Uncle Sam Wants YOU. Well, Sort Of

President Obama wants to make civil service ‘cool.’ But landing an HR job isn’t easy.

By Rita Zeidner Aug 1, 2009

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Share your experiences working as a federal HR professional or applying for a federal job.

0809cover.jpgPatrina Clark was a cash-strapped engineering student at the University of Texas when she took a part-time, entry-level job in the early 1980s coding tax returns for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Many thought the work was mind-numbing. She thought it was fun. And, it seemed to have a higher purpose.

"Something about public service resonated," she says. "I really felt connected to this opportunity to give something back to the country."

After changing her major to human resources, she opted to stay with the IRS after graduating, rounding out her resume in heavy-hitting management programs at the likes of Harvard Business School and Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. After 17 years with the taxman, she served shorter stints in management at two other federal agencies before being tapped in 2008 for an executive slot at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an investigative arm of Congress that ferrets out federal waste and abuse. As deputy chief human capital officer, she earns upwards of $150,000 annually ensuring that the GAO can compete with the private sector for accountants and other finance experts it needs as budget watchdogs.

"I feel very privileged that I can make a decent living and serve my country," she says.

Making Government ‘Cool’

For most of the last three decades, politicians have been more likely to engage in fed bashing than to encourage civic-minded people such as Clark to join the ranks. But President Barack Obama wants to make government service "cool again" and, with an estimated 300,000 federal job applications submitted in the early days of his administration, appears to be making inroads. By comparison, the incoming Bush administration reportedly received a tenth the volume in 2001.

Renewed enthusiasm for civil service is good news for HR professionals and taxpayers alike, says Clark, who spent much of her career fighting an uphill battle to convince the best and brightest to look beyond the government’s middling pay and low prestige.

Some federal frenzy undoubtedly stems from the economic downturn. At a time when the private sector is shedding jobs at an alarming rate, Uncle Sam is hiring. Nearly 47,000 job announcements were posted in mid-June on the federal job board USAJobs at www.usajobs.gov. About 1,700 of those openings were for HR slots at diverse agencies including the U.S. Department of Defense, Forest Service, Food and Drug Administration and Social Security Administration. Opportunities in HR, like all federal jobs, are heavily concentrated in Washington, D.C., although HR positions crop up anywhere the government does business, including in Europe and Asia. Civilian HR opportunities run the gamut from entry-level support jobs paying less than $30,000 to senior management and executive slots paying upwards of $200,000. Not bad for government work.

Work/Life Balance

Employment attorney Elaine Ho hasn’t looked back since leaving a grueling job with a prestigious Washington, D.C., law firm two years ago to become the first diversity director at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).Taking the job meant accepting a 40 percent pay cut. And, pregnant with her first child when she made the switch, she missed out on several months of paid maternity leave. But USDA officials promised something money couldn’t buy: greater scheduling flexibility and more time with her baby and husband.

"When you’re working for a firm, serving the client is the priority," she says. "I was billing at $500 an hour, and I wasn’t even that high up in the food chain. But with that dynamic, you are on call 24/7."

In addition, Ho relishes the challenge inherent in the job, created after Pigford v. Glickman, a class-action lawsuit alleging that the USDA discriminated against black farmers for decades by denying loans and other benefits. The high-profile dispute has already cost nearly $1 billion to settle—the tab is still running—and the case has damaged the agency’s reputation. Ho designs policies and programs to prevent future discrimination against or by USDA employees.

"In my law firm, I knew that I was helping clients," she says. "But I didn’t have that same kind of relationship with employees I have here. It’s incredibly important."

Heat Up Your Federal Job Prospects

President Barack Obama wants to make government service "cool." Here are some tips for landing a hot job.

Go online. Nearly all federal openings, including those for HR positions, are posted on the government job board USAJobs at www.usajobs.gov. View HR announcements by clicking on either "Job Category" or "Occupation" from the home page and then clicking on "Human Resources." Narrow a search by specifying an agency, pay level or location.

Follow directions. As part of the selection process, candidates generally must present their qualifications online in a specified format transmitted directly from USAJobs to the hiring agency. A resume is not an acceptable proxy, mostly because it makes comparing candidates difficult. Ignore a portion of the application, fail to address each skill requirement or simply paste vague portions of your resume into the application and you may be automatically disqualified or score too low to be considered.

Meet deadlines. It doesn’t necessarily help to get an application in early, since consideration won’t begin until after the filing deadline, usually three to four weeks after an announcement is posted. But, miss the deadline and you are out of luck.

