What Hiring Reform? The Federal Employment System from an Applicants Perspective

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This topic contains 18 replies, has 13 voices, and was last updated by  Andrew Krzmarzick 7 years, 10 months ago.

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  • #171860

    Brian Edward J.

    From the civilian end-user perspective, I haven’t really seen it.

    The recent hiring reforms were supposed to make the Federal employment process much smoother. But I have not noticed much of an improvement. USAjobs certainly took a few steps back as a result of its re-launch. But it’s not only the bureaucracy that has left me frustrated, it’s the entire employment culture.

    I have been trying to enter the Federal workforce for over a decade without success. I am primarily interested in Homeland Security related positions (although I am now beyond the age for the law enforcement designation). I would be interested in working as a Security Specialist, Personnel Security Specialist, Investigative Specialist, FBI support staff member, TSA Inspector, Immigration Inspector, or related position. I am also willing to go a bit outside of my immediate field of interest for a promising position (Passport Examiner, Asylum Specialist, etc). I am even willing to start out at the assistant level (GS-4 or GS-5) and work my way up. However, every time I apply for one of these positions, even those at a very low level that don’t require much experience or education, my application is ignored (no response), or the response is that I am not qualified…or not among the best qualified for the position. This is despite the fact that in many of these cases, I meet and/or exceed most of the requirements listed.

    I have about 20 yrs of security related experience (although I have been stuck in the world of underemployment for a long time). In addition to 20 yrs of experience, I have a Bachelors degree in Criminal Justice Administration, and a Masters degree in Management with some focus on organizational security studies. I am currently finishing up a second Masters degree. My references are solid, with commendations, and letters showing a good work history. I have even tried to optimize my USAjobs resume, highlighting transferable skills. None of that has really helped.

    The process of wash, rinse, repeat with nothing to show for it… and the whole Federal culture has left me thoroughly demoralized. I’m almost 40, have tons in student loan debt and I have now begun to realize that I won’t be able to do what I have always wanted to do (work in public service) and I won’t be able to have the kind of life that I want (wife, family, house, etc). I should be living the American Dream, halfway to retirement at this point. Instead, I don’t earn enough money for a basic decent standard of living. I certainly can’t date, support a family or reach middle class status. That’s hard to swallow after investing so much in putting myself through school for well over a 10 year period.

    I have found that the Federal system is like a closed fraternity. It seems that you either have to know someone (a hiring manager who can make things happen) or you have to be a veteran or former full-time federal employee who has worked in the exact same position (or very similar one) as the position you are applying for in order to have a real opportunity. The playing field isn’t level. The only other possibility is if you come from a life of privilege, are from a well connected family, and/or you went to an Ivy League University. The Federal government loves to bring those folks in…. as sort of a clout booster. It’s strange. If you have a very special skill that is in demand, such as being a Chinese speaker or fluent in Farsi, you might have a shot, but basically the door seems to be closed. You are locked out of this system.

    Another issue that I have noticed is that the Federal government does not want to invest much in good candidates in terms of training. They want to invest as little as possible, which is reflected in the fact that they will only contact applicants who have either done the exact job before in the Federal government or who have very specific work histories. However, in reality, it is extremely difficult to meet KSA requirements to a tee because the private sector is so much different than the Federal government. There are so many jobs in the Federal government that simply don’t exist or don’t exist in great numbers in the private sector, therefore it would be impossible to have experience that would be an exact match. So you would think that the Federal government would be willing to train otherwise good candidates. But this is not the case. 15-20 years ago, before USAjobs, I can recall more of a willingness to train and develop candidates when they came through the door. Today, however, the Federal government will take a military veteran with a couple of years of work experience, with no other work history, no education beyond High School, for a GS-4,5,6 or 7 position over a person with 20 years of experience, with a wider range of experience, a proven track record over time, and who has the education. All because that person with fewer years may have had some experience working in intelligence, has experience handling classified information or has a security clearance of some kind. I don’t have an issue with Veterans… come from a family full of Vets… love them… I am just frustrated with the system. The same could be said with civilian candidates who may have worked as government contractors for a few years…. They also get chosen over me… because they are associate members of the fraternity so-to-speak.

