to do it. These young men and women have more responsibility and authority in their hands and face down more challenges and danger during their initial enlistment than many people face their entire lives. They have the skills, all right.

The problem is translating those skills into a "civilian" context so that the uninformed/unenlightened/unappreciative hiring decision-maker interviewing them can understand. Employers hiring vets know they're getting the real deal, and not some "well-connected" graduate from an Ivy League school with no experience in the real world. Uncle Sam needs to aggressively enforce the veteran employment laws already on the books.

Stephen Barr: Well said. Thank you!


katem2: This situation is so much like the early-mid 1970s, where we had stagflation, no jobs, and tons of veterans coming home from an unpopular war and looking for jobs/competing with recent college grads etc. Quotas get set up, people get aggravated, blame starts going around ... it's unhealthy. We need to get this economy revved back up so we can all work and feed our families.

Stephen Barr: Yes, the bleak employment prospects facing returning military personnel can only be compounded by this economic slowdown.


Rockville, Md.: Steve: Thanks for the chats. I know someone who has been trying for months to get a job with the feds ... the applications are great -- she writes well and can speak well (considering there are a lot of people out there) but gets nothing back from the vacancy announcement. This woman has a double college degree, has been working in the private sector for nine years, and can't even get a "thank you but no answer." Do you think the HR departments of the feds ever will wake up and smell the coffee about new applicants? I sure would like them to be on the receiving end -- maybe it would wake them up.

Stephen Barr: Many critics will tell you that the government is too insular and that the hiring process is broken. Agency officials feel tied up in red tape, and few are willing to make a job offer on the spot because they sometimes don't even know if a slot has been approved or if the budget will support an extra person. There's a general fear now that the government is simply missing out on great people.


Denver: Why the cumbersome (notwithstanding the Office of Personnel Management's claims to the opposite) hiring process to get a federal government job? I've applied recently to the private sector -- it took a brief cover letter and a resume. And I got a job! In my 35 years in government service I had to answer hundreds of KSA responses and fill out the standard questionnaires (I am the expert -- you give me the question and I'll mark the expert response) only to wait ... and wait ... and... Often, many months after the vacancy closed, I would get a form response indicating the job was cancelled. The system has discouraged my kids from applying, my friends from applying ... OPM should remember the KISS principle. Thank you.

Stephen Barr: Thanks, Denver. Federal hiring officials have tied themselves in a knot over knowledge, skills and abilities. Sure, they are very important. But can agencies ask the right questions when they seemingly never interview people?


Probably a Stupid Question: I'm a current fed in a specialized field where my skills would be very useful in both the private and public spheres. I have been given the opportunity to be an independent consultant in this field, but am concerned about my current agency's reaction. Whom do I talk to to discuss "rules" about leaving (i.e. noncompete clauses, etc.)? I know I signed a bunch of paperwork way back when, but can't remember what I promised "not" to do. The ethics office? Anybody out there have any suggestions? Thanks.

Stephen Barr: Yes, your agency ethics office is a good place to start, as well as the HR department. Also check out the Office of Government Ethics Web site, which has a list of important laws and key rulings, with some explained in a friendly format.


MarkUSAF: I would agree with this assessment if it were taken in real context. Let's return to the booming '90s when all was well and everyone was working ... well guess what, the unemployment rate average was 5 percent during those booming years under Clinton. Why is it so bleak now that the unemployment rate has reached the 1990s average? I am retired from the military, and I can tell you that there are plenty of job opportunities in the private industry -- not to mention the good old federal government, which is experiencing a retirement crisis and needs plenty of folks, including vets...

Stephen Barr: Good point. Part of the gloom these days involves falling home prices in some parts of the country and the uncertainty of the stock market. But you are on point -- the government will have a substantial number of jobs to fill in coming years as baby boomers retire, and returning war veterans should have a chance to compete for those jobs.


WilliamB1: An Oct. 14 article in The Washington Post addressed this very issue more directly: Veterans generally do not get hired because they are veterans. There is a fear on the part of the employer that she or he may be deployed, and why pay someone who's not going to be at work? I imagine that no-one wishes to deal with a PTSD sufferer either, but that is something that is not explicitly stated either in your article or the one I mentioned.

