Federal Job Search Strategies: 7 Tips to Help You Succeed

Despite constant calls by politicians and policy makers to reign in government spending, the federal government remains the largest employer in the United States. According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, there are currently more than 2,700,000 employees working for the federal government in civil service positions. For nearly every federal job vacancy, the number of applicants exceeds the number of available positions by at least tenfold.

Why do so many Americans aspire to a federal job? The answers are diverse. Some consider it a patriotic duty, while for others it’s an act of enlightened self-interest. Whatever your motivation, however, the benefits are significant. Simply put, Uncle Sam is an excellent boss.

Working for the federal government offers employment stability that cannot be replicated in the private sector. Once a new employee completes a predetermined probationary period (usually 1 year), lifetime employment is nearly guaranteed. Laws and regulations governing federal personnel practices make it extremely difficult to fire, lay-off, or forcibly transfer most employees. On the rare occasions when lay-offs do occur, displaced employees are given very preferential hiring treatment for similar positions that becomes available. The result is that very few federal employees have ever missed a day of work due to a lay-off.

Fringe benefits, including an excellent retirement package, are also a major motivating factor. Health benefits for federal employees are generally better than those offered in the private sector, and the government currently picks up more of the premium costs than most private employers. For an employee enrolled in Blue Cross/Blue Shield’s family coverage, for instance, the government currently pays $578 of the $771 monthly premium. Retirement benefits are based on a complicated formula that incorporates the employee’s salary, years of service and retirement age, but independent studies consistently determine that the plan is more generous than nearly all private sector employers.

Federal salaries are competitive as well. In 2005, the average salary for all federal workers worldwide is $60,203. Due to the salary structure and political realities, raises are virtually guaranteed every year. In January 2005, the raise was set at 3.5%. In addition, salary adjustments are made for employees in major metropolitan areas.

Federal service also provides far more opportunity for advancement than most other employers. At the senior management level (known as the Senior Executive Service, or SES), salaries range from $107,550 to $162,100. There are currently approximately 7,000 SES employees in federal service.

With all of these benefits, it’s no wonder that many job seekers are trying to land a position with the federal government. While the competition is fierce, here are some key strategies that can help you in your search:

1. Check the government’s official employment web site (

) often. Virtually every federal job vacancy is listed there, and it’s updated every day. Most vacancy announcement are only open for a period of approximately 3 to 4 weeks, and the application process can be detailed, so it’s best to check frequently so you can start working on your application as early as possible.

2. Avoid services that claim to help you land a federal job. Companies that guarantee you a federal job are scams, and these services can’t do anything that you can’t do yourself.

3. Be willing to accept a pay cut. While federal salaries are competitive, the compensation structure is such that salaries typically start low but increase quickly. Every federal job has a starting grade and a “full performance” grade. Typically, professional positions start at grade 7 in the federal pay scale (referred to as General Schedule-7, or GS-7), and increase to GS-9, GS-11 and GS-12 at 1-year intervals. For an employee in Washington, D.C., that would mean starting with an annual salary of $35,452 but earning $62,886 after three years of service (not counting the annual government-wide salary increases of approximately 3% per year).

4. Consider “trainee” positions. The term has a negative connotation, but starting in a designated trainee position can be a great way to get your foot in Uncle Sam’s door. These positions, which generally require no specific work experience, are typically filled at the GS-5 level ($25,000 – $30,000 per year). Because many federal jobs are only available to current or former federal employees, working as a trainee for a year or two often opens a lot of doors.

5. Read the vacancy announcement carefully. Procedures for applying for a federal job have been streamlined in recent years, but it’s vitally important that your follow the instructions provided to the letter. Unlike their private sector counterparts, federal hiring managers have to abide by standardized procedures without exception. For instance, they are legally prohibited from considering applications that arrive after the closing date on the vacancy announcement–even one day late. Likewise, if you don’t submit the requested documentation on time (transcripts, etc), they can’t collect it from you later.

6. Bulk up your resume. This may be good advice for any job hunter, but it’s particularly important when applying for a federal position because of the way initial GS grades (i.e., starting salaries) are determined. Many vacancy announcement can be filled at any of a few different GS grades, and the level at which a new hire is brought on board is determined by his or her years of pertinent employment history. It is a little-known secret that federal hiring managers want to start new hires at the highest grade they can justify, because by doing so they can minimize the risk of turnover. Most federal employees who leave government service before retirement do so during the first five years of their career, because starting salaries in the private sector are higher.

So, how can you help your new agency pay you more? If you’re in a position that makes it difficult to gain work experience in your desired field, remember that self-employment, if legitimate, counts as employment experience for federal hiring purposes. For instance, if you’re a stay-at-home mother with the goal of re-entering the workforce as a writer, working from your home as a freelance writer for three years would count as work experience when you apply for that federal job. Incidentally, on the date of this article there are currently 27 writing and editing vacancies listed on the USA Jobs web site!

7. Above all, don’t give up. Although the competition for federal jobs can be tough, the benefits are well worth the effort. Like any job search, most applicants can realistically expect to be turned down many times before they are offered a position. Tenacity and a positive attitude are your most vital assets.