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How to land a federal job: 25 tips from insiders and experts

Jul. 7, 2014 - 08:28PM   |  
Anthony Jones, second from right, left the Navy as a chief petty officer. He was serving in force protection when he realized the Transportation Security Administration had similar job descriptions that fit his interests, so he jumped to federal civilian service. He now supervises 15 people and 15 working dogs for the TSA in Atlanta.
Anthony Jones, second from right, left the Navy as a chief petty officer. He was serving in force protection when he realized the Transportation Security Administration had similar job descriptions that fit his interests, so he jumped to federal civilian service. He now supervises 15 people and 15 working dogs for the TSA in Atlanta. (Kevin Liles/kevindliles.com)
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You've probably heard that federal agencies give some hiring preferences to veterans.

You've probably heard that federal agencies give some hiring preferences to veterans.

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You’ve probably heard that federal agencies give some hiring preferences to veterans.

But did you know:

■ That some positions are awarded to vets noncompetitively — i.e., they’re not publicly listed for nonvets?

■ That résumés submitted to federal agencies should be different from those submitted to private-sector employers?

■ That if you ask, government agencies may give you important information related to a position that’s not included in a public job listing, which could give you a leg up on other applicants?

As a whole, the federal government represents one of the largest, most veteran-hungry job markets in the country. It’s also one of the most competitive — and unconventional.

To help you sort it out, Military Times quizzed hiring officials and advisers from many of the largest veteran employers in the federal government, as well as outside experts, for tips on how vets can land federal jobs.

They gave us advice covering every step of the process.

Before you separate

1. Start preparing early. With his retirement looming, Michael Cheshier, a master chief Navy counselor, applied for a civilian position with the service to lead its military support section, last October — more than three months before the first scheduled day on the job in February.

That sort of time frame is not unusual for federal jobs, which must abide by particular application processes and, as a result, typically take longer to hire a candidate.

2. Research your options. The “federal government” doesn’t function as one huge organization. It consists of many agencies, both large and small, sometimes stacked within other agencies and departments. The hiring procedures and accommodations for veterans can be similarly complicated.

But vets can use one site — fedshirevets.gov — to learn almost anything they’d want or need to know about getting a federal job. USAJobs.gov, the primary federal job search site, also has information and tools. Additionally, some agencies have their own sites, such as the Veterans Affairs Department’s vaforvets.va.gov, with more information for vet job seekers.

3. Network with your co-workers. If you’re contemplating a federal job within your current military branch or closely related to the work you’re already doing, “you may have the inside track,” said Greg Rinckey, a federal employment attorney and managing partner at the law firm Tully Rinckey.

For example, you may actually know the person who would decide whether to hire you as a civilian. Or you may be working alongside civilians in similar jobs who can offer specific advice on how to get the gig and the inside scoop on what the job is really like.

“Sit down with the civilian working in the office and say, ‘Hey, what are the pros and cons?’ ” Rinckey said.

4. Look for fed-focused TAP sessions. Under recent revisions to the Transition Assistance Program, TAP classes can include special modules and workshops focused on federal government work. They start with basic overviews that will help you determine if federal work is for you and delve into much greater detail for those who are interested.

5. Save up for interview clothes. After years of having Uncle Sam provide all the necessary dress uniforms, some vets might not think to stock their closets with interview-appropriate clothes when they transition out.

That was a jolt for Cheshire, who advises his fellow transitioning vets to start saving for this particular need well before getting out. “It’s expensive,” he said. “You’re going to pay a good amount to dress for success.”

Choosing your path

1. Think about the job you want, not just the agency. Many agencies will have jobs with similar roles and functions, which means more options to pick from, said Tim McManus, a vice president at the Partnership for Public Service.

For example, a vet who wants to do federal work helping other current and former service members can choose from among VA, the service branches, the Defense Department, the Labor Department, the Housing and Urban Development Department and others, said McManus, who added: “I would encourage vets to pursue their passions.”

2. Decide if you want to change direction. If you love what you’ve been doing in the military, that experience could translate into a better starting position with the feds. But if you got stuck with a military occupational specialty you didn’t like, the transition can be a great time for a course correction.

Hakeem Basheerud-Deen did just that. After nearly 25 years in the Air Force, he took a different approach in his federal career and ended up at the Office of Personnel Management — an agency he hadn’t even heard of before.

“Some of these programs ... can give opportunities to change careers, open up new possibilities, and that’s what it was for me,” said Basheerud-Deen, now OPM’s director of veterans services.

3. Follow the money, not the crowd. Some agencies are seeing their budgets scaled back as Congress seeks to trim costs; others are facing new challenges and getting the funding to address them, McManus said. Your odds of getting a job will be better at the latter agencies — the ones whose profiles, and budgets, are growing.

That said, you may also improve your employment chances by seeking work at some of the more obscure federal departments that don’t get as much attention, or as many applications, as the ones you read about in headlines.

4. Talk to the agency’s vet hiring office. Most of the largest federal agencies have special offices dedicated just to helping and hiring vets, said Lawrence Wark, director of VA’s version of that office. Reach out to such offices for specific direction and advice early in your transition process. And it might not hurt if your name rings a bell when they’re thumbing through résumés later.

5. Consider your destination. Your chances of landing a federal job may improve if you’re willing to move to a federal hub, such as Washington, D.C., Cheshier said.

