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So, You Want a Federal Job…

By: Angela Bailey
Angela Bailey is Deputy Associate Director, Center for Talent and Capacity Policy, U.S. Office of Personnel Management

It wasn’t too long ago, during the economic boon, I was asked: Why do you work for the federal government? Followed by–you could make so much more in the private sector. Now, with the economic downturn, I’m asked: How do I get a job in the federal government? Followed by–tell me about your benefits.

It is true; I probably could make more money in private industry, and if money is what is important to you, then by all means seek employment in private industry. But, money is not a driving factor for me, and I would venture to say it is not the driving factor for many people.

Making a difference for millions of people, driving innovative change and tackle tough challenges are what motivate me. Working for the federal government allows me to contribute to society in ways I never imagined and at the end of my career I hope a legacy of “good deeds” survives. And, the truth is, the pay and benefits are very good.

The federal government is one of the last employers to still provide a retirement benefit, followed by a 401K-like program, health benefits, leave for both personal and sick purposes and many other work-life programs, such as teleworking and flexible work schedules.

All of this on top of the ability to work in locations around the globe for agencies with missions such as defense, accounting, space exploration, land management and human resources to name a few, make it one of the most self-satisfying and rewarding careers you could have in a life time.

Of course not every job is as exciting as I’ve described above, but the point of this introduction to the world of working for the federal government is that you are in control of your destiny and the choices are almost limitless.

Now, to get to the reason for this blog…you want a federal job and you’re not sure how to go about getting one.

First, I need to put some things in perspective.

*The federal government has over 1.8 million people working for it. That means there are more than 1.8 million jobs, ranging from secretaries to nuclear engineers, to everything in between.

*There are almost 50,000 jobs available a day for Americans to apply to, located within a variety of agencies and worldwide.

*The federal government hires around 240,000 people a year, however, half of those hires are for temporary needs, leaving approximately 120,000 full-time permanent jobs available.

*Because of the economic situation, we get on average 400-1000 applications for the majority of our available positions.

*We have to guiding principles when hiring in the federal government—fair and open competition and preference to veterans. Both of these principles are written in the law and are upheld vigorously.

The first thing I recommend is that you go to www.usajobs.gov and familiarize yourself with the website. The vast majority of job opportunities are found at this web site. If you want to work for a specific agency, such as NASA, FBI, etc., then I recommend you go to their website. You will find that almost every agency has a “button” for you to click that will provide you with their job opportunities.

Next, do a search of the jobs on USAJOBS, based on the location where you want to work/live. Then look over the jobs available in that area. In Washington, D.C. there are pages of jobs available, however, in Billings, MT, there may only be five jobs available. The key though to searching on USAJOBS is to narrow down your search so that you do not become overwhelmed searching through 50,000 job openings.

Once you find the location and a few jobs you are interested in, next I recommend you look at the duties and the qualifications for the job. This might, quite honestly, be frustrating because we do not always write for you—we often write our job announcements for folks who know the lingo. Don’t get frustrated, call the number or email the point of contact and ask them to walk you through the job announcement, or if you know a current Federal employee ask him/her to help you.

If you are a student, look for student opportunities…we have a lot of opportunities for current students and a webpage dedicated to students. www.studentjobs.gov

If you are a veteran—we need and want you! http://jobsearch.usajobs.gov/veteranscenter/

Take your time when filling out your resume…don’t use the same resume for every job. If the agency is looking for someone with an accounting degree or 24 semester hours of accounting, make sure that is clearly stated on your resume and provide your official transcripts if required. Again, the key is to make sure you are thorough.

We may even be a real pain and ask you for written essay-style questions or to fill out an on-line assessment. While we’re working with agencies to make this part of the job search less burdensome, nonetheless, we have to do some type of assessment to set the hundreds of applicants apart that we get for each job.

The best advice I can give you is: don’t give up! There is a federal opportunity out there waiting for you. The more flexible you are on location and starting salary, the more opportunities you may find.

This is certainly only a highlighted version of all the ins and outs of federal employment and hiring. I could go on for days about every nuance and bore you to tears!

How else may I help you?

Does the federal government seem like a place you’d like to work?

What does drive you? Money? Making a difference?

Courtesy of the Association of Government Accountants (AGA) Weblog (http://aga.typepad.com/aga/)

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Mary Davie

Jennifer – great post, especially for folks trying to navigate the confusing and often frustrating federal application system. As someone who reviews applications for positions ranging from GS-13s to the SES level, I can’t stress enough how important it is to be both responsive to the questions and to take the time and submit a well written application. A few other hints – “more isn’t better” – don’t try to lengthen your response with filler or material that isn’t really relevant to the position, be thorough but be brief. It’s important to talk about your accomplishments using three simple points (1) identify the problem or challenge; (2) talk about the actions you took to address the problem; and (3) identify specific results or outcomes as a result of your actions – if you can use something measurable, such as cost savings, improved customer satisfaction, productivity, etc all the better. The guidelines OPM provides for the SES Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs) is a great resource and can be used to help you write for non SES jobs as well.


Great post from someone at OPM that truly knows. I think the other secret is always networking. Places like GovLoop offer opportunities to network and people post great work opportunities. You still have to apply formally but you can get a better sense of good opportunities and what people are looking for.

Christopher Parente

Jennifer — hello, and good post. I realize it’s over a year old, but this issue is evergreen.

Would it be possible for you to contact Angela, and ask if she’s be interested in updating the article and running it on http://www.bettergov.us? I help support this site, on which we talk about the “effectiveness revolution” and how government can be more efficient and productive. This can’t happen if a new generation of workers get so frustrated with the application process they get soured on public service.

Please let me know, and thanks in advance.