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Résumé adviser helps ranks of would-be federal workers navigate applications

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010

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.

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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.

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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."

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