Explore the federal-job market
With dozens of government departments and agencies, finding a federal job can be daunting.
Job seekers can start by exploring the website USAJOBS.gov, the government's online home for federal-job listings and employment information.
The federal-jobs site offers thousands of openings nationwide for everything from high-level administrators and astronaut candidates to military-base bartenders and commissary cashiers. Still, federal-job notices can be lengthy and filled with baffling bureaucratic lingo.
Get your foot in the federal government's door with this advice from human resource experts familiar with its hiring practices.
Put limits on your federal-job search
Government job titles can be different from comparable positions in the private sector. So start your search on USAJOBS by geography instead of by a specific job, says Kathryn Troutman, author of "Ten Steps to a Federal Job." Look over all jobs in the city and state where you want to work in.
Next, narrow your search by filling in a salary range. Troutman says to base it on what you were paid throughout the last three years of employment. Your salary history is what government human resources professionals will review to determine if you're a good match for the position.
Use any special status to your advantage
Many federal positions are limited to "status" applicants -- generally current and former federal employees, meaning ordinary U.S. citizens need not apply. "The status people have more jobs to look at than nonstatus," Troutman says.
Military veterans may be eligible for openings restricted to status candidates. They also can turn to federal agencies' Veteran Employment Program Offices. It's responsible for promoting veteran recruitment, employment, training and development. Information about offices and career-related events for veterans can be found at FedsHireVets.gov.
People with disabilities can apply directly to a government agency's selective placement coordinators and get hired through a noncompetitive process, but proof of disability is required. These coordinators help manage, recruit, hire and accommodate people with disabilities at those agencies.
Job candidates can apply for the Senior Executive Service, or SES, Federal Candidate Development Program. Executives who complete the program may be selected for an SES position anywhere in the federal government without further competition.
Tailor your resume to the specific job
When applying for private-sector jobs, you might use the same resume over and over. But applying for a federal job requires you to target your resume to the specific posting. Using a standard resume is one of the biggest mistakes that federal-job seekers make.
"People in this market are sending out applications electronically, at random. They think they can improve their chances by volume, and that's not necessarily the case," says Lee Ramsayer, senior vice president of Monster Government Solutions, part of job-search giant Monster.com. "If you can differentiate yourself and map yourself to the requirements that are in the job description, then you at least have a better chance of getting ... to the next step."
"You have to show in a resume the specific requirements that are in the job announcement," says Troutman, also author of "Federal Resume Guidebook." If you can't show the required, specialized experience in a particular area, your chances of being contacted are not going to be great, she says.
Read postings carefully
Federal-job announcements can be lengthy, often running for several Web pages. Don't make the mistake of skimming through them.
"If the applicant is a very good analyst and reader of vacancy announcements and can really see what human resources is asking for and match it to his resume, he can do better applying for a federal job than a private one," says Troutman, the owner of a federal-career consulting firm in Baltimore. She helps her clients identify key words in the announcement that should be addressed in their resumes.
Landing a federal job means taking your time
Applying for a federal job requires a time commitment. While it may sound quick and convenient, avoid simply uploading your resume to USAJOBS, Troutman says. Instead, choose the site's Resume Builder, which asks for certain details that might not be on a standard resume, including the month-and-year start and end dates for previous jobs and the average hours you worked per week.
"If they don't have those in there, they are completely out before they ever start," Troutman says. "The builder may take you an hour, which is annoying. But