But some agencies and departments, such as those under the Justice Department, have a presence throughout the country, according to Trevor Norris, deputy director of human resources in that department’s Justice Management Division. That “provides an opportunity for vets to work close to home,” he said.

Writing your résumé

1. Use the USAJobs.gov résumé building tool. Federal agencies have different expectations for résumés than most other employers. But this tool can help applicants build résumés that meet those expectations in a simple, intuitive process, McManus said.

2. Go big. Private-sector companies typically expect a one-page résumé, maybe two if you’ve had a long, impressive career. But federal sector résumés “require a lot more detail,” said Daniel Hester, chief of the Staffing and Classification Branch in the Army’s Employment Policy Division.

The Justice Department’s Norris added that vets should give fuller descriptions of their duties and view the federal résumé as a chance to demonstrate good writing skills.

3. Drop the military jargon. This is the right approach even if you’re applying to an agency tied closely to the U.S. military. “There’s as good a chance as any that [the people looking at your résumé] have absolutely no military experience,” said VA’s Wark. List your skills, certifications and relevant experience in terms anyone can understand.

4. Have someone else look at your résumé. Colleagues, family, friends, veterans’ advocates within agencies — all may have useful input. Sometimes, even headhunters and job advisers in the private sector will offer such services to vets for free, Rinckey said. “They’ll move things around, and they’ll play with words ... so that it flows better.”

5. Customize for particular jobs. Are you more likely to pay attention to an email written specifically for you or one that was clearly spammed out to the entire Internet? Federal agencies feel the same way about résumés.

Their job listings spell out, with key words and phrases, exactly what they want for particular openings. Experts advise tweaking your résumé for each opening you apply for, emphasizing the aspects of your education and experience that are relevant, downplaying those that are not and incorporating the listing’s key words and phrases into your résumé’s language.

Finding the openings

1. Search open listings. USAJobs.gov is the main hub to search open jobs across the federal government, and it allows you to find jobs by location, agency, job title, skill or keyword.

But don’t end your search there. Check out the websites of the particular agencies you’re interested in, and you could find more. For instance, Norris said agencies under the Justice Department occasionally have listings on their sites that don’t appear elsewhere.

2. Find noncompetitive listings for vets only. Federal agencies allow vets meeting particular requirements to go after some jobs before civilians can. Both VA and the Office of Personnel Management track such positions and have listings available. Officials with those agencies advise watching VA’s website and following OPM across social media channels to stay in the loop.

3. Let the feds find you. Upload the right résumé to the right place, and you could snag a federal job before anyone else knows it’s even open. When a job opens up at VA, Wark said, the agency often looks through the vet résumés it has on file, submitted through its website, to see if there are any great matches. Other agencies do likewise with résumés uploaded to USAJobs.gov. If your résumé has what they’re looking for, the feds may be contacting you about a job opening.

4. Don’t limit the search to your dream job. Getting that initial fed job often is more difficult than transferring from one federal job to another. So it might be best to go for a federal gig that isn’t quite what you want to do for the rest of your life, if it gets you closer to that job. “It’s much easier to fill a position laterally from within the federal government ... than to go through the competitive process,” Wark said.

5. Try to find lots of jobs to apply for. “The best advice I can give is to start early and cast a wide net,” federal employment lawyer Rinckey said. There are many federal agencies to choose from and many other people trying to get those jobs. Odds are that you won’t snag the first position you try for.

Applying for positions

1. Ask for the position description documents. These are internal documents that federal agencies use to describe what they expect from particular positions. They are usually not included in job listings, Wark said, but they are subject to public records requests, and agencies will often hand them over if asked.

“It gives you more information about the job, and it allows you to create a résumé and submit a résumé that probably does a better job of fitting your experiences against the elements of that job,” he said.

2. Be careful to include everything a job listing requires. “There’s really no way to guarantee failure more quickly than to submit an incomplete package,” said Justice’s Norris. Applying for a federal job as a vet usually entails more than just a résumé. Paperwork establishing veteran status, additional documentation if you’re applying for a noncompetitive listing, job-specific questionnaires, school transcripts and other materials may be needed.

3. Be honest. Many federal jobs include questionnaires designed to determine an applicant’s experience level and how good a fit the person might be for the position. Vets shouldn’t sell themselves short, but they won’t do themselves any favors by indicating an experience level in the questionnaire that the résumé doesn’t back up.

Rinckey compared the importance of accuracy on such questionnaires to that of accuracy on security clearance applications. If hiring managers think the application is inflated, “right away, they move on to the next person.”

4. If you don’t get the job, ask why. Some job applicants make the same mistakes over and over and never realize what they’re doing wrong. If someone else is picked for a job that you thought you were perfect for, reach out to the contacts provided in the job listing and see if they’ll tell you why you fell short. “Gaining that feedback is helpful for the next time,” Wark said.

5. Vet preference doesn’t mean vet guarantee. The federal government goes out of its way to hire military veterans. This also means that a lot of veterans apply for federal jobs, in addition to the civilian population. Don’t expect a cakewalk.

“There are a lot of veterans leaving the military and they are looking for opportunities in the federal government,” said Cynthia Sepulveda, an Army human resources specialist. “They are competing against their fellow soldiers.”

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