You can make all the jokes you want about government workers, but with 1.8 million government employees (which doesn't include the military or U.S. Postal Service), the federal government is a good place to find a job. And in a recession, a job is a good thing to have.
The federal government is the largest employer in the country and plans to hire 550,000 people by the end of 2012, with much of the hiring being done to replace retiring workers, said Tim McManus, vice president of education and outreach for the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that works to get more people to work for the federal government.
The organization recently released its first book, 'The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Government Jobs,' which retails for $16.95. As anyone who has applied for a government job knows, the complex process can be discouraging. There are many forms to fill out and many steps to be taken in the application process, and there's not much help.
"To get a government job you really have to understand the beast better," McManus said in a telephone interview.
Until this book came out, I had no idea how to wade through the bureaucracy of finding a government job. It's still complex, but at least there's a road map that's easier to read than a government manual.
"It's a long process and it's a confusing procedure," he said, "because the government doesn't operate as one entity. Each agency is responsible for its own hiring."
The hiring process takes two to five months on average, according to the book, and can take as long as a year. The length of time it takes to fill a position is partly attributed to the large number of applications -- sometimes in the hundreds if not the thousands, McManus said.
But the good news is that on May 11, just after the book was published, President Obama directed government agencies to streamline the hiring process so that highly qualified people aren't deterred from applying for federal government jobs. The Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities essays, or KSAs, that were required in the initial steps of applications are no longer needed in the first step, but may be required later as applicants advance in the hiring process.
The book doesn't have this update, which should be key to getting more people to apply for federal jobs, but its tips for writing KSA essays will come in handy for applicants who are asked to submit them later. Resumes and cover letters are needed the most in the early stages, and Obama's directive calls for simple, plain-language applications. The new government goal is to fill jobs within 80 days, McManus said.
USAJobs.gov remains the website to find federal jobs, but McManus recommends also delving into the website of the agency where you want to work. And while the government has laws it must follow to be fair in its hiring process, networking and learning about jobs from someone on the inside is still a good way to at least find out about a job, he said.
"In government jobs, like any other job, networking does pay off," he said.
Here are some tips the book recommends for getting an entry-level job in the government:
- Region: Location and concentration of agencies play an important part in the number of entry-level jobs available. Areas with more federal agencies and employees will have the most jobs -- California, Texas, the District of Columbia, Virginia and New York.
- Agency size: The bigger the agency, the more entry-level jobs. The Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs hire the most, followed by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of the Treasury.
- Occupational areas: Mission-critical jobs are filled first to meet the agency's overall mission. But one agency's mission-critical job may not be another's. Pharmacologists at the Food and Drug Administration are critical to ensuring the safety of drugs and medical supplies, but they aren't as critical at the Federal Trade Commission.
- Majors in most demand: Computer technology is becoming more essential, and law enforcement workers are needed at the Department of Homeland Security. Majors that are needed are information technology, math, science, health, and education, since many people with these degrees go into the private sector.
- Join the Peace Corps, where many former volunteers have gone on to prestigious positions in government and other areas of work. It's a great way to travel, give back to the community and build leadership skills.
Along with serving your country, the benefits to a government job include competitive pay, great benefits, the chance to work abroad, jobs across every interest and skill level, interesting and challenging work, a flexible work/life balance, opportunities to advance, and job security.
Many of the 550,000 jobs the federal government wants to fill by the end of 2012 are in "mission critical" areas that must be filled, McManus said. They are: medical, security and protection, compliance and enforcement (such as U.S. Customs Dept.), legal occupations, and administrative and project management, such as human resources departments.
Beyond the lengthy hiring process, which should get shorter, there are other downsides to government jobs, according to the book. They include having to deal with bureaucracy and red tape; the fact that you won't get rich working for the federal government, despite comparable pay to the private sector; a revolving door of leadership; and realizing that making a difference at work is a marathon and not a sprint.
The book is an excellent resource for finding a government job, and really isn't for idiots. In addition to KSAs and detailing pay and benefits, it covers such topics as how to create your government resume, which is goes into much more detail than a private-sector resume, and the topics of how to get an entry-level job, student opportunities in government, mid-career moves, the interview process, background checks, and my favorite -- overseas jobs.
The Foreign Service Exam -- where up to 10,000 applicants take it but only 25-30 percent pass -- is supposed to be as difficult as passing the bar exam with a chance of working for the State Department overseas. Still, it looks intriguing.
And with all government job applications, make sure you have a fairly clean background before going through with the process. There's no sense in wasting time in an already lengthy process.