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Working for the Feds

What’s the real deal about working for the federal government?

You’ve probably heard it’s a good option for Vets, given that you’ll receive veteran preference in the hiring process. But you’ve probably also heard it can turn out to be a bureaucratic nightmare.

I worked for the Feds for several years and here’s what I found. Federal employment has some great advantages and some awful disadvantages. Nothing determines whether your job is great or awful as much as which agency or department you work for. They are not all the same, believe me. You won’t read that in any book on “How to Get a Government Job,” but it is the most important thing you can know.

The best advice I can offer if you are considering becoming a federal civil servant is to research the organization that offers you a job before accepting that job. You need to contact some other Vets or other friends who are current federal employees and find out what the reputation of that agency or department is – the word always gets out on an agency like, for example, the Federal Communications Commission (thumbs down). I can’t go through the list of all agencies in this brief blog post and rate them for you, but most current fed employees can give you all the insight you need. Again, this is important – there are some agencies/departments you really, truly do not want to get stuck in, trust me. Some others, like the Department of Agriculture and the Government Accountability Office, are good.

As to the hiring process itself, I have some advice on that as well. Never submit your resume for a federal job. The Feds have their own very detailed application form (SF171). Don’t fill this out in a half hour and shoot it off. Spend time on it, then review it, improve it, perfect it, before submitting. Unlike in private industry, where personal interviews are extremely important, you will be hired by the federal government, or not hired, largely on whether you appear to have the exact qualifications for the position as detailed in the SF171. 

I am not trying to discourage Vets from applying for federal jobs. I found there are many great advantages to a good federal job. One of course is the retirement benefits, which are seldom matched in the private sector. But the biggest advantage is something you probably haven’t considered – it is the opportunities for training and for making contacts. Federal jobs are often springboards to high-paying private-sector jobs. Oftentimes private sector employers will hire you after you’ve been a federal civil servant awhile because you have worked on important issues, got great training, and made some important governmental contacts. This is something to keep in mind when weighing the plusses and minuses of working for the Feds.

Are there any good opportunities these days? Yes, with a 2 million workforce even replacement hiring is massive. There are always thousands of good opportunities. To get started, go to USAJOBS.gov and review present openings in your field or occupation. Review each job description (“Announcement” in fed-speak) carefully and if you find some that interest you, tweak your SF171 forms to tailor them for those specific jobs. Pay particular attention to the KSA’s section (Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities). These are the ranking factors that the OPM (Office of Personnel Management) or other government personnel staffer will focus most on.

Also, point be sure the check out the Feds’ new portal for veteran hiring at FedsHireVets.  This is your best single online resource for Federal jobs.

Yes, after working for the federal government, I can recommend federal employment to Vets, but not without qualification. Like in the private sector, there are horror stories. You may find yourself in an agency parked at a metal desk and left to your own devices, without being offered training and without job assignments. Many federal workers complain that they are bored out of their minds as there is just not enough work to do, or it is mind-numbingly routine work, or their supervisors are idiots whose main activity is to go to lunch for two hours every day. This can happen in any job, public or private, but seems more common in government. If you find yourself in this situation, my advice is get out…. quickly… before it rubs off on you.

On the other hand, you may have a wonderful experience and career. The federal government is huge and varied. So choose your job wisely. Just because you’re offered a position doesn’t mean you have to accept it. I’ll end by repeating what I said above because it is so important. “The best advice I can offer if you are considering becoming a federal civil servant is to research the organization that offers you a job before accepting that job.”

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