Try, try again. Inexplicably, hiring officials at one government agency may require federal experience not viewed as necessary for the same job elsewhere. Just because one agency deems you unqualified doesn’t mean another agency won’t welcome you.

Network. Seek out those already working for Uncle Sam, particularly in HR. They may give you a heads-up on a lead or clues to the skills hiring officials look for. SHRM’s member directory (www.shrm.org/memdir) is a resource for identifying those who might help you cut through the bureaucracy. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Be patient. Some agencies touch base with candidates as their applications move through the hiring pipeline. But those contacts are rare. As a general rule, applicants don’t hear back until the application deadline passes. Although Office of Personnel Management officials urge agencies to fill vacancies within 45 days of the closing dates, it’s not a rule and often isn’t realistic, especially for HR jobs requiring a security clearance.

Learn the ropes. Build expertise and demonstrate commitment to civil service by taking a course in federal HR practices. The Society for Human Resource Management and community colleges are good places to scope out training.

Negotiate pay. Every federal announcement includes the salary range. Those offered a job need not settle for pay at the bottom of the scale. But budgets are tight, so avoid making demands that lessen your chances of being selected.

—Rita Zeidner

Good Work—If You Can Get It

Elizabeth Kolmstetter didn’t have a civil-service career in mind when she entered the workforce with a newly minted doctorate in industrial psychology. But after stints with several private-sector employers, she sensed richer opportunities in government. In the wake of Sept. 11, she was among the first feds tapped to create the Transportation Security Administration. She established and managed the hiring system that resulted in the largest civilian workforce mobilization in U.S. history––hiring more than 55,000 security screeners at 430 U.S. airports in less than a year. She also developed screener training and annual certification, a pay-for-performance system, career and leadership development programs, and selection and training of armed pilots.

"I won’t leave," she says from her office in Tysons Corner, Va., where, as deputy associate director for human capital in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, she oversees programs at the 16 federal agencies in the intelligence community. "I have found my calling."

But en route to landing her first federal job––as the FBI’s first-ever industrial psychologist in the early 1990s––Kolmstetter experienced firsthand what many consider a national disgrace: Uncle Sam’s shoddy handling of applicants.

She was in limbo for at least six months, presumably while investigators probed her background to ensure that she wasn’t a counterspy or other miscreant.

Unfortunately for today’s applicant pool, little has changed about the glacial pace of federal hiring, although Kolmstetter now understands the delays. After all, mishandling employee information by a bad apple in HR at a security or law enforcement agency can blow an agent’s cover and put lives on the line.

When it comes to checking out a potential hire, particularly in HR, "We have policies and laws that we must abide by to ensure accountability," she says.

Another barrier to entering the civil service as an HR professional: other HR professionals.

For better or worse, Congress gives individual agencies latitude to determine their job requirements, according to Michael Orenstein, a spokesman for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, overseer of personnel policies for civilian workers. In part because of the federal government’s many special personnel rules, it’s a widely held belief that those who already cut their teeth in government hold the best qualifications to move through the ranks. In fact, fewer than 20 percent of the nearly 1,700 federal HR openings posted on USAJobs at press time were open to outsiders. That means only military veterans or those with three or more years with the federal government have a realistic shot.

Ho, who had served in the Air Force, says her status as a vet "absolutely made a difference" in making her stand out as a candidate when compared to other highly qualified applicants from the private sector.

The notion that people with prior federal experience perform better than outsiders in upper-level jobs is unproven. In fact, some maintain that narrowing the candidate pool in any way becomes self-defeating, especially as a huge percentage of the government’s senior managers are at or near retirement age.

Federal recruiters face the challenge of "cultivating a culture where private-sector experience is valued as much as federal government experience when identifying the best candidates," says Clark. To capitalize on interest in public service, "our hiring practices have to evolve."

To be sure, Congress has imposed some quirky employment rules on federal employers, concedes Bob Lavigna, a former federal HR director and now vice president for the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that champions federal careers. But even the most archaic policies, he says, can be learned on the job or in the classroom.

The process of getting a federal job, he says, is "far more difficult than it ought to be."


The author is senior writer for HR Magazine.

Web Extras

SHRM toolkit: Public-Sector HR Management

SHRM seminar: HR in the Federal Sector

SHRM article: EEOC Urges Government To Find People with Targeted Disabilities (SHRM Online Diversity Discipline)

SHRM article: Diversity Workgroup Finds Asian Federal Workers Hitting a ‘Bamboo Ceiling’ (SHRM Online Diversity Discipline)

SHRM article: Civic Lessons (HR Magazine)


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