    What I am suggesting is… there has to be a better way of determining who would make a good Federal employee. There should be a Federal program of candidate certification, supervised by OPM, at Universities and community colleges all across the Country (at least in every major metropolitan area) that would allow an applicant to complete a job specific course or small series of such courses (2 or 3) from the Federal perspective, taught by either Federal workers or instructors approved by Federal agencies or OPM, that would make them “pre-certified” to go after the jobs they want within the Federal system. Once certified or pre-certified, applicants with at least 3 years of work experience and a certain basic level of education would be able to bypass KSA’s, and could qualify for points on the preference system. I am willing to spend the extra money, the extra time, and i’m willing to do the extra work & go the extra 100 miles to have a real shot at a Federal career. This would allow people like myself to actually compete on a more level playing field with Veterans, former Federal employees, Federal contract workers and the privileged (ie. sons and daughters of members of Congress and those Ivy League applicants who don’t seem to have a problem getting Federal jobs). This would make the hiring process go smoother for both the applicant and for HR personnel who have to weed through so many KSA’s and scores that are artificially tabulated by application manager computer programs.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see anything like this ever happening. And so I am becoming resigned to the likelihood that the fraternity will never be open to me. For the first time, I have cut back on my visits to the USAjobs website. I once applied for 5 or 6 jobs a week. I have easily applied for well over 600 or 700 jobs over the years, if you include positions on USCourts.gov. Out of all of those applications, I have been called maybe 3 or 4 times….and not hired for anything. Now I am down to about 1-2 jobs a month. I just see the whole process as a waste of time.

    I really want to ask hiring managers… what they are really looking for in an applicant, both in general, and for the kinds of positions that I have been focused on? The vacancy announcements never really say what the hiring managers are actually looking for or what criteria they use to narrow down the list of candidates. I guess this is akin to asking what the secret code is for what has become a closed fraternity. So I don’t expect that I will get an answer to this question. But it would be interesting to have an HR decision-maker to chime in.

    I have already refocused on State employment (States are broke and are not hiring right now… in fact they have been purging over the last few years). I’m also looking at the private sector… although I really don’t care to work in the private sector. I don’t think I could be happy or satisfied working in the private sector. So I am not enthused.

    Has anyone else experienced these issues with USAjobs or experienced seeing fewer opportunities in the Federal government or, in my case, have you hit a brick wall?

    – Brian
    (Demoralized in Missouri)

  • #171896

    Hi Brian – You are not alone. I think a lot of average Americans feel this way about getting into government employment…and it’s a shame.

    But I would say this: I know that you feel demoralized, but I would like to encourage you to keep trying. At 40, you are not too old to break into the public service.

    I would invite you to use the tools at your disposal here on GovLoop – from Jobs.GovLoop.com to Rock Your Resume to our Mentors Program to our guides and webinars, I think you can put the pieces together and secure gainful employment in government. I know others who have used those resources to their advantage – and you can, too.

  • #171894

    Robert Bird

    I don’t know about seeing fewer opportunities, but I do know more and more people are looking for work. People are more inclined to move to where the jobs are now then they were in the past, which means more qualified applicants. It isn’t just the Federal Government that is seeing an increase in the number of qualified applications. I work for a State agency and we have heard from several Human Resource staff that having over 100 applicants for a position is not uncommon.

    There are a lot of resources available to you to help you with your work search. Andrew listed several good ones, but in addition to that you could contact your local Job Service/Workforce Center. They would be more then willing to help you out.

  • #171892

    Terrence Hill

    I didn’t have time to read your whole posting, but I’m having a hard time believing that you weren’t able to secure a posiiton with TSA at your local airport. TSA always seems to be hiring, especially at the big airports. Part of the problem may be that your are in Missouri.

    I agree that the hiring process hasn’t really become much better than it was before. Another issue is that most openings are being filled (rightly so) by veterans, who receive preference for Federal jobs.

