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Civil Service Hiring in New York State

Civil Service Hiring in New York State

This post may be one of the longer ones I’ve written because the hiring process for New York State is so different from the private sector process. It is what I would call a “classic civil service” process, in which networking or personal connections will do absolutely no good—and this deliberate removal of any internal referral process is designed to avoid any potential conflicts of interest, nepotism, or political ties affecting the hiring process. It is worth understanding because many of the concepts in the hiring process are reflected in the process for many other government agencies, including certain cities and states, and even the federal government.

Here is some background about the hiring process:

  • 80% of jobs in “executive branch” agencies are called “competitive” positions in which hiring is by “exam”
  • “Exam” can mean different things. For many jobs, it means actually registering for, and taking a paper and pencil examination (multiple choice, usually). For others, the application form and substantiating materials constitutes the “exam”; for some jobs, your education or licensing is considered similar to having passed a “test” and helps qualify you for the job.
  • Once people register for a test, their application to take the test must be approved (meaning the Civil Service department determines you meet the basic requirements for the job). You then come in for the actual test.
  • Within 120 days of taking the test, you are notified of your results. Your name will be added to a list of people who took the test, ranked by score (often called a “certificate of eligibles” or a “cert”). If a job opening arises, the hiring manager receives the list, and is allowed to choose someone who is in the top three scorers only (this is called the “rule of one in three”).

I am very grateful to David Ernst, Director of Public Information, NYS Dept. of Civil Service, for taking the time to speak with me and answer my many questions.

Q: What are the reasons to consider working for New York State?

A: There are many advantages to working as a public servant for New York State. These are generally very stable jobs. (Even in the recession, less than 1% of the staff is being laid off; and there are incentives to rehire laid-off staff). There are many benefits: a variety of work, a variety of geographic locations available; it’s a family friendly workplace; salaries are competitive; and the fringe benefits are very good. (Author’s note: And you have the satisfaction of serving the public good!)

Q: I know state governments have been hit hard by the recession. Has hiring been reduced? Have there been layoffs or furloughs?

A: There has been a hiring freeze for the last two years. There are certain exceptions to this, and exceptions can be granted on a case-by-case basis by the Division of the Budget. There have also been discussions of freezing pay raises and having furloughs, but these have not occurred because they would need to go through a union negotiation process. There have recently been announced 898 layoffs, effective Dec. 31—but this is out of 136,000 staff. Each executive branch agency submitted a plan and was given a budgetary target to hit in terms of budget cuts, which is how layoffs were determined. There have also been incentives for early retirement.

Q: What positions does NYS hire for the most, in general?

A: Even though there was a hiring freeze, certain classes of positions were exempted from this and from the early retirement incentives because they are considered critical to public safety or health. For example, corrections officers are always being hired (partly due to high turnover). Aides for people with mental illness or physical disabilities are always being hired for (though this is a relatively low-level position not requiring a college degree). There is also hiring for engineers, accountants and auditors, IT, and nurses. And there are case-by-case approvals for waivers to the hiring freeze.

Q: Are there any exceptions to the civil service hiring process?

A: 80% of jobs in executive branch agencies are hired by civil service process. The Civil Service commission oversees hiring in executive branch agencies, but not the judiciary or staff in legislative positions; nor in the many quasi-governmental authorities or commissions (like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey); nor in the State University of New York or City University of New York.

Q: Considering federal hiring reform has just passed, has there ever been an attempt to have hiring reform or get rid of the exam process?

A: It is written into the State Constitution that hiring for state positions must be “competitive and by examination” wherever practicable. Any reforms would have to comply with the constitution. There haven’t been many attempts to overhaul the process, though there have been some incremental reforms.

Q: What determines whether someone is found qualified to sit for an exam, when they apply to take the exam?

A: Applicants complete a NYS Application that requires them to provide information on their education and experience. The information the applicant provides is reviewed against the announced minimum qualifications of the position and then a disposition is made on the applicant’s application.

Q: How many times can someone take an exam? Is it unlimited?