Either way, an 18 percent unemployment rate amongst veterans is shameful. This country should be doing much more to help my fellow service members transition back into society. Given the proper motivation, veterans will take the ball that is handed to them and run with it on their own. We're not asking for a handout; we're simply asking for help. For America to give us the cold-shoulder/stiff-arm treatment for doing the job it authorized us to do is nothing short of betrayal, and perhaps the next time you ask us to fight on your behalf, maybe we should consider saying "no."

washingtonpost.com: When Service Limits Options (Post, Oct. 14)

Stephen Barr: I do not disagree. Some employers look at veterans and automatically assume a negative -- the applicant is at risk of PTSD or the risk of after-effects of combat. Employers should appreciate the positives -- people who are team players, problem solvers and understand the importance of good leadership.


Fort Mead, Md.: For Detroit, I had the worst of all worlds: a boss who just hired young contractors with no experience in the current system we were administering, paid no attention to my expertise and did not care about me. I have the same awful demographics (male, white and 53), a job that was leading me nowhere and was bent on hiring Millennials rather than experience. How did I get out of this?

I was not old enough to retire and was headed for deep depression. I hit USAJobs every morning before starting my work day. I started getting some interviews and finally landed a new fed job with a promotion last fall. Hang in there -- I was on the verge of quitting and heading to the private sector. This would have hurt my retirement benefits, especially the health care. That would have been gone if I did not wait until I reached age with 30 years of service. I'm glad I didn't let my bosses force me to leave. I'm enjoying my new job with more pay, plus we have a mix of young, middle-aged and over 50. I can retire in four years, but may not want to. Good luck, and as Steve says, sit down and highlight the good experience in you!

Stephen Barr: Thank you for sharing your story!


Annapolis, Md.: I am a former career federal government employee who has been in the commercial work force for the past 14 years. In the past year I have applied for maybe 34-36 government positions and been notified that that I was rated to be on the "Best Qualified" list about 10-12 times. Out of the 10-12 I have been called for one interview. Is there any way to increase my interview opportunities?

Stephen Barr: I sometimes think that landing a job in the government is akin to all these high school students trying to get into the Ivy League. It seems there are about 14 qualified applicants for every job.

I've got no good advice for you, but will offer two thoughts: Pull together the job openings and see if you can spot any part of your application that did not directly address what the agencies were looking for, like some KSA thing. After that, toss out a few cold calls to the agencies and see if someone is willing to look at your application that was rejected and offer suggestions on how to improve it.

But when it comes to federal job hunting -- patience is a must!


Washington: In response to MarkUSAF -- there might be jobs with the feds, you just can't get there from here ... if you are on the outside. You need a job, but with the feds it takes forever, so you give up and find something else. Have you ever wondered how the people who make the decisions at OPM got their job? It certainly wasn't by applying like the rest of us did -- they were appointed.

Stephen Barr: The long wait for feedback from agencies discourages many people from even applying or sticking with the process. As my friends often say, it is best to look for a job when you have one. That's a luxury some veterans do not have.


WilliamB1: says something entirely too true. The veterans (be it Iraq, Vietnam, World War II) deserve everything we can give them for what they did so we could have these jobs. Again -- the feds at work ... shameful. Too bad we can't do more than complain about it in a chat!

Stephen Barr: Well, talk is cheap, but hopefully it can also focus agencies on what's important.


Military to civilian: How does jockeying fighter jets into position for takeoff translate into a job that an Ivy Leaguer might be applying for, like sales or business administration? Unless the applicant can make the connection for the company, the company is not going to make the extra effort to figure it out themselves, when there are college grad applicants whose experience is easier to understand.

Stephen Barr: Good point. This is where the VA and Department of Defense need to scrub their transition programs and make sure that returning service members understand how to approach employers.


Temple Hills, Md.: How much longer do you think the National Security Personnel System (NSPS) will be around?

