WESTOVER AIR RESERVE BASE, Mass. — Applying for a federal job can be a long and complicated process, but with preparation and tenacity—the outcome could be a rewarding career in the federal civil service.
Nearly every career is represented in the federal workforce, from mechanics to lawyers, and all the different jobs that are in the civilian workforce. Some require a Bachelor’s degree, and some require higher education, but others come with minimum educational requirements. One firm requirement, according to the official hiring website for the federal government, is U.S. citizenship. Demonstrating that you have the competencies required for the job, through past civilian or federal work experience, is your biggest key to acquiring a federal position.
The door to federal employment is usajobs.gov. The website features a search function, in which job applicants can search for jobs by title or the particular federal agency they desire to work for; or search for the position of their dreams by location using city, state or zip code information. Applicants with no federal experience can search by clicking the “U.S. Citizens” designation; current and former federal employees can select that designation. Persons with disabilities, veterans, students, recent graduates, and senior executives have further designations they can explore as well.
The following are tips for success to find gainful federal employment:
Step 1. Create a federal resume outside of usajobs.gov before you upload your resume on the website; once you’ve completed your resume, save it as a PDF and then upload the file. This prevents the document from being altered, such as accidental typos getting added down the line as potential employers review the document before moving it along in the hiring process.
Step 2. Create a resume using the usajobs.gov “resume builder” program; some federal agencies only accept resumes through this program, while others allow candidates to upload their PDF resumes for employment consideration.
Step 3. Ensure that your resume is consistent in all its iterations, such as employment dates, titles and descriptions, and contact information for past employers. An additional consideration is knowing the distinction between a civilian and federal resume: the latter is much longer. Federal resumes require that you report your previous salary; provide contact information for all former employers; provide the number of hours you worked each week; and a detailed description of the tasks you performed. For example, if the typical civilian resume is one to two pages for a person with 10 years of experience, the typical “successful federal resume” can be as many as six to eight pages for a person with 10 years of experience.
Step 4. Provide schools attended, including all formal education, as well as relevant training experiences; provide associations and significant volunteer obligations you’ve held; and provide at least four professional references at the end of your resume. This extra step is vital in painting a full picture of you as a potential candidate, and it often bumps candidates to the head of the line—especially since some federal positions require background screening of potential employees prior to being hired.
Step 5. Professional certifications, letters of appreciation and reference, as well as any other accolade you have in your virtual backpack, should be scanned and uploaded into usajobs.gov. Once in the system, these documents will be available for all jobs you apply for, and they can be used until you succeed in finding employment. This may require that you contact a former employer and ask for a letter of reference, but it’s better to have ancillary and supportive documentation available for potential employers than to not.
Step 6. Once you identify a position you’re interested in applying for, allot at least two hours to go through the process thoroughly. That time should include a brief period to write a simple cover letter, addressing why you should be hired. Feel free to briefly state what skills and experience you would bring to the job. A good succinct letter, of about four paragraphs, could separate you from the pack. The intro should state your interest and declare that you are qualified. The two additional paragraphs in the body should support your qualification. And the salutation paragraph should reiterate the position you are interested in, why you’re the right candidate, and briefly thank the reader for considering you.
Step 7. Many positions come with a detailed description of required knowledge and skills; often, those descriptions contain “buzz words,” such as “successfully manage accounts” for a person applying for say a “contracting officer” job in the federal government. This example could be exchanged for any career field. The transcending key, however, is that past work descriptions and even justifications in a candidate’s cover letter would stand to benefit by incorporating these “buzz words” into resumes and cover letter descriptions. The reason for this is many federal agencies rely on electronic screeners long before a human resources official sees resumes or forwards them to selecting officials. By reviewing the job descriptions and strategically employing the “buzz words” you will literally put yourself on the “same page” as the employer. (OK—enough with the bullet air quotes!)
Step 8. After you’ve gone through the various online application processes for the federal agency job of your choice, and uploaded your eight-page resume, cover letter and supportive documents, and you’ve pressed “submit,” go back to the vacancy announcement on usajobs.gov. Typically, at the very bottom, there’s a human resources officer listed as a point of contact; sometimes, it’s a generic human resources contact; in either case, draft an e-mail announcing that you’ve applied for the position and welcome any inquiries regarding your candidacy. Additionally, ask if it is possible for you to periodically check back on the status of the application, and then send the e-mail. (Whether or not you receive a response from the human resources contact, this is a good extra step because in some cases you may receive a response, and that opens the door for you to check back periodically with a responsive source to inquire about the status of the hiring process.
Step 9. Research the agency you are applying to, as well as the job you are applying for. A quick visit to professional career websites such as LinkedIn or zoominfo.com may identify persons currently working in the agency or specific office to which you applied. If you have an account on the career website, you might consider sending the person affiliated with the agency where you applied a message announcing that you are seeking employment with their agency and would appreciate any information regarding what they like about their agency and their position. This ice-breaker message could start a useful communication exchange—or you might be messaging your new boss. In either case, initiative is never a bad thing, and most employers might be impressed by the display of resourcefulness and tenacity—if not audacity.
Step 10. Visit the “status” page on usajobs.gov and look for your standing to change from “completed,” to “referred,” to “selected,” and finally and hopefully to “hired.”
Editor’s Note: Capt. Bowser is a former deputy director for the U.S. Department of Labor. He currently serves as a division director for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.