By Nancy Segal
The federal government fills nearly 90,000 jobs each year -- not counting the military or US Postal Service.
Many people believe applying for a federal job is a difficult and complicated process, but it is actually very achievable.
The job search process in the federal government can last about 6-18 months, which can be lengthy for many people.
But most find it is worth the effort and the wait -- federal jobs include healthcare, vacation and sick time, life insurance, pensions, training, and other benefits.
To be successful, you must apply only for jobs for which you are truly qualified by using a targeted federal-style resume, and, of course, you must also be patient.
Do not pay a third party to provide access to the "hidden" federal government job market. Usually these "services" just link you back to USAJOBS.
For the vast majority of federal positions, you must be a US citizen. Green card holders are not typically eligible to apply for federal jobs.
There are many similarities to applying for a federal job and a position in the private sector such as:
However, important differences exist, too, like:
Federal government jobs are divided into 3 categories:
The United States Postal Service (USPS) is a major employer which fills jobs outside of the typical federal process. Access those jobs through USPS Careers. USPS also offers special consideration for veterans.
This is the hiring process used to fill the majority of federal government jobs, those in the competitive service.
If you don't already have a USAJOBS account (USAJOBS.gov), create one. You must have complete a profile to apply to any job on USAJOBS. Because this will be used for all job applications, it is important to be accurate and thorough.
With a USAJOBS account and profile you can:
USAJOBS uses your profile information to improve your job search results, so it is better to create an account before searching and, also, to search while signed in to USAJOBS. However, you can also search without having an account.
Available jobs can be searched by typing in a keyword or location and can be further narrowed by pay grade, salary, job series, agency, and more.
Most federal agencies use the General Schedule (GS) pay system, but note that there are other pay systems in the government as well. It can be difficult to tell where you might fit if you are unfamiliar with the various grades.
In essence, GS grades 5 to 11 are considered relatively entry-level level; grade 12 and 13 are mid-level; and grades 14 and 15 are senior level. Positions in the Senior Executive Service (SES) are at the executive level.
Instead of focusing on the grades and trying to figure out if you’re qualified, focus on the experience required (especially the specialized experience); if you have what the job announcement is asking for, then you should apply. Let the agency Human Resources (HR) office determine whether you meet the grade requirements.
If selected, most agencies will start you are the lower end of the grade’s pay band. However, if you are offered a job, salary is negotiable but recognize that agencies have many choices of applicants so they may not be open to your counter salary offer.
After finding a job you are interested in, review the announcement to see if you are eligible and meet the qualifications. Read the entire "vacancy announcement," including the occupational questionnaire, before starting your application.
Keep in mind that for each job, there are specific qualifications each applicant must meet.
There are some jobs (accountants, engineers, social workers, contract specialists, and more) that require either a degree or a certain number of college credit hours; the job announcement will spell this out, when education is required.
NOTE: DO NOT APPLY unless you have the required education.
As mentioned above, after entering certain job criteria, USAJOBS will automatically look for jobs that match your desired criteria. You can then request that USAJOBS email you the search results daily, weekly, or monthly.
Request daily updates for faster, more effective information.
Since some jobs are only posted for a short period (as little as one week), the frequency can make a difference. Because many job announcements are only available to receive applications for as few as 3 days, it is important that you check USAJOBS on a daily basis so that you do not miss an opportunity.
Late applications are not accepted, regardless of reason.
Do not read anything into the fact that a job announcement is only open for applications for a few days. Given the number of applications received for each posting, federal HR offices are trying to limit the number of applicants.
Competition is stiff, so apply immediately when you find a position that you are qualified for. Don't waste your time applying if you don't meet the requirements.
Read the How to Apply section of the job announcement before starting your application so that you are fully prepared to respond completely. This section tells you what is required to apply, including any required documents. To have your application considered, be sure to meet each of the requirements specified.
After you begin the application (and your resume and documents are uploaded and complete), the system will take you from USAJOBS to the agency online application system.
Then, you may be required to complete other agency-specific required steps such as:
The time it takes to apply varies and depends on the job and the agency’s requirements. Allow yourself at least an hour, maybe a little longer if you are new to the process.
After submitting your application, go back to the Application section of your USAJOBS account and verify that your application is indicated as received by the agency. The application status field should display “received” if the application submitted correctly.
Note: The agency may take a few hours to update the application status. Sometimes, the resume and other documents have to complete a virus scan or similar security check before they show as "received" on USAJOBS.
References are not generally required. If you included references in your application, it is unlikely that they will be checked before you are interviewed.
Once the job announcement is closed, the hiring agency will review your application.
Applicants typically will then be placed into qualification categories:
These quality categories can be thought of as bronze, silver, and gold.
When your application has been put into a qualification category, the hiring agency may update your application status to “reviewed,” but not all agencies provide this level of detail on the status.
The hiring agency will then send the highest qualified applicants to the hiring official, and those applicants may see their application status updated to "referred." Applicants not being considered further will see a “not referred” status.
Hiring officials will review applications and decide who to interview based on agency policy. Interviews can include:
The agency will contact applicants directly to schedule the interviews. This may take some time depending on the number of applicants. In most cases, there will only be one round of interviews (although more are allowed).
Federal interviews are highly structured; all candidates are asked the same questions in the same order. And, all interview questions are job related.
Interviews can be over the phone or in person and typically last between 30 minutes and 1 hour. References are usually checked after the interview and before the offer.
The hiring agency will select the qualified candidate -- and contact him/her to start the job process.
Only HR can make an official job offer. HR will offer a salary and grade (if the job was posted at more than one grade). This is negotiable, but agencies are not required to do so.
Once a candidate accepts, HR will initiate the security clearance process. This can take an additional 3-6 months, depending upon the type of clearance required.
The job offer is final only when the background investigation and additional security checks are completed. The hiring agency will contact the candidate directly to determine a start date.
Applicants who were not selected will see their application status updated to "not selected."
Getting a federal job is doable, but success requires these 3 things:
1. Applying for jobs for which you are truly qualified,
2. Using a targeted, federal-style resume, and
This is NOT your private sector job search -- in terms of process, time frame, or paperwork.
Nancy Segal is a Certified Federal Resume Writer and Certified Employment Interview Consultant who has spent more than 30 years in Human Resources with the US federal government, serving as Personnel Officer, Deputy Regional Administrator, and Special Assistant in the Departent of Defense, the U.S. Treasury, and other government agencies. Now, Nancy is a career coach, speaker, and trainer on the federal hiring process, from entry level through Senior Executive Service. Learn more about Nancy on LinkedIn and through her website SolutionsfortheWorkplace.com.