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6 Tips to Find a Job With the Federal Government

Want to work for Uncle Sam? The jobs aren't just in D.C. Here's where to look and how to get your résumé noticed

federal government jobs hannon job capitol washington DC

Federal government employment in your sights? Job relocation to D.C. is not required if you know the facts. — Hemis / Alamy

En español | Talk to practically anyone who has hunted for a job with the federal government, and he or she will tell you the hiring process can be painfully slow and bureaucratic. And, following the government shutdown and pay freezes last year, why would anyone want to work for Uncle Sam?

There are lots of good reasons to work in the public sector. This year, for example, the federal government is expected to hire around 95,000 new workers, up from 80,000 last year, and more openings are expected. Roughly a quarter of the 2.1 million federal civilian workers are now eligible for retirement, and as the economy improves, more workers may be headed for the exits.

When someone retires, "an agency doesn't automatically want to fill that with someone younger and less experienced," says Tim McManus, vice president for education and outreach for the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that works to increase knowledge about federal careers. "They want someone who can hit the ground running."

Even if you don't live in or around Washington, D.C., or have no desire to, that's fine — as four out of five federal government jobs are based outside the nation's capital. In fact, more than 50,000 government employees work abroad.

See also: Why older Americans are working in Afghanistan

And consider this: Health and retirement benefits tend to be more generous than in the private sector, and there are ample opportunities for telecommuting and flextime at many agencies. Pay is competitive with the private and nonprofit sectors: Midlevel job wages can run from $50,000 to more than $100,000 a year.

The trick is to learn how to navigate the system. Here's how to start your government job search.

1. Follow your passion

The federal government is a colossal collection of hundreds of agencies and departments. Search for job openings by agency, job type, location or salary range on the USAJobs site. There's a smorgasbord of openings for people with a variety of skills and experience — from accountants, attorneys and architects to information technology (IT) workers, vendor management specialists and health care workers at agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (which came in first on AARP's 2013 Best Employers for Workers Over 50 list of companies and organizations that value an experienced workforce).

See also: Growing job fields

One way to cut through the clutter is to consider what matters most to you and where your know-how will best fit. If you're passionate about the environment, use that as a starting place to figure out what agency will be the most compatible for you. Look for openings at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other agencies dealing with environmental issues.

"When we talk to our 100,000-plus members about what they love most about their government job, it comes down to mission and a sense of purpose," says Steve Ressler, founder and president of GovLoop, a social networking and resource site for government workers. Learn about the various agencies by attending events sponsored by government-related associations such as the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC), the Partnership for Public Service and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), to name a few. You can also tap into government-related websites such as Government Executive.

Two other useful sites sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service are Go Government, which can help you research federal agencies and government careers, and Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, which in 2013 drew on responses from more than 376,000 civil servants to produce a detailed view of employee satisfaction with their jobs and workplaces across 371 federal agencies.

"Don't simply say I'm an accountant and want to go to work as an accountant in government," McManus says. "Frankly, every agency has a need for accountants and budget analysts, so narrow your scope a little bit."

2. Network, network, network

Although the application process is rigid, it helps to reach out to anyone you know who works for the federal government. You want to get a sense of what it's like from an insider. It's not just about the job but the culture and environment as well.

Use your LinkedIn account to connect with people you know who work in or with the federal government, and join groups affiliated with the agencies that appeal to you.

Take advantage of your alumni connections, too. You might hear about opportunities in advance of a formal job posting. Plus, having someone who can draw attention to your application always helps. The career or alumni center at your college or university may have a relationship with the government agency where you're applying.

If you've recently graduated from a degree or certification program, check out the Recent Graduates Program on the USAJobs site. This is aimed at individuals who've graduated with an associate, bachelor's, master's, professional, doctoral, vocational or technical degree or certificate from qualifying educational institutions. To be eligible, applicants must apply within two years of degree or certificate completion.

The exception: Veterans, due to their military service obligation, have up to six years after degree or certificate completion to apply. For federal employment information for veterans, go to the Office of Personnel Management's FedsHireVets website.

3. Get your résumé in order

Résumés and applications for most jobs are generally funneled through USAJobs. The specific terminology in the job descriptions and postings themselves read like a foreign language. And you will need to use these keywords from the postings in your résumé. You also will need to gin up more than the two-page résumé that you ship off to private sector employers. Often you're required to write essays, too. The more details you can share about your work and your results, the better.

Don't panic. There's plenty of help out there to guide you through the federal job résumé-building process. On USAJobs, there's a tutorial on how to reformat your résumé (PDF) and other tips. You begin with a standard résumé that has all the data required by the agencies, and then you can tweak up to five different ones for various job openings. You also can sign up for job-posting alerts. "It's not rocket science," says Ressler. "You should easily be formatted in a couple hours."

Ressler's organization, GovLoop, offers a free résumé tool kit. The Go Government site and the Job-Hunt site's Guide to Federal Government Job Search are other good resources for finding help with applications and revamping résumés.

4. Go directly to an agency's website

Once you have pinpointed the agency you're aiming for, check out its job board directly. "Most agencies have their own job boards, and you may see additional positions on those sites that you don't see on the broader site," McManus says. In most cases, you still have to go through USAJobs to apply, but there are positions that are exempt from the competitive system and allow for more direct hiring.

5. Start with short-term government experience

These are often available through political appointments, or term appointments, where you're doing work for a short term or on a specific project for a year or more. Term appointments are listed on USAJobs.

Check out special programs. For example, the Peace Corps actively recruits retired leaders to be volunteers, although some positions are paid. The Presidential Innovation Fellows program recruits the best and brightest in the technology field to come and do a yearlong shift in federal service. There are also government-sponsored fellowship programs such as Code for America and Fuse Corps that place leaders from the private sector into government for one-year stints.

6. Be tenacious

You've got to hang with it and know that the process is not a short one. It's time-consuming. "If people know that upfront, they're more willing to stick with it," says McManus.

It can easily take four months or longer to get an offer. This varies from one agency to the next, but 80 to 90 days between application and hiring is the norm. "I always encourage prospective job applicants to make sure they apply to numerous jobs over a series of months and give it time," Ressler advises. "When I conducted a personal government job search, I applied to 40 jobs over three months," he says. "I got four interviews and two offers. The time from first application to starting the position I took was approximately three months."

Kerry Hannon, AARP jobs expert, is a career transition expert and an award-winning author. Her books include What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond and  Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … and Pays the Bills. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.

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