    It may be too late, but lots of people start with local law enforcement agencies before applying for Federal jobs. Also, you’ll need to be flexible regarding your location. Most of our jobs are along the border or at major seaports/airports.

    Good luck

  • #171890

    Mark Hammer

    The Merit Systems Protection Board published a nice report around 2002 or 2004 which introduced (and rather bravely, I might add) the term “sham competition” to the discourse. By “sham competition”, they meant those instances where the hiring manager knew exactly who they needed in the position, and anyone who knew the intended appointee, and the job, would have thought it a no-brainer. For instance, it might have been someone acting in the position for some extended period, and now it was simply a matter of officially recognizing it as their substantive position. It wasn’t simply giving a job to a buddy, or “rigged” as such, but the manager’s hands were tied and it had to be run like a competition, whether there was an obvious best candidate or not..

    In the paper they note that they surveyed several hundred managers, and took the percentage of managers reporting this happened to them, times the proportion of staffing actions where it was reported to occur, times the number of hours managers said they had usually spent on such “competitions”, times the average pay grade of those managers, times the number of managers across the PS. They gave a conservative estimate of such sham competitions in terms of hiring manager time alone, as costing roughly $240M/yr to the federal system….in 2002 dollars. This excludes HR’s time, and any time wasted by internal applicants for the position who were spending time at the water cooler voicing the same sort of discouragement and frustration that Brian is voicing. They didn’t hazard a guess, but I imagine once you factor those additional folks in, it might even top $1B in terms of federal employee time spent on competitions that were nothing of the sort and didn’t really need to be run.

    Transparency is an extremely important principle in government, and running public open competitions is an important way to support and emphasize that principle and its importance. But many managers will attest that the emphasis on imply the existence of competitions as some sort of litmus test of transparency, access to jobs, and merit may be faith misplaced.

    From where I stand, what is even more critical is the manner in which it can all too easily squander the good faith of both members of the public and other federal employees. I certainly don’t know that any of the things Brian has applied for are such “sham competitions”; maybe none of them. But when someone applies in good faith to something that has the appearance of an open transparent competition, and the manager is really just going through the motions because management or HR told them that they had to and they’re just trying to keep HR off their back, it is hard to see anything but the sort of bitterness and disillusion that Brian amply demonstrates coming from it. And nobody wants that, nobody.

    We can do whatever we want to reform hiring to make it less burdensome, faster, or whatever. The reality is that there needs to be some way to allow for non-competitive appointments that can pass all possible sniff tests without lapsing into mere managerial caprice and favoritism. In other words, the challenge is to find a way to make every competition a real one…ALL…THE…TIME, without compromising the merit basis of non-competitive hiring, so that folks like Brian can justifiably maintain their faith that the system is fair and will one day very soon recognize their capabilities and motivation to serve their nation nor their state to the best of their ability.

  • #171888

    Sterling Whitehead

    Brian, I sympathize with your situation. It’s not easy getting into the “system”. The best advice I ever received is stop bothering with online applications until you are told to apply. It’s demoralizing and most likely a waste of time. Even with more experience and education, you’re going up against possibly hundreds of applicants, many who are veterans who receive federal hiring preferences, per position.

    Instead of focusing online, spend it networking, offline and online. Find the hiring managers and GS-13-15s in the commands you want to work in on LinkedIn and GovLoop. Reach out to them for advice. Many are willing to offer advice and introduce you to people, especially if they are approaching retirement and want to leave a legacy such as mentoring.

    That being said, it can take many months of this process, but it certainly is not a full-time job in of itself.

    You also mentioned student debt. If you get snapped up by a nonprofit or government (federal, state or local), look into the Student Loan Repayment Program.

  • #171886

    This paragraph really stuck out at me: “The process of wash, rinse, repeat with nothing to show for it… and the whole Federal culture has left me thoroughly demoralized. I’m almost 40, have tons in student loan debt and I have now begun to realize that I won’t be able to do what I have always wanted to do (work in public service) and I won’t be able to have the kind of life that I want (wife, family, house, etc). I should be living the American Dream, halfway to retirement at this point. Instead, I don’t earn enough money for a basic decent standard of living. I certainly can’t date, support a family or reach middle class status. That’s hard to swallow after investing so much in putting myself through school for well over a 10 year period.”

