A look at the federal hiring process from one applicant’s perspective
Editor’s Note: Ian Smith is the webmaster for Fedsmith.com and was previously the webmaster for FPMI Communications, Inc. He is a recent college graduate who qualified for the government’s “outstanding scholar” program. While his quest for a Federal job was not successful, he obtained a job working as a web developer for a law firm in Southern Florida within a few weeks of looking for work in the private sector.
The federal government is a huge employer and one that offers a wealth of challenging job opportunities. With an aging workforce and concerns about large numbers of current employees retiring, the government is taking new initiatives to recruit employees in the new millennium. But just how easy is it to land that first job with this employer? The key, I’m told, to having a successful career with the government is to “get in.” Once you have federal employee status, getting new jobs or moving between jobs within the government is much easier. I have also been told that the key to “getting in” is “who you know.” As I found out recently, “getting in” wasn’t as easy as I hoped it would be even with the help of other current and former federal employees.
With a selection of job titles ranging from Information Technology Specialist to Forestry Aide, there is no doubt that the government offers prospective employees a wide range of interesting and challenging jobs. This is just one of the many reasons job seekers might look to the government for a job. To this prospective employee, the government was an attractive employment option as I approached college graduation. It offers responsible positions, on-the-job and formal training, room for growth, competitive salaries, superb benefits, and a variety of retirement planning options through its TSP funds. For entry level professional positions, college graduates with high GPAs have the added benefit of the Outstanding Scholars Program. I was thrilled to discover this since I qualified for the “leg up” that this program provides. That’s a luxury any student can appreciate – something in the “real world” that directly rewards good grades!
When it comes to recruiting its employees, the government appears to be top notch, at least on the surface. With the launch of OPM’s USA Jobs web site, job seekers can log on to quickly access every job opening with every agency, build and store their resumes with the help of a useful web interface, and even get new vacancy announcements emailed to them based on user-defined criteria. The Labor Department has even formed an alliance with Monster.com to recruit new employees as part of its recruitment initiatives.
With such a seemingly fancy system in place, why, then, does the government come up short? Delays in processing applications, a cryptic job rating system, and a confusing application process all leave potential employees in the dark.
I speak from personal experience and as an end user of the government’s job application process. Don’t get me wrong. As I mentioned, my impression is that the government is an exceptional employer. Granted, I’ve never worked for the government (I’ve tried to!), but I do have first hand knowledge of the benefits of federal employment, as I come from a long line of federal employees.
Having applied for numerous jobs with the government over the last several months, I became adept at submitting applications for attractive vacancy announcements. However, the application itself was my first roadblock. Preparing the application package is not easy for a newcomer and takes some getting used to. After finding an appealing announcement on USA Jobs, I began wading through the lengthy announcement to ascertain exactly how to apply. While this eventually became a straightforward process, it was difficult the first few times and it is markedly more difficult than the standard resume and cover letter an applicant might send to a company.
Fortunately I was able to call on my family members who had retired from federal service with extensive human resources experience for assistance. Until they de-mystified the application process, I was pretty much lost. I recall spending hours preparing the application package, reading the vacancy announcement several times over to make sure I had included every piece of requested material, filling out online questionnaires of 150+ questions, searching OPM.gov for the federal job application forms, and rewriting my resume to make sure that it was in the standard federal format.
Another twist – are you applying for the same job at two different grade levels? Then forget sending in the same application for both positions. While the job descriptions may be identical, the government requires two completely different applications (often times with entirely different questions and/or a different application process) for two separate vacancy announcements. That means more decrypting application forms, more questionnaires, and more paperwork.
After submitting an application for a government vacancy announcement, the waiting begins. Throughout the course of my job search, I submitted at least a dozen or so applications to different agencies. I waited as much as a couple of months before I received a response of any sort on my submissions. While I never expected to receive a response for every job I applied to (rejection is just part of the game as a job seeker), I would have guessed that the responses I did receive would have at least arrived in under a month. I was wrong. The four or five responses I did receive arrived after about a month and a half from the date I applied for them.
The information which comes with the response letters wasn’t terribly user friendly either. A short, one page score sheet of sorts was sent which presented me with the results of some kind of test or rating score. My rating for the particular position was given and it noted that this was not an offer for employment. Receiving an offer requires even more waiting and another form of contact, something I have yet to experience. Had there been some type of detailed explanation of the score sheet and the scoring process included with the results, I think it all would have made more sense to me.
I scored what I thought was pretty good on some of the position ranking tests. On one occasion, I had a 99 (presumably this is out of 100, but the score sheets never said.) Even better, I had utilized a contact I had through the agency to which I had applied. The employee sent a letter of referral on my behalf to the HR supervisor at the agency at which I was hoping to land a job. This didn’t appear to help, however. I never heard anything back despite the referral letter, the score of 99, and qualifying at the higher grade level. I would like to have checked on the status of the application process, but I was never made aware of a means to do so.
On another occasion, I sent in my application for various federal IT jobs through a virtual IT job fair conducted by OPM this past year. I thought this concept was a great idea. I was a web developer who was looking for a federal job, so it only made sense for me to seize this opportunity.
Sadly, the waiting which I had experienced applying for other jobs was no different with the job fair (if not worse). It was two months or so before I received word that I had qualified for an Information Technology Specialist position. After that, I never heard another word about the jobs or the job fair with one exception – two or three months later, I received a letter in the mail thanking me for participating in the job fair and letting me know that it was now formally closed.
So much for the IT jobs I had “qualified” for a few months ago. If I had missed the job opportunity due to competition with other applicants, that would have been fine with me. What I found frustrating in the process was that I never knew what was going on; all I was ever told was that the job fair was closed with no mention of the positions for which I had allegedly qualified several months before.
Now, I understand that the government is different. It would be unrealistic to expect that it could use more of a conventional application process for its prospective employees. The government is a huge employer that no doubt deals with tens of thousands of resumes each year, maybe even each month, so it must rely on a different system to track and process these applications. But as an outside customer, I have to ask just how efficient a system like this can be when, as a user, I have so much difficulty understanding the process and get the feeling of being left in the dark.
How can the process be improved? That’s the question that I’ve asked myself and the message I wish to convey in my story. The government does some things really well, USA Jobs being one example. This job search site is easy to use and offers a wealth of information on getting a government job. It’s the underlying application processing which appears to be hindering obtaining government employment.
One possibility for improvement would be to expand on the USA Jobs idea. It only seems logical that turning to the internet to help automate the process could enhance the government’s HR system. That is, after all, what the internet does best – sharing and storing multitudes of information. Adding a secure, web-based program on USA Jobs which would allow applicants to track the status of each application they have submitted could be a potential enhancement. Presumably, such a program would display the positions to which the applicant had applied, when he or she applied for them, and also show where he or she stood in the application process at any given time. It could also include descriptions of how the process works and a detailed description of each step in the application process. This could eliminate some of the confusion one typically experiences along the way (an explanation of why I wasn’t hearing anything after receiving my initial test scores would have been better than nothing). A program like this would most likely require input from both the applicant as well as the agency processing the applications. While it might be more work on the part of the government to input the information along the way, I think something like this could really help applicants in their job search. And since the data are then stored in the application, tracking them might become easier for the personnel offices.
I have family members who had federal careers many individuals could only dream about, but to a young person trying to follow in their footsteps, the roadblocks were plentiful and disillusioning. The government has been making steps in the right direction. Going to a web based system like USA Jobs will make the process easier and more efficient for both parties in the long run. However, the underlying process and the amount of time it takes are still the same, so no web interface can change that overnight. Until Uncle Sam can give his applicant pool something more, he may find that he’s losing talented prospects.