Stephen Barr: I don't think we'll know the answer to that until after Jan. 20 -- with a new president and a new Defense secretary.

But NSPS may continue for some years, with modifications, for sure. Congress, for instance, has placed a limit on the system, so that only 40 percent of the annual pay raise can be tied to job performance ratings, instead of the 100 percent that was a goal of NSPS.

It's also important to note that Congress has had a few chances to end NSPS but has not. Some members want to give this experiment a chance to succeed.


Huntingtown, Md.: Hi Steve! Interesting discussion so far today, and I thought I'd put my two cents worth in on a few items related to the Federal hiring process. As an HR specialist my agency is looking at looming serious budget cuts for 2009, so most of our recruitment efforts are for very specialized positions (research scientists with Ph.D.s). Everything else is few and far between this year.

One thing I note when individuals complain about the federal process is that they assume they are only one of a handful of applicants. Many times there are more than 100 applications for different types of positions. The competition is getting tougher, and those who don't take a second look at their own resume, skills, etc., and send in a good package are not making it to the certificates of eligibles. You must sell yourself on paper first before you'll get an interview, and the sloppy resumes coming in are hurting people. It's not a race -- people need to slow down and really sell themselves, and always proofread your resume!

Lastly, the federal government uses a competitive hiring process that was put in place eons ago to protect the employment rights of all citizens. It helps to prevent nepotism and favoritism, and believe me it does help! Folks wanting federal jobs need to read the entire vacancy announcement and make sure their applications include everything, and then they need to sell their skills and abilities. There is no magic here. Just my two cents worth ... it's not the federal HR community creating all the problems.

Stephen Barr: Thanks, Huntingtown! All good points.


davethewave1: I read the 10 items, and it is dead-on. One factor that I think needs to be part of the list is that those in top-level director leadership need to get away from their desks and visit the sites. They need to create a dialogue with the workers on the problems faced there (overtasking, undermanning, redundancy, etc.). It's not at the lowest directorate levels that this needs to happen, because often those low-level directors' goals are the next SES position, and not how their workers can do a better job.

In my division we are overtasked with very small steps to get things done. We don't have a centralized system when complicated with having to wait for other divisions' signature block. We have four different softwares and one homemade program that it takes to accomplish one task from start to finish. If those at the top simply would get task forces together comprised of workers, and not their low level bosses, a sound program might actually prove to work.

That requires the person at the top to listen to the workers and not invite their bosses, so that the workers are free to tell what is and isn't really working. You would be surprised how many low-level directors who typically came from the ranks have forgotten the workload, but this occurs because they are bucking for a position and/or don't have the backbone to approach their superiors on issues that are real and overtasking.

Stephen Barr: This poster is referring to Monday's column on the top 10 list prepared by the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Government faces some big challenges, as the list shows, and that makes it even more important for agencies to rethink their hiring policies.


washingtonpost.com: Govern by Number (Post, March 31)


Washington: I think it is important to realize that with the lowering of standards to increase recruitment in the military, it is not a sure thing that a veteran is qualified or highly skilled. I have worked with several members of the military in civilian jobs and I was less than impressed. They had poor written skills and a severe lack of creativity. Not every job in the military is as technical or highly skilled as working on a fighter jet.

Stephen Barr: That can be the case. What caught my eye in the VA consultant's study is that finding a job is tougher for veterans than for civilians of similar age and education. Now, this conclusion is based on some very complex data sets and statistical analysis, and the VA is trying to drill down and take a closer look at the data.


Washington: thought you'd find this humorous. For all those Federal employees who wonder what they get out of giving up their hopes and dreams in exchange for a government pension, I noticed that a McDonald's between 9th and 10th streets on E Street is giving a "government discount" Mondays and Fridays. Maybe it's for spoiled food, but it's a good thought; maybe more should try?

Stephen Barr: Thank goodness this is April 2, and not April Fool's Day!

Looks to me like this is an outlet that knows the neighborhood and is trying to get more customers. Let's hope the practice spreads!

Once again, we've run out of time today. Thanks for joining this discussion, and please join us at noon next Wednesday!


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