Hitchhikers Guide to the Federal Jobs Galaxy

By Linda E. Brooks Rix

Let’s say you’re a Millennial — otherwise known as a 20-something young adult —  and you’re trying to get a job and start paying off those student loans. You’re in the Washington, D.C. metro area and you know a lot of folks that work for the federal government, so you decide maybe a federal job’s a good idea.

Hitchhikers Guide to the Federal Jobs GalaxyYou go online, and you end up at USAJOBS, not because it hit high on your search criteria (its site rank, as measured in unique visitors by Compete.com, has dropped 116 places since the release of USAJOBS 3.0) but because every federal agency’s career site leads you there. Once there, you are encouraged to post your résumé and search for positions that might be of interest to you and apply. Bingo! You hit pay dirt — a $51,630-to-$67,114-a-year job that looks like a good point of entry. Plus, you just happen to have the exact degree they are requiring. Things are
looking up!

You click to apply and get taken into an online application or you’re asked to email your résumé to a recruiter (and I use the term recruiter loosely).

You wait. You hear nothing. You wonder if your résumé has been sucked into a black hole.

You wait. You hear nothing. You lose interest. You decide the government really doesn’t want you.

Maybe you made a mistake on your application. Maybe not. You hear nothing. You move on.

Is it any wonder that the results of the 2011 National Association of Colleges and Employers Survey of more than 35,000 students about their employment plans after finishing school showed that just 2.3 percent said they intend to work for the U.S. federal government?

The government’s hiring process has proven as resistant to change as a staph infection is to antibiotics. You can choose to believe in the fanfare and spin from Cheerleader-In-Chief OPM Director John Berry about hiring process improvement, but the proof is in the results. And there are none.

The tragic truth is that changing just a few of things could change the entire bureaucratic culture built around the federal hiring process — and maybe make it easier for a Millennial to want to apply and work here. Let’s just start with the job posting and the application process for now.

