January 20 may be Inauguration Day to some, but to the federal career specialist David Waelde it's The Great Hiring Transition Day.
"Chances of getting hired -- or promoted -- as a career civil servant are better up through January 20 than they will be for the following several months," he told a group of mid-level federal workers at a recent career-advancement seminar.
"The rumors are going around that several agencies -- particularly in social services -- are stocking up because they fear that when Reagan takes office he'll put a freeze on hiring, and they'll be hit hard.
"And promotion possibilities are good if you've been valuable to someone in a patronage position. Nearly everyone in those jobs will get the ax, and they may try to promote you while they still can."
After January 20, when "Reagan starts bringing on board his top-level team," says Waelde, a former GS-14, "hiring in policy and supporting positions will rev up and hiring in career Civil Service positions will come to a near standstill.
"There will be a lot of confusion with people sitting on their hands, waiting to find out what their new bosses want to stress and what positions they want to fill."
While Waelde predicts Reagan will freeze federal hiring soon after taking office "to fullfill his campaign promise to cut down on big government," he says, "there'll probably be some fine print excluding essential government services -- like at the Defense Department, since he wants to beef up defense -- and air-traffic controllers who were one of the few unions to support him.
"Total freezes usually don't last too long. In the past, they've gone about six weeks before the agency heads come in and say they can't operate their programs. A change in administration and a shrinking workforce are diametrically opposed in the beginning."
These speculations about the new administration's effect on federal hiring were a special addition to Waelde's usual seminar on federal advancement (for which federal workers pay $95 each for materials, lunch and a day of indoctrination in the federal promotions game).
Called "Top-Notch SF 171 Preparation: Key to Federal Advancement," the course is one of two Waelde offers three times a year. The other is geared to helping people land federal jobs.
Waelde, a 40-year-old former computer systems manager, left his GS-14 position at the Public Building Service three years ago to start his own business as a federal career-development consultant.
"When you're in the government, you get lots of inquiries from people as to how they can get in, too. I had served on several selection panels so I knew how things worked.
"And it's a Catch-22 thing. If you're not in the system already, you're probably not going to be able to figure out how it works. Plus, I was in a golden handcuffs position, making $35,000 a year, but frustrated by not getting the support to do the things I wanted."
After leaving federal service, one of Waelde's first moves was to publish a 138-page guide on "How to Get a Federal Job and Advance." He runs employer-sponsored seminars at federal agencies and offers sessions to the public in cooperation with the Federal Research Service, a Vienna, Va.-based company that publishes a bimonthly listing of federal job openings.
Waelde recently listed for seminar participants (most of whom had worked for the government for more than five years and held positions at GS-11 and above) what he calls the "three basic career constraints to advancement in the government:"
Professional constraints: "While it may be obvious, we often don't want to face the fact that it's not possible to get an endless series of promotions from the same position. As a secretary, or accountant or whatever, you can only go so high."
"The federal workforce is diamond-shaped. There are just a handful of GS-1 jobs, more and more GS-3, -4, -5, -7 positions, on up to Gs-11 -- after which it tightens up again. So the competition gets tougher in the higher levels.
"You need to stop and think what additional skills you'll need to get the promotion you want. Check the position classification standards of the job you want and see what the typical duties are. Figure out how you can get that experience. It may mean going back to school, or it may mean asking for different responsibilities on your present job that will broaden your skills."
Organizational constraints: "Many people don't know that agencies often have staffing patterns allowing only a certain number of authorized positions at each grade level.
"So for you to be promoted, there must be a vacancy ahead of you. You could be the best in the world, but if everything's clogged up ahead of you, you may not be promoted. An agency change may be the only way to get out of that hole."
Personal constraints: "If you don't get along well with your supervisor, it's probably going to hurt your promotion possibilities."
But the single biggest pitfall to getting a federal job and advancing, says Waelde, "is poor SF 171 preparation. You've got to look at it as a work sample. They may get 200 applications for a GS-15 position, and only six or so will be referred to the selection office. You've got to make yourself stand out."
Among his advice for "top-notch 171 preparation":
Don't attach a resume. "It means the selection panel has to flip back and forth and makes a more cumbersome package."
Make concrete and specific statements. "Don't say 'I identified and analyzed major problems in federal aid programs.' Give examples of problems encountered, your analysis technique and several of the aid programs."
Customize formats. "You're not going to be able to describe your experience in eight lines, so cut and paste, then Xerox, to add space -- as long as it's neatly done. Paricularly for positions at GS-13 and above, you've got to tailor your 171 to the specific job."