A: Assuming the applicant meets the minimum qualifications, there is no limit. (Not to complicate things, but if the examination is a promotion examination and the applicant is already permanent in the title to be tested for, the applicant cannot sit for the exam)

Q: In general, what is the timeframe between registering to take an exam, to taking the exam, to getting hired? That is, how long would someone have to wait between doing well on an exam and getting a call about an open position?

A: You can’t predict this. For instance, 30,000 people took the keyboard specialist exam when it was recently offered. In order to be hired from that list, you would have had to receive a score of 100 on the exam. We try to post the list of scores within 120 days of the exam. A list can last up to four years, or until it is exhausted. So for positions where there is a lot of turnover and hiring managers continue to hire off the list (like corrections officers), a list may be exhausted quickly and the exam will be offered fairly regularly. For positions where there are many qualified candidates but not much hiring, the test might be offered only every four years (this is the case with positions like fisheries biologists).

Q: For positions where education and experience acts as an exam, how are points assigned for rating candidates? Do you rate based on keywords, number of months and years of experience, grade in school etc.?

A: We call these Evaluations of Training and Experience, commonly referred to as “T&E’s”. The job analysis will have defined the duties of the position to be tested, the required types of education and/or experience, and how critical each type of education and/or experience is to the position. We don’t typically look for keywords. Points are awarded for education and/or experience beyond the minimum requirements. Education often takes into consideration grade point average, certain course work, internships, etc… Experience takes into consideration type of experience, number of years, qualitative levels, etc…

Q: When a position opens up, does the hiring manager receive a list of all the top candidates, or just the top three? What happens if the hiring manager doesn’t want to hire someone on the list?

A: The hiring manager must follow the rule of “one in three.” There are a few exceptions—for example, if the list has been diminished (by everyone else on the list being hired) and there are fewer than three top candidates.

Q: What happens if someone gets a job offer and decides to turn it down? Are they moved to the end of a waiting list?

A: It depends on how they respond to the canvass letter requesting their availability for employment. The person could make themselves temporarily unavailable for a period of time and their name could not be certified during that period. If the person is not interested in an appointment at that agency, the location, or the title, their name is inactivated for the title, in the agency, at that location.

Q: Are most positions unionized? Does this affect hiring and promotions?

A: Most are. You shouldn’t equate “competitive” positions with unions, though there is much overlap. Most professional and scientific positions are unionized. There is a separate classification called “management confidential” positions which are represented by an association but not a bargaining unit.

Q: Are there hiring preferences, for example for veterans or for former NYS employees?

A: Yes. If someone left a job with residual job rights, or were laid off and placed on a preferred list for rehiring, they get a preference. Veterans get a preference for hiring but are allowed to use it only one time. They receive extra points on the test, and injured/disabled veterans receive double the extra points of regular veterans.

Q: Are there background checks for most positions? How in-depth are they and what do they look for? (i.e. can having a bad credit score hurt your chances? What about prior arrests or convictions?)

A: For some positions there are background checks. For example, Correction Officer Trainee. Conviction of a felony will bar appointment to Correction Officer Trainee. Conviction of misdemeanors or violations of law may bar appointment. Failure to meet the standards for the background investigation will result in disqualification. State agencies either are authorized by specific statute to conduct criminal background checks for particular categories of employment or do so pursuant to the Department’s authority under CSL, Section 50 (4).

Q: What positions require citizenship versus permanent residency and work authorization? Are there ever circumstances when you would hire a non-immigrant student on an F1 visa?

A: Rule 3.1(a) states that the Department may require applicants for competitive examinations for original appointment to such positions to be residents of the State of New York. Candidates must be legally eligible to work in the US at the time of appointment and throughout their employment with NYS. If appointed they must produce documents that establish his/her identity to work in the US.

Q: Any other tips for job seekers interested in NYS employment?

A: Although the current situation is tough, if you think in advance about your career (and plan for your career, not just your next job in the short term), you can find opportunities in New York State. You have to think long range about tests. Familiarize yourself with the testing process. It is to your advantage to have taken a few different civil service tests so you will be ready for those you are most interested in. You need to position yourself so you can get hired when new hiring starts up again.

There is going to be a new governor coming in, who is interested in “streamlining” government. Usually this means reductions in staffing, but it could also mean new opportunities.

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