The federal government is the largest single employer in the United States. Anyone who is thinking about their career and is not including a look-see in the federal sector is missing a huge opportunity at home and abroad.
One misconception people have is that the federal government is in D.C. In fact, more than 80% of federal employees are located outside the D.C. area, and there are opportunities abroad. There are overseas offices for the Secret Service, Customs and Border Patrol, various defense department agencies, and even the Department of Agriculture. The possibilities really are endless.
The application process for federal jobs is different from those in the private sector, so it is helpful to have some guidance when writing federal resumes, interviewing for federal jobs, and transitioning into the federal workforce.
Federal Resume Writing
A federal resume is typically 4 to 6 pages. The 1- or 2-page resume that is standard in the private industry does not apply in the federal sector.
From a federal perspective, if it is not on your resume, you did not do it. People coming out of the private sector might be directors, vice presidents, or something else along those more senior lines. It may seem obvious they have supervised people – having been in a top managerial position – but from a human resource perspective on the federal side, no one makes that assumption. They are not allowed to draw conclusions or make assumptions, so the level of clarity and excruciating detail is essential.
Required Information for Federal Applications
Another thing people find odd about federal resumes is the required information includes details you would never put on a private sector resume.
For example, federal applications require how many hours a week the applicant works, their supervisor name, and their compensation. If you do not include a small piece of the required information, a federal HR person can eliminate you from consideration. You want it all connected so that they can count the years, the ballots, and all of your skills in.
You still want a federal resume to be easy to skim. USAJOBS.gov is not a resume parsing system - it doesn’t score your resume! A human has to look at every resume, and you can make their job easier by using short paragraphs, clear sections, and white space.
Federal Application Questionnaire
The average federal job gets anywhere from 400 to 1,000 applications, sometimes more. People still want federal jobs because they like the idea of the benefits, the level of job security, and the fact there is a defined retirement plan.
When you apply through USAjobs.gov, you are required to answer an occupational questionnaire. This job-specific questionnaire determines how qualified you are. It is the only part of the federal job application that is automated.
A questionnaire is critical. Those who are thinking about applying for a particular job should review the questionnaire before they decide whether or not to apply. If you cannot respond positively and strongly to all of the questions on the questionnaire, you are not going to be a competitive candidate, and it is not worth your time.
There are yes/no questions and Likert scales. You will identify the skills you need and already have and rate your expertise on the scale. Applicants should look at these questionnaires ahead of time. Most of the time, people are hesitant to call themselves an expert, especially women.
If you cannot call yourself an expert or struggle to decide if you are a 4 or 5 on the Likert scale, you should go with 5. However, you need to have a reason for rating your skills that way. You should not just go through and rate all the skills as a 5 but, as this is the only thing that is scored by automation, you need to score nearly 100.
If you do not score near 100, the HR people will not print out and review your resume. Remember, there is no applicant tracking software like the private sector, but real people. They review every resume that passes the initial automated scoring of the questionnaire. Not only do you have to answer the questions correctly, but your resume also has to back up your answers.
If you have claimed you are an expert on the Likert scale, you must prove expertise in your resume clearly and without assumptions.
The Role of Networking in Federal Applications
Your resume and questionnaire have to score highly to have your resume seen by a hiring manager. In the private sector, the system can be subverted or worked around many times. On the federal side, who you know does not matter if you cannot get past the HR gatekeepers.
Networking can still be important, but it is not going to come into play until later stages. People still want to hire someone that they know, like, and trust. While networking may not help you get through the screening process, it may help you get an interview.
Federal Employment, Ageism, & Diversity
One of the often-repeated myths in the federal system is you cannot get in if you are young because you do not have enough career history. Likewise, people think older candidates cannot get in because the federal government does not hire those who will not be there for a long time.
Government employees are significantly older than employees in the private sector. Many people come into the federal government as a second or third career. There are several government programs for people coming right out of school for recent graduates and those with masters or law degrees.
The government is more diverse in age, race, and gender than most private sector organizations.
How to Find Federal Jobs
If you are interested in federal employment, your first stop should be USAJOBS.gov as roughly 90% of jobs are posted on the government jobs website.
Once there, you should set up a user profile with your information. You can then set up an automatic search agent to send you jobs that meet your criteria, such as occupation, pay, and location, among others.
Do not ever pay anyone to show you the “hidden federal job market.” There is no such thing. These government job postings are open to everyone. You do not have to pay to get access to openings.
Federal Hiring Timeframe
Realistically, the hiring process takes 6 to 8 months. You may undoubtedly get a job sooner than that, but the truth is, it is not all that likely. The government does not move very quickly. The goal is to fill a job in 80 days, and that is if everything works the way it is supposed to – not including security clearances or other such things.
Some sound advice for those who are interested in federal employment is to keep their private-sector job or look for private-sector jobs at the same time. It is likely to happen more quickly. Then when the federal job comes through, you can quit your private-sector job. As you will know, even when people are job seeking in the private sector, it can take a long time.
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