Posted by Lauren Weiner
A lot of military spouses would love to get a government job. It really can be the ultimate portable career, especially if you find a career path that is utilized on most military installations. But I hear over and over from spouses that breaking in to the government system can be daunting.
While obtaining government employment is very different than the hiring process for the private sector, if you know how the system works and can effectively navigate the hiring process, you stand a much greater chance of breaking in. In the coming weeks, we are planning to build our website section on government job seeking, but in the short-term, here are some basic things to keep in mind.
1. Understand the GS system
The GS system can be extremely confusing from the outside. (There are systems other than GS (or “General Schedule”) in the government, but they are generally set up fairly similarly to GS, and the vast majority of the positions in the government at this point are GS, so I’ll focus on those here). When you look at a job posting or position description, you’ll notice that it is set up as GS-(series)-(grade level). The numbers after the GS- tell you a lot about the job itself.
- Series: This is reflected as a 4-digit code just after the GS-. For example, a contracting officer is an 1102. A management analyst is an 0301. You can find a list of the government series here: http://www.opm.gov/fedclass/html/gsseries.asp
- Grade: The 2-digit code that appears after the series reflects the “grade level” of the position. GS positions are graded from a GS-1 to a GS-15. (There is also a set of positions above a GS-15, called “Senior Executive Service” or SES; these are very high-level career or political positions with an entirely different set of rules and selection criteria). Generally, a GS-1-8 is entry-level or administrative, GS-9-12 is “journey” level or a mid-level career position, and a GS-13-15 is senior-level, often with supervisory responsibilities. Sometimes, a position will be “graded” across multiple GS levels. For example, a position may be a GS-7-9-11. These positions allow for forward progress through the grades without competing for the next grade level and are called career ladder positions. If a position is graded at only one level (e.g. a GS-11), moving into the next grade level will require competition– you will be required to submit a resume for an open posting for a new job at that next level. While salary should never be the sole determiner in your job search, especially for a government job, the following provides an estimate of the base salary you could expect to be offered for each GS grade level (1-15) in all domestic locations: http://www.opm.gov/oca/11tables/html/gs.asp
2. The GS hiring process
The GS system serves a number of public policy purposes beyond just getting the best-qualified person into the position. There are hiring preferences that allow certain groups of people priority or preference over the general public. These include veteran’s preference (associated with a “point system” that provides up to 10-point preference to service-disabled veterans), “priority placement” (also called PPP) for current civilian government employees displaced from their jobs due to base closure, Reductions in Force (RIFs), or other similar reasons, and military spouse preference.
Generally, resumes are screened—first by an automated computer program, then (possibly) by a HR professional—and qualified resumes are compiled. If there are no preferential groups (see below) that automatically “trump” the others in the group of qualified applicants, then all of the qualified applicants make the “cert” (certification), which is passed along to the hiring official for review. That hiring official can then choose to interview a specified subset of those candidates on the cert.
The interview process for government positions is extremely regimented, in order not to provide any particular person an unfair advantage. The candidates are then ranked, and a job offer is made by the HR professional to the person with the highest overall ranking. (Note: If the hiring official calls you to offer you the job, it is necessarily an informal job offer. Only the HR official can make you a formal job offer.)
If individuals in certain groups—such as priority placement—are deemed qualified, then no other individuals not in that priority group make the cert, even if they are much more qualified for the position. In other cases, like veterans preference, others without preference can make the cert, but usually cannot be ranked as highly in the hiring official’s review because of the preference points. Therefore, sometimes the most highly qualified candidates are not eligible to be selected for a position, based solely on the hiring rules.
3. Know your geographical area
In order to target your job search, you need to know what agencies, commands, and offices are within the geographic area of your duty station. Obviously, some duty stations (like D.C.) will have more non-military options than others. And, obviously, the command your spouse is attached to may be a good option for a targeted job search. But many agencies have field offices throughout the US, so you may not be as limited to only DoD jobs as you might think. Department of Education, Housing and Urban Development, the General Services Administration… all of these agencies (and many more) have regional and local offices that may offer good options for transfer as you PCS. Likewise, some overarching DoD commands like the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) are located throughout the US and Overseas (OCONUS) and may offer some solid career options for military spouses.
Once you target one, or a few, agencies to concentrate on, do your research. Which offices or commands are in your location? What do the specific offices do? Who heads them up? What HR office services them?
4. Tailor your resume
This is key! A successful Federal resume bears almost no resemblance to a standard resume in the private sector. Pretty much everything you ever learned about resume writing before coming to the government side should be thrown out when writing a Federal resume. One important similarity, however, is that you should always tailor your resume to each job you apply for, either in government or the private sector.
