Government Work Is the New Black

Uncle Sam needs YOU, he's just not that good at showing it.

As the economy shudders and shakes and civilian companies teeter on a tightrope of uncertainty, there is one sector standing strong and quietly growing: the federal government.

The feds are the single largest employer in the country with more than 1.8 million civilian employees on the payroll. Salaries and benefits afforded to government workers are competitive with civilian careers, opportunities to advance are as good or better than in the private sector, and best of all, the government never goes out of business.

Think you need to move to Washington, D.C. to work for the feds? Not so. About 85% of federal employees work outside the D.C. metro area. A quick glance at USAJobs.gov shows at least three jobs in every state including American Samoa and Guam. In the "Browse by Skills" section you'll find a match for everything from architecture to arts to psychology to accounting.

The biggest hurdle to finding and landing your dream job with the government is the byzantine listing and application process.

Get Started

Your first stop should be USAJobs.gov. Not only can you search by location, skill, agency and salary, you can store searches, receive alerts for closing application periods and upload your resume.

Now that you have a sense of the types of jobs you might want to apply for, head over to GovCentral, where you'll find an extremely detailed overview of government career opportunities and how to apply for them.

Take a look at the 2009 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report, where you'll learn that the top five large agencies as rated by their employees are the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Government Accountability Office, NASA, the Intelligence Community, and Department of State.

If small is your thing, the top five are the Surface Transportation Board, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Congressional Budget Office, Office of Management and Budget, and National Science Foundation.

Foreign Service

If you've always dreamed of a career abroad, there's no better time to apply to the foreign service. According to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who personally welcomes you to the Department of State's home page, recently approved funds will result in more than 1,000 new jobs in the next few years.

The recently revamped Web site makes the application process a bit less onerous, and features like the Which Career Track is Right for You? quiz and Career Track Myths and Realities are extremely helpful resources.

The qualifications and testing procedure for service abroad are rigorous, but your chances of being selected are much better today than they were even five years ago.

Decipher the Listings

You'd think a sleek, well-organized site like USAJobs would lead to an easy, streamlined application process. Psych! This is bureaucratic jargon in all its glory. Here are a few terms to get you started. GovCentral has a comprehensive glossary.

Before applying for any federal job, be sure you're eligible. If you're reading this at all, then you're most likely not an internal candidate, i.e. a "career conditional." You want to look for "public" or "competitive" listings. Any job labeled "term" is an appointment for a specific amount of time. Every single job inside the White House is a term position.

More than 70% of the federal workforce is paid under a system called the "General Schedule" or GS. Each job is given a rating between one and 15, depending on the amount of education and experience required. Bachelor's degrees are usually required for GS-5 and above, a master's for GS-9 and above. You can streamline your search if you figure out which grade corresponds to your education and experience.

Once you know which grade your experience corresponds to, it's time to decode the jargon to match civilian job titles to government job titles. GovCentral translates areas of general interest and expertise into possible government positions. At USAJobs.gov, you'll find a detailed listing of all government job types and titles.

When a job is posted in the federal government, it will always specify an "open period." Obviously, you need to submit your completed application before the closing date. But you can also use these dates to gather some information about the job. Is the open period less than two weeks long? There's a strong chance an internal candidate is in play. Six months? It's likely a hiring manager is anticipating an opening and dipping into the pool of applicants. Between two weeks and a month is the sweet spot for real, available jobs.

How to Apply

So now that you know what you want, it's time to go get it. Tuning your resume and filling out all the forms will probably take at least a good day or two to start. But after you've done it once, you have the base to easily apply to several positions. Get started at GovCentral's Time to Apply page. USAJobs.gov allows you to create a persistent online resume using a template (registration is required for this feature).

Get ready to throw out all the resume best practices you've learned in the civilian sector. Short and sweet? Um, no. The government wants to know everything you've ever done in as much detail as possible. Keywords are also, well, key. It's not a bad idea to tune your keywords for each job based on the job requirements and qualifications.

One of the most baffling, yet critical elements in the federal application process are what's known as the KSAs, or "Knowledge, Skills and Abilities." These are narrative statements in which you give examples from your experience that correspond to the job duties. This is a very literal exercise. Go to the Qualifications & Evaluations tab for your desired job. There you'll see statements like, "The ideal candidate will have experience negotiating contract terms." Write a paragraph about successful contract terms you negotiated. Three to eight KSAs are standard.

Uncle Sam really does need YOU, even if he doesn't know how to show it.

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