    It sounds like you’ve already given up Brian. You’re living in Shoulda,Woulda, Coulda land and that’s not the attitude that will secure you a Federal Job. Lots of people make the desperate mistake of thinking that spending more money on school will result in the job of their dreams; it’s a fallacy. It does result in more debt however. It’s simply not the so-called guarantee it used to be; that’s a fact. I’m not surprised whatsoever that you got caught in that trap though. In my experience I’ve found that under-employed people tend to continue to invest lots of money in formal education (despite not being able to afford it) for the high level of intellectual simulation and challenge it provides them. This is because they’re not being leveraged at their potential at their current place of employment. So although I’m not surprised this happened to you, I’m so sorry that it has and is contributing to your disappointment.

    The field you’re interested in does require a specific standard of education, but you’ve gone above and beyond that – clearly overcompensating for something else that’s not there. It’s up to you to find out what that is and address it. If your previous degrees didn’t get you the job you were searching for, your education may not have been the place to keep pushing. You may simply need the help of a professional resume writer and career coach. Just because you have great skills and education, if it’s not showing well on a resume and expressed well in an interview, none of that matters. Have you received any interviews and just not job offers or no interviews whatsoever?

    Calling the Federal Workforce a “closed fraternity” only open to people who “come from a life of privilege, are from a well-connected family, and/or you went to an Ivy League University” simply because you haven’t been able to enter it is unfortunate. Instead of looking inward, you’re looking outward and are playing the victim to outside circumstances instead of taking charge on your own. I realize that after trying so hard for so long, people can feel like giving up and blaming forces (real or imagined) outside of their control. But in my opinion, this is not the best use of your energy.

    I’ve worked at 4 agencies and 3 of those 4 were great at investing in their people as per training. The other agency wasn’t “bad” at it per se, they just focused more on on-the job- training and mentorship, not formal classes. I’ve attained federal jobs and helped many people attain federal jobs. I can tell you from experience that most of those who I helped had not done the exact job before. Most of them also didn’t come from Ivly League schools. It’s also not about having a specific work history; it’s about clearly articulating specific very basic qualifications and leveraging your cover letter and interview to showcase your potential and fit. There are a ton of highly qualified people who apply to federal jobs and don’t get job offers. Simply being highly qualified is far from enough.

    Instead of spending so much time “frustrated with the system”, I suggest spending that energy erasing all of your preconceived notions about the system, getting a highly qualified resume and career coach (don’t just do some random Google search to find one, that aren’t all the same) and making a significant attitude adjustment. HR folks and hiring managers can smell a pessimistic defeatist attitude a mile away and no one will want to hire you with that awful stench following you around.

    40 years old isn’t old for the federal government. That’s roughly the average age for the most part so you shouldn’t let that deter you. I also wouldn’t spend any more money you don’t’ have on formally educating yourself. I’m almost certain that your educational credentials were never the problem in the first place.

    In summary, my point is if you keep doing the same thing you’ve always done, with the same attitude and victim mentality, then you’ll get the same result; no federal job and under-employment. Make some drastic changes and get the help of a professional who’ll be honest and objective with you to help you see those things you may not be able to see. This person should also help you sort through options and solutions you may not have considered. But you have to want the help and be open to it. If you think you’ve got everything covered and you truly believe what you said…that ALL or almost all of the reasons you haven’t been able to get a federal job are because of the myriad of external focuses out of your control, then that’s fine. But if you’re open to being wrong about that and are open to not giving up on your goals then consider some help from informed, objective sources.

    If you still want a federal job, I don’t think it’s either too late or out of your reach. But you can’t grab something with your hands tied behind your back. Think long and hard and get a second opinion of someone with actual experience in hiring within the federal government to figure out what kind of rope is tying your hands. Once you figure that out, there’s no reason why your federal career dreams can’t come true.