Two of the most important things to remember about Federal resumes:
- Key Words: Federal resumes are generally screened by an automated system before a human being ever reviews them. The program works by doing a key word search of your resume. If you have the magic number of key words in your resume, you make it to the next level. If not, you’re out—even if you’re the perfect fit for the position. I’ve actually seen a resume make it through the process that said throughout “I have no experience with xxxx” because “xxxx” was a key word. While I’m not advocating for that approach—it should never have made it through the human being that screened the resume after the computer program—it highlights how important the key word inclusion is.
You can generally figure out at least some of the important key words from the job posting itself. Go through and highlight any words that pop out at you as descriptors of what the job entails, and make sure you use exactly those words in your resume. If synonymous words appear for the same general task, use all of those synonyms. (For example, “I analyzed, evaluated, and calculated the effect of…”).
You can also pull general position descriptions (PDs) from a library of PDs online (from the Army, but applicable generally across the government) at:
Include additional key words from these PDs in your resume as you build it, and simply add the additional key words from the individual job posting on top of the already-existing resume you build from the PD(s) in the online PD library. (The PD for the individual job may not be identical to the PDs on the online library, but they’ll likely be fairly similar if you’re looking at the same series and grade level).
- Format: Formatting for a Federal resume is very different from a private sector one; most Federal resumes I’ve seen are in narrative format and are much longer than a traditional 1-2 page private sector resume. Again, in the coming weeks we’ll try to get some good examples of Federal resumes posted on this site to assist everyone in writing an effective resume. Because getting the key words in the resume is so important, I suggest you “kitchen sink” your resume—throw everything in there that you possibly can. Instead of taking information out of your current Federal resume when applying for a new job, continue to add to it.
Regardless of how long your resume is, however—please, please, please still proofread it for grammar, style, format, and typos! To the extent you can, think about the person who will end up reading your resume once you get through the screening process. While most people use a narrative paragraph format, I generally find it better to use a bulleted format on a Federal resume, similar to the format of a private sector resume, so that the HR professional or hiring official can easily pick out the salient points.
5. Think about alternate avenues to Federal employment
There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem to Federal employment. You need the experience to get in to the system, but you can’t get the experience without getting in to the system! There are multiple avenues for getting around this, but two are worth mentioning here—Federal internships and employment with Federal contractors. (If anyone has other suggestions, please post them in the comment section below).
- Federal Internships: There are a number of professional-level internships available in the Federal government. We will try to compile a list of them on the site (and please let us know if we’ve missed any). One that bears mentioning here is the Federal Acquisition Internship Coalition. It is a 3-year program in procurement that starts as a GS-7 procurement specialist, but provides forward progression to a GS-9 after one year, and to a GS-11 after an additional year. Procurement is a high-demand government career field, and one that is one of the most portable—all agencies and all offices need to buy things, and they need well-trained, certified specialists in government procurement to do so. Find out more about the program at: http://www.fai.gov/faic/
Students.gov also provides an exhaustive list of Federal Internship programs at:
- Employment with Federal Contractors: Many of the functions currently performed in the government are “outsourced” to private companies or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). A great way to get experience in the Federal marketplace, and make connections with Federal hiring officials, is through positions with these firms. (And I’m not just saying that because I own one of the firms, I swear!) Often, you can translate your experience with a Federal agency as a contract employee into direct experience that can be used to land a Federal job—but you may be surprised and find you like working for a contractor better than you would as a direct government hire. Depending on the firm you work for, there may be strong options for movement throughout the country (or even OCONUS) as you PCS.
6. Network, network, network!!
As with private employment, networking is incredibly important in government positions. The hiring process is imperfect—and, no matter how many improvements are made, it probably always will be—and the hiring officials really want to get the best people into their offices quickly and efficiently. If you can talk to them before they start their hiring process, and show them what a stellar choice you are for their needs, you are much more likely to land a job. You’re also more likely, just by talking to them, to understand what positions may be upcoming and how to tailor your resume to get through the process.
How do you network? Talk to everyone you can. Go to social events for your spouse’s command and ask people—especially civilians—what they do. Go to community meetings. Volunteer. Get involved in a spouse group on base (and find out what the active duty spouses of each of the members do!). Join an In Gear community in your geographical area—or start one, we’ll help!—and see what other spouses are doing. Join the Military Spouse Professionals group on Linked In, or any other group in your field. Get out there and find as many government employees, or contractor employees, or active duty members, as you possibly can. And just keep talking!