Please reference the “Required Documents” section for additional requirements.  All education requirements must be verified by transcripts. Translation: If we require a document and you don’t submit one, we’ll toss you out of the running.  We will do this even though there is nothing that requires us to have these documents prior to reviewing your qualifications and sending your application on to the hiring manager.  We call this quality control, and we made it up all by ourselves, but we like it and we’re sticking to it. If we ask for a document, attach it to your application, or we will basically throw it out. Behind every one of these documents is a process that controls what we can and cannot do. Do yourself and us a favor and attach them. This job requires a bachelor’s degree and we need to verify that you have one from an accredited institution, so attach a copy of your college transcripts when you apply, or we’ll throw out your application. Yes, we will. Seriously.
Male applicants born after 12/31/1959, who are required to register with the Selective Service under section 3 of the Military Selective Service Act, must be registered (or must have registered at the time they were required to do so) in order to be eligible for appointment. Translation: You have to have registered with the Military Selective Service, otherwise known as the draft. If you haven’t, we’ll toss out your application You have to have proof you have registered with the Military Selective Service, otherwise known as the draft. If you have, you’ll have a number assigned to you. If you haven’t or didn’t register, don’t apply for this job because we can’t give it to you no matter how much we like you and want to hire you. This applies only to men because the draft only applies to men.  Yeah, there’s a real law behind it and everything.
Applicants must have 52 weeks of specialized experience equivalent to at least the next lower grade level in the Federal Service. Specialized experience is experience in or directly related to the line of work of the position to be filled, and which has equipped the applicant with the particular knowledge, skills, and abilities to successfully perform the duties of the position. Translation: You have to have done this job or been in a line of work just like this job to be hired.  And you need 52 weeks of experience in this exact line of work. We aren’t permitted to look at your general qualifications until you meet these very specific ones. We like our hiring to be risk free and want to reward people who have spent a lot of years working their way to this very spot. We want to bring a fresh perspective and state-of-the-art talent to the public service. The rules allow us to have a great deal of discretion in determining what experience is directly related to the job we’re hiring for, and we can hire for talent we don’t already have but see as essential to making progress and serving the taxpayer. Tell us how you can help us serve the next generation and honor the generations that brought us here by fulfilling our commitments to them more efficiently and effectively.
The U.S. Department of Whatever is an EQUAL OPPORTUNITY EMPLOYER. Translation: In order to protect ourselves from litigation, we like to use these kinds of statements to assure you that we will not discriminate. This is part of our ongoing belief system that if we put it in writing, in a hopelessly long document that you’ll never read, we will somehow protect ourselves and reduce our risk, whether we embrace diversity or not. Please believe us when we say we hire on the merits. That is why we put this statement in ALL CAPS. We believe that diversity is essential to our ability to create the finest cadre of public servants on the planet.  By diversity, we mean all of the elements — racial, ethnicity, gender, age, national origin — and we mean skills, contribution levels, expertise, academic choices, life experiences, values, and motivations. We want to hire the most talented group of people with the most diverse background that we can and build an organization that thrives in that environment. If that fits your concept of how the world should be, please apply.
The examining Human Resources Office (HRO) makes the final determination concerning applicant ratings. It is essential that your resume provide sufficient information to substantiate your responses in the self-assessment vacancy questions. If your responses are not adequately substantiated by your resume, the HRO will amend your responses to more accurately reflect the level of competency that is indicated by the content of your resume. Translation: The examining Human Resources Office (HRO) is the exclusive and sole arbiter of whether your application never sees the light of day. We have a highly refined, internal lie detector that is encoded in our DNA. If our sensors detect you have inflated your qualifications, we will summarily alter your application, without notice, regardless of whether your actions were intentional or inadvertent, malicious or benign, for personal gain or in the interest of public service, or factually based, falsified, or merely fantasy.  Should this occur, any and all consequences of these actions are yours to bear and yours alone. The more we know about you, the better — even if you have very little work experience to describe in your résumé. Our job is to make sure that we are inclusive, not exclusive.  We’re looking for any way we can (in this convoluted, over-regulated process) to move you forward.  In order to do that, we need your help. Describe your work, your life experiences, your pastimes, your skills, any special training you have received, any coursework that you found particularly interesting, and anything else that helps us really get to know you.  We want to know you as an individual.
This vacancy is being concurrently advertised with HQ-XX-MP-XX-EI-XXXXX. You must apply to the vacancy for which you wish to receive consideration. Applicants who wish to be considered for both must apply to both. Translation: This job is posted twice. One posting is for people who don’t already work here, and the second posting is for those who do. If you don’t already work here, and you apply to the posting for people who do, we’ll toss out your application. If you do work here, and you apply to the wrong posting, different rules apply and you may not be considered or selected.  We could post these jobs with just one posting but we don’t like to do that.  It makes it harder for us to process all the paper work (even though there are software programs that would do that for us in seconds). One reason we like to do it is because we think we’re really most likely to hire someone who already works here — but we like the illusion of open competition so we go thru the exercise. In other words, about 50 percent of the jobs that are open in the federal government are really just for our employees. HQ-XX-MP-XX-EI-XXXXX to apply.  If you don’t already work for us, apply under HQ-YY-MP-YY-EI-YYYYY.  You can apply to both if you’re not sure.
Your online resume must demonstrate that you possess the following knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs/Competencies) (NOTE: Applicants need not prepare a written responses to these KSAs/competencies, unless asked in the online application). If your resume is incomplete, or does not support the responses in your online questionnaire you may be rated ineligible, not qualified, or your score may be adjusted. Translation:  We use an antiquated method of ranking applicants from best to worst called KSAs.  This method requires that you provide information about the degree to which you have these characteristics.  Two years ago, we were told we did not have to use KSAs any longer — it was heralded as a “ban on KSAs” but it actually just said that we had to stop requiring that you write an “essay” as to how well you possessed any given KSA we are using to score you.  This “ban” changed virtually nothing except that we can’t require you to write an essay. Instead, we go through your résumé and make the assessment ourselves.  If we don’t see these KSAs directly addressed, then we lower your score or disqualify you.  When we say “(NOTE: Applicants need not prepare a written responses to these KSAs/competencies, unless asked in the online application).” — we don’t really mean that, we’re looking for that exact thing. Even though we could use an application process that directly intakes and assesses your education, training, experience, and credentials and help hiring managers process applications objectively and quickly to get the best people, we don’t want to do that.  Instead, we continue to use an archaic method known as “knowledge, skills, and abilities” (KSA) when we screen applicants for positions.  This ensures that those of us in the HR office have enough work to do and can exercise a lot of control over hiring decisions we would not otherwise have.  This “scores” your application or résumé so that you can be put in rank order from the best qualified to the least qualified with the other applicants.  It is in your best interest to address these KSAs directly and specifically, including lengthy paragraphs or even a page about each of these KSAs.  We can’t require you to do this and, if you do not, we’ll use our best judgment as to how to score you.  It is most helpful if you can discuss the job you held or the training or education you received that directly shows you have the background in the area we are asking you about. Don’t forget, you can use anything related to your work experience, unpaid volunteer work, training, education, life experiences, military experience, or any other attribute that shows off what you know and where your talents are.  We appreciate your efforts in sending us high quality information and you will greatly benefit from the effort you put into making the application process work for you.

Millennials seeking federal employment shouldn’t need a magic decoder ring just to be considered. And no one looking for a job should be subjected to “government speak” or have to wade through an alphabet soup of job classifications and a form of inside baseball while never finding out exactly why their application wasn’t considered.

If federal agencies truly want to recruit and attract smart, technically savvy, highly qualified college graduates into U.S. government employment, clean up the simple act of communication.

It’s the first step toward making federal employment easier. Or else those highly desired candidates will move on, and you’ll continue to wonder why nearly 100 percent of graduating college seniors won’t be considering the U.S. government as the place to begin their careers.

This article was written by Linda E. Brooks Rix, Co-CEO of Avue Technologies, and published on February 29, 2012 by The Huffington Post. The article is reprinted here by permission of Avue Technologies Corp., of Tacoma, Wash.