    ~ Ebony Tara Scurry, PHR, GCDF-I

  • #171884

    Tracey Harriot

    I completely agree with Ebony’s POV and advice.

    I would also add that your undergraduate and graduate institutions’ career centers can be a great resource as well. I know that the two schools I attended offer assistance to alumni the same as they would the current students. I found my current position through the career center. I spent the better part of five years applying for job after job, so I feel your pain, but I am one of many that made it through the process without the assistance of an Ivy League degree, veteran’s preference, or a friend on the inside. It can be done. I actually applied for my position three times before finally landing it.

    There’s also no reason to believe you cannot live the type of life that you wish without a federal job. As a federal employee, I can understand your desire to work in the public sector, but don’t let your lack of public service career keep you from enjoying other great things about life. Life is short – enjoy it! 🙂

  • #171882

    Robert Bird

    Very good post!

  • #171880

    Steve Ressler

    Couple resources:

    -Our career resources section has lots of tips – https://www.govloop.com/group/rockyourresume/forum/topic/listForTag?tag=Rocking+Resource

    -Every week I select the top 10 jobs by various categories – sign up for email alerts at jobs.govloop.com

  • #171878

    Audrey Hudak

    I must say, as an MPA student in Ohio, Brian’s post really frightens me. I’m diligently working on a degree that I hope to use as a public servant. Please world, don’t let all this hard work be for naught! Perhaps I need to broaden my career goals.

    (Govloop, I am already following your suggestions under the Career page. I will apply for a mentor in the next cycle.)

  • #171876

    Sterling Whitehead

    Audrey, if it’s not too late, align you MPA electives with areas of growing (not shrinking) concern to the federal government. One area of growing concern are cyber (including technical skills and policy) through agencies like NSA and Homeland Security; expect lots of those jobs to be in Maryland. After Hurricane Sandy, you can bet disaster management funding will get a boost at FEMA. Acquisition through lots of agencies, but particularly Department of Defense and GSA, is always important.

  • #171874

    Audrey Hudak

    Thanks Sterling! I’m already considering focusing my degree on finance, budgets are not going away! I am also thinking about getting a GIS Graduate Certificate, a growing field!

  • #171872

    David Dean

    Mr. Brian:

    I know a bit about veterans preference. There are a number of Federal court cases you can look up, and many more MSPB cases. Veterans preference is a right. You can find the right to veteran preference in USC Title 5, and USC Title 38. Look at Dean v. OPM, November 02, 2010. I sure this will answer your questions regarding veterans preference. If you want to change veterans preference, change the federal statutes. That is the only way you will change veterans preference. For college students if you want to go to the head of the line with us, the Armed Forces of the United States recruiting stations are open Monday through Friday, and on Saturday morning. We will make you a better person.

  • #171870

    David Dean

    Still at it? I am to. OPM and I are discussing the Pathways Program in MSPB. I am really enjoying it.

  • #171868

    David Dean

    There is a non-competitive appointment process taht passes the “sniff test”. The Veterans Re-employment Act VRA), and direct appointment of service disabled veterans.

  • #171866

    Kim Ellison

    Hi Brian – After reading your post and the responses, I went to your profile and noticed that you are in St Louis currently working on certificate and in a graduate program at WUSTL. Here are few of my recommendations.

    The first thing you should do is build your network. Look for alums in the Washington DC area that are government employees or employees of government contractors. There are quite a few WUSTL alums in the DMV. WashU owns the contract for the executive education at the Brookings Institute, so I would recommend you go to the alumni directory or even join some of the LinkedIn groups and look a few people up. When you find someone willing to talk to you, request informational interviews and guidance for finding a position. Remember to close any informational interviews with a request for 1 to 3 more contacts and ask for help. Be professional. Expand your reach.

    Second, your job search story is quite common for many people outside of DC. Try to “join” the fraternity next door; consider looking for a government contractor firm that could utilize your skills. This option allows you to get the experience working in the sector, and if you decide to continue to pursue a federal position gives a good story to tell related to federal work. Attend vendor and government contractor meetings to find smaller firms that may not pop up on the radar. Look for non-profits / NGOs that could utilize your unique skill set. It might take you further than you expect. Use that international affairs education, and go outside the US. Consider Peace Corps or the State Department related work.

    Third, be willing to go wherever the job opening – contractor or federal will take you… and I mean anywhere with no complaints. Is the job in Alaska? Be willing to brave the cold. This includes expanding your search to agencies that may not have the mission, but may have the need of your skill set. You have the disadvantage of currently being in a city that has lost a number of major names; even AB has been taken over. If looking for something in DC, find a local contact and see if you can establish a local presence. To break out of the mold, you must willing to sacrifice something, usually location.

    Hope this is helpful. Good luck with your search.

  • #171864

    Camille Roberts

    Hi Brian,

    I feel your frustration and hear about it every day from my clients. I agree, it is a frustrating process. The advice you have received here is awesome, specifically from Andrew, Ebony, Kim and especially about networking. I have been a Federal Career Consultant for more than 23 years. It breaks my heart to hear about people who are extremely educated and qualified, yet that cannot get past the ATS or to a hiring official. I would love to help you change that. If a federal career is your dream, you will never be happy anywhere else. You CANNOT give up! You have to keep trying…every day…not 1-2 times a month.

    I read your whole post and all the comments, but really stands out is you said 600-700 applications. Let me ask you…did you ever ask for feedback on any of those? Did you follow up with the contact on the announcement? Did you get an interview for any of them? Did you send a stellar thank you letter or job proposal letter after the interview? Did you follow up with the interviewer to ask for feedback as to why you were not hired? (I know that is a tough one because you may not get a straight answer, but there are very strategic ways to learn how to improve.)

    Have you ever asked for help from a professional federal career advisor? I am one of the professional resume reviewers here on GovLoop. I would love to help you.

    If you have applied 600-700 times and you haven’t been selected, something is wrong at the resume, cover letter, USAJOBS builer levels. You can be the MOST and BEST qualified, but if you are not demonstrating that ‘on paper’ and ‘electronically’ and in social media, you won’t make it too far through the process with all the competition. I have a very high rate of success helping my clients get referred to the hiring officials and a good number of them are from the private sector. I have even had a few clients 60+ go from the private sector into GS-14-15 positions. It can be done! Don’t give up! Use your frustrated energy to hyperfocus on finding a solution and you are off to a great start just from your post.

    I would be willing to review your cover letter, resume(s) including your USAJOBS resume, your USAJOBS profile (where 9 of out 10 times I find errors), and your thank you letters. I am also willing to analyze your social media profiles and make recommendations on all of your career marketing materials to help you land your dream job faster! Feel free to connect with me here on GovLoop, LinkedIn ([email protected]), on my Facebook Fan Page: CC Career Services, and Twitter: @camilleroberts. My web site is currently being revamped, but you can learn more information there: http://www.ccCareerServices.com .

    If you would like me to review, analyze, and make recommendations on your career marketing information, please email me at [email protected] . I would love to help you create a whole new strategy that works!


  • #171862

    Julie Chase

    I hate to break it to you Brian,but David Dean has it spot on. If you are not a vet, you are not getting in. At least in DoD, DoN. Faghettaboutit. I know a college grad, young man with a disability. He has, like you, applied and applied. He is Schedule A with two college degrees. His parents are paying back his student loan and he continues to look for work. The President issued an EO in 2010 to hire 100,000 persons to fed service with disabilities…….no matter, vet preference comes first. This young man was deemed “qualified”, however, when he asked why HRSCEAST didn’t forward his resume to the local selecting official…he was told, “VET PREFERENCE”. I don’t care if you have a PHD, if you are not a vet, you are not going to be considered. Pathways, hasn’t even started here because there are questions of how is it going to be “funded”. I will also add that due to the vet preference rule…..a vet can be hired with “minimal qualifications”. If I were you, I would check, part time and temp appointments….that is how I got in. I temp’d for what seemed like forever, then I was picked up. But I am low on the fed chain. I wish you luck.

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