5 Tips for Getting a Government Job
The pay and benefits can be great, but the application process has its own special protocol
Nancy Collamer, M.S., is a career coach, speaker and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. Her website is MyLifestyleCareer.com; on Twitter she is @NancyCollamer.
Employment opportunities exist in all 50 states and overseas. You may be surprised to learn — as I was when I started researching this blog post — that 84 percent of federal jobs are located outside Washington, D.C. This could be the ideal moment to look for one.
Why Federal Jobs May Open Up
According to the Office of Personnel Management, there are 2.3 million federal civilian employees — and about a quarter of them are eligible for retirement. As agencies begin to lose these older workers, they’ll look for experienced replacements. Many federal departments lack the bench strength to fill these slots internally, so you just may be the ideal candidate.
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Admittedly, the enormous federal deficit could lead Congress and the president to cut the U.S. government’s workforce as part of a plan to deal with the budget crisis. It's impossible at this moment to predict how many positions might be trimmed or which agencies would be most affected.
Federal Pay and Benefits
Nonetheless, I believe you might want to explore this path now, especially for a second-act career. Salaries for federal jobs are often surprisingly competitive with those in the private sector, especially for middle-management jobs, which can sometimes pay more than $100,000. Federal health insurance and retirement benefits are also increasingly more attractive than those offered by businesses.
To help you find and apply for federal jobs, I turned to Tim McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service. His non-profit, non-partisan group aims to inspire people to consider public service. Here are his five recommendations:
1. Acquaint yourself with the landscape. Although we tend to think of the federal government as one gigantic entity, it actually comprises hundreds of agencies and departments, each with its own mission and culture. Take the time to identify ones that are a good match for your interests, experience and expertise. For example, if you’re a financial professional intrigued with the environment, you might investigate finance jobs with the National Parks Service.
The government Web portal USAjobs.gov is an excellent starting point to learn about federal agencies and the positions they need to fill. You can search the site by your location, the type of job you want, the department you’d like to work for or your skills.
Two other helpful sites — both sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service — are The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, which provides information about employee job satisfaction and engagement at more than 300 agencies, and Makingthedifference.org, which describes public service jobs, including pay and duties, and advises you how to apply.
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Incidentally, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has the top score in the Best Places to Work rankings of large federal agencies. (The National Archives and Records Administration has the worst.)
2. Look for openings on the right sites. As you’ll quickly learn, there are opportunities for people with all types of backgrounds and experience, from lawyers to supply management professionals to health care providers to museum personnel. All federal agencies are required to list their openings publicly and most do so on USAjobs.gov. But some agencies prefer to post on their own sites, so be sure to check those, too.
3. Engage your network. Use your circle of friends, colleagues and former workmates to gain a competitive advantage in your search for a federal job. Tools, like LinkedIn, can help you network with people and groups who work in or with the federal government.
Talk to friends who are government employees to learn about openings and to gain insights into the job application and interview process. Also check in with your college’s career services department to see if it has established relationships with any government agencies and recruiters. Many of them have.
4. Reformat your resumé. The terminology used by the federal government in job descriptions can differ from what you’ll find in the nonprofit and private sectors. Agencies often talk in government-speak, a language all its own.
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So be sure to analyze the keywords and phrases in federal job postings, then incorporate them into your resumé. Makingthedifference.org nicely explains how to write a resumé for a federal job listed on USAjobs.gov.
5. Be patient. It can take four months or longer to get a job offer. (Remember: This is the government; it’s known for its bureaucracy.) While federal agencies aim to fill most openings within 80 days, McManus says the actual time from application to hire is running closer to 105 days. So be prepared to wait it out. Your patience could be well rewarded.