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9 Myths about Federal Jobs

By Kathryn Kraemer Troutman

NOTE from
Nick Corcodilos

Readers know what I think of resumes: they're the worst way to land a job. But, in the federal government, there's little choice. Kathryn Troutman specializes in this domain. In this article, she debunks the myths you've heard, and on her web site she teaches how to write a "federal-style" resume to use the system to your advantage.

You've heard all the horror stories and cautionary tales about applying for a federal job. Maybe you've even experienced some of them. But, many of the bad things people say about the government hiring process are actually myths or old truths. The process has changed dramatically in recent years. Here are nine myths about federal hiring that it's time to debunk.

1. Most jobs in government are "wired".
This is no more true than it is in private industry. Sometimes the duties in the vacancy announcements seem very specific and therefore appear to be "wired". Don’t let that stop you. Just as in the private sector, you can never tell if the number one contender will take the job. It is important to remember that the government has up to 20,000 job openings at any point in time. If you’re not perfect for one job, there may be a related one that’s a fit for you.

2. It takes many months to get hired into government.
Not true, usually. The time from the job announcement closing until you are contacted can be as little as two to four weeks. (Compare that to the private sector. In general, there's not much difference.) The process of being hired was much slower in the past. Hiring managers and personnel staff are anxious to fill positions in government. Proposed "freedom to manage" legislation is designed to make the federal hiring process even faster.

3. You have to fill out a long, terrible form, the SF-171.
Not true. Most federal vacancy announcements give instructions for "HOW TO APPLY" that are similar to this excerpt:

"Please submit a resume, OF-612 or any format you choose. But your resume must contain all of the following information: Social Security Number, Citizenship, Past Federal Employment experience, Veteran's Experience, Work experience details for 10 years: supervisor's name and telephone; street address and zip; Educational details: college, city, state, zip."

The SF-171 was eliminated in 1995. The OF-612 referred to in the instructions is a short, unflattering form that is not mandatory. A "federal-style resume" will be the best format for your application to the government.

4. There is a civil service test that you have to take to get your federal job score.
Not true, generally. The Civil Service Test was discontinued in 1995. Now, you apply for a job directly to an agency without a test. Look for job openings on this general government website: USAJOBS. Then, apply directly to the agency – no test and no score required. Some special announcements, which are typically security-related, will provide a special test or questionnaire. These are exceptions. You need to follow the vacancy announcement directions to see how to apply.

5. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) takes care of all government hiring.
Although the OPM sometimes does specialized hiring (for example, “mass hires” for Border Patrol Agents), generally each agency does its own recruitment and hiring. The OPM’s principal role is to set policy for hiring and personnel in government.

6. The pay for government jobs is below private industry.
Not true. The salary for government jobs is commensurate with most private industry jobs. In addition to basic salary, the government has an excellent retirement program that will result in a solid retirement for you after 20 to 30 years of employment. The government shares the retirement expenses. For permanent hires under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), the government matches a percentage of the employee's contributions into the "Thrift Savings Plan" (similar to a private industry 401K retirement plan).

7. Federal jobs are not flexible and are boring because they are so bureaucratic.
Not true. Most Federal jobs are interesting, rewarding, dynamic and ever-changing with legislation, policy, issues, new programs, new presidents and leadership, new Defense initiatives and challenges, and new customer focus. The daily routine of most federal jobs can seem mundane, but this is also true of many private sector jobs. However, the overall purpose and focus of the average government agency's mission is to provide some kind of service for the American public. Whether it's saving salmon in Oregon, providing better insurance for people who can't afford it, managing Ground Zero Disasters, acting as an advance person for the Secretary of State, monitoring the quality of water in a township, or managing contracts for services to provide materials and equipment to "warfighters", the government's jobs are meaningful. Results can be amazing.

8. If you take a government job, it will be very difficult to get back into the private sector because the commercial world de-values government experience.
Not true. If you are a hard-working, accomplishment-focused and mission-oriented federal employee, you can translate your skills to make them meaningful to the private sector or to the non-profit world. Since the government does have its own specialized jargon, you will have to translate your skills and experiences so that the private sector understands your job and skills.

For instance, here is a complex paragraph from a government agency job description for a Hispanic Employment Manager:

“The position assists OPM managers to recruit applicant pools that target qualified Hispanic applicants, establishes relationships and partnerships with the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), HACU member institutions and Hispanic Serving Institutions. Responsibilities include: providing direction to collateral duty HEP managers in developing trends, identifying barriers, and report progress in the employment of Hispanics in OPM as compared to the qualified Civilian Labor Force and other Federal agencies."

In private industry, the person doing this job might apply for a position in human resources as a recruiter. They will not be involved in recruiting “applicant pools”, “providing direction to collateral duty HEP managers in developing trends, identifying barriers” or “reporting employment statistics to other agencies”. Here is how the skills developed in this government job might be translated to be relevant in private industry:

“Establish strategies and plans to recruit minority employees through universities, associations, and community organizations. Develop relationships with community leaders, local media and institutions. Analyze recruitment, employee and target objectives through research and presentation of data on hiring trends.”

It is up to the job hunter to understand how to make the translation, but that’s also true when a person tries to move from a heavily bureaucratic, “jargonized” corporation to a smaller business.

One thing that “translates” easily when you move from a government job to the private sector is your federal retirement plan. It is based on Social Security and a "quasi" 401K program managed by the Thrift Savings Board. This was designed to be portable, so people who move from the federal sector into private industry jobs don't lose valuable years of retirement credits.

9. You need a security clearance or military experience to get a government job.
Not true, in general. Most jobs in government are open to anyone who is a U.S. citizen. Some jobs in government require a security clearance. If you don’t have a clearance now, you have to be “ready for a clearance”. This means you must have a clean record and that you can pass a clearance investigation. The agency will hire you (tentatively, based on successful clearance) and then apply for the security clearance for you. (You cannot get your own clearance)

Getting a clearance is easier if you have had military experience because you can get extra “points” on your resume, but federal jobs do not usually require this. “OPEN TO ANYONE” means just that. Anyone can apply who is a citizen.

Please tell us what you think of this article.

Kathryn Kraemer Troutman is president of The Resume Place, Inc. and is an expert in the federal job application and hiring process. She designed the "federal-style" resume for the government in her book, The Federal Resume Guidebook. Kathryn is an in-demand trainer inside the government on career development and resume writing. She writes a popular column on federal jobs, Career Corner, which is found on her website.


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