Whether defending us from foreign aggressors, representing our interests abroad, creating and enforcing laws, or administering social programs, the US government's work is never done.
To tackle its never-ending tasks, the federal government has 3 million workers, making it the nation's largest employer. Federal agencies hire approximately 300,000 new employees every year to replace civil service workers who have transferred, retired or vacated a job for other reasons.
Federal jobseekers will find hundreds of diverse career paths in thousands of locations worldwide, straightforward advancement opportunities, and decent pay and benefits, even in entry-level positions. Take heart in this, too - government hiring takes into account only a job applicant's qualifications and performance, not his or her color, creed, sex or disability.
Federal government careers can be found in every state, in most large US cities, and in more than 200 foreign countries. Average annual salary for all full-time employees is just above $46,000.
Now it's simpler than ever to find and apply for federal job openings. A more streamlined hiring process has evolved, and in many cases, civil service tests have been done away with. Forms have been eliminated or simplified, and there no longer is a federal register of job applicants. That makes it possible for jobseekers to apply directly to most agencies.
As with nearly every other aspect of life, the Internet is now making government job searching far simpler, too. Many interactive websites provide career and employment information, and for those without Web access, touch-screen computers await at many federal buildings, as do 24-hour telephone job lines.
Judy McArdle, president of Federal Research Service Inc, based in Vienna, VA, only a few miles from Washington DC, runs a business that keeps tabs on federal openings, and publishes them biweekly in print, daily on the Internet by subscription, and by preparing special reports by request.
"Those new to the federal search should know that every government agency operates its hiring procedures a little differently. If you were looking for a job at IBM or Microsoft, you'd expect their hiring practices to be different, even though they're both computer companies. Often people applying with one agency assume the other agencies will be exactly the same, but that's not the case," McArdle explains.
The novice federal jobseeker will run into three basic application tools - the federal resume, agency-specific application forms, and the generic optional form, the OF-612. McArdle cautions jobseekers not to confuse the federal "resume" with a resume used in the outside world.
Build a Federal Resume
"Resumes from a federal perspective are different. You cannot simply use your private industry resume in applying for a government job. Private sector resumes are usually brief and make you look attractive enough to get an interview," says McArdle.
"In the federal arena, resumes must provide specific, detailed information because you won't get an interview unless you pass what they call an examination. Specifics may include things like your Social Security number, your standing for veterans preference, or a signature."
Apprise yourself of a position's requirements before applying. Unless all specifications are met, you'll short circuit your chances. Unlike non-government positions, where consideration may be given to an applicant who lacks one requirement within a list of many needed qualities, federal agencies eliminate candidates who fail to fulfill all specifications.
So Many Choices!
The federal government consists of 14 cabinet departments and more than 100 independent agencies, with offices around the world. The larger agencies offer the most diverse opportunities, hiring for blue collar to professional duties. Many federal positions offer the chance to travel or even relocate, within the U.S. or internationally. Currently, more than 60,000 U.S. citizens are employed abroad by 12 federal agencies and departments.
"The government offers great transferability. You may work in Tulsa and want to move to San Francisco, or even Japan, and with the government, that's possible. You're working for a worldwide organization, and how many employers can offer that?" McArdle observes.
The federal government needs nearly every imaginable occupation, including those found only in government, such as legislators and judges. About 70 percent of federal workers are employed in a professional specialty, administrative support, or executive, administrative, and managerial occupations. The education required depends upon the job applied for, and each job announcement will list the education and work experience needed.
Many federal positions don't require a college degree. In fact, about 60 percent of federal employees have no college degree. However, as with any job hunt, applicants with more education and job experience will find more open doors. McArdle puts it bluntly: "The government tends to be somewhat credential-oriented, so higher degrees will certainly get you further. I'm not saying you can't get a professional job without a college degree, but without a bachelor's degree you'll likely end up in a clerical position."
For many jobs requiring a degree, any four-year bachelor's degree will do, but some positions require specific graduate or professional degrees.
The Job Environment
Federal work places encompass almost every conceivable setting, from office buildings, hospitals, and laboratories to factories, warehouses, shipyards, air bases, and construction sites. On-the-job stress ranges from relatively relaxed environments, (tour guide or clerical positions), to hazardous and intense environments, (law enforcement officer, astronaut, or air traffic controller).
The federal government offers eight predominant pay systems, with approximately half the workforce under the white collar General Schedule (GS) pay scale, 20 percent under the Postal Service rates, and about 10 percent under the Prevailing Rate Schedule (WG) Wage Grade classification. General Schedule pay ranges from close to $14,000 per year at the GS-1 level to more than $97,000 per year at the top GS-15 grade. Each GS grade has ten pay steps based on seniority and job performance. The Senior Executive Service salary tops out at just more than $123,000 per year.
Starting pay depends on experience, education and complexity of the position applied for. Government benefits are excellent, and include comprehensive health care, 401k savings plans, low-cost life insurance, and generous vacation and sick leave. McArdle also points out that "instead of nationwide pay rates, federal pay is now based on locality. If your job is in San Francisco, your pay will be at a San Francisco rate. If you're in Tulsa, the pay rate will be quite different."
Federal government employment is projected to decline over the next five years due to federal budget balancing, but plenty of good opportunities will always remain. Even during economic uncertainty, employees seek the stability of the federal government. The President and Congress determine the government's payroll budget prior to each fiscal year, and whether operating with a surplus or deficit, the government tends to stick closely to its projections. Therefore, federal employment is less affected by the economy's cyclical nature than private sector employment.
McArdle, who has been helping jobseekers find federal employment for 25 years, is bullish on the work. "Contrary to what many people may think, the government is very actively hiring, and still offers employees a lot. I advise anyone to look into federal government opportunities."
Websites offering a multitude of services abound for those on the federal job hunt. For federal job descriptions, qualifications, benefits, phone numbers, web links, and the chance to register your resume and even receive e-mail notification of federal job openings, check out these sites: