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The Ins and Outs of Landing a Government Job

The Ins and Outs of Landing a Government Job

By Robert DiGiacomo

Finding out about government jobs may seem tricky to the uninitiated.

As with the private sector, the best place to look is online. For most federal jobs, you can research open positions and download applications through the government's official site, USAJobs; career sites like Monster; or specialty sites like Federal Jobs Net.

However, the process requires more effort than simply emailing a resume. Applicants for federal, as well as many state and local positions, must follow a specific set of procedures, which could include taking a qualifying exam and/or completing a detailed questionnaire, according to Dennis V. Damp, a retired federal worker and the operator of Federal Jobs Net.

Below are tips on how best to navigate the red tape to apply for a public-sector job.

Less Testing Required

Where most federal positions used to require a civil service exam, the opposite is now true, according to Damp, author of The Book of US Government Jobs.

Only 20 percent of jobs -- notably the those in Postal Service, Border Patrol, FBI and Foreign Service -- require an exam, while the remaining 80 percent use a questionnaire to screen applicants, Damp says.

Keywords Are Key

When applying for a position, don't make the mistake of cutting and pasting job descriptions from your private-sector resume.

Because each applicant is ranked -- and only the top scoring individuals are invited to interview -- you'll want to maximize your score by using similar keywords from the government job description to explain your experience.

"The application may be rejected if you don't submit all of the details required," Damp says.

Experience Counts

The government won't automatically discount an applicant who lacks a degree in a specific field, if he has work experience that matches a requirement in the job description, Damp says. "For example, there are many ways to get qualifications for engineering, other than having a formal four- or five-year degree," he says.

Right in Your Backyard

Government jobs aren't just in Washington, state capitals or big cities. Satellite and regional offices are situated in smaller locales around the country.

"I was hired into the federal sector in a town of 3,600 in the middle of Pennsylvania," Damp says. "You have to look in your own backyard."

Political Appointee vs. Professional Hire

While certain positions are reserved for people with campaign or other political connections, most government jobs go to those with relevant experience or qualifications, according to both Damp and Daniel Lauber, author of The Government Job Finder.

If you're concerned about whether patronage is a factor for a particular job, Lauber suggests two criteria: Is the job posted for less than 30 days? Does the department head lack expertise in the field? If the answer to one or both questions is yes, you may want to reconsider whether it's the right professional opportunity.

"There's no consistency from state to state," Lauber says. "You do everything you can to find out if government is being run professionally or not."

The Personal Touch

Even though the government hiring process is largely rooted in the virtual world, there's still a place for the real-world informational interview.

"I'm a proponent of doing informational interviews, to get familiar with different agencies and to explore opportunities in your area," Damp says.

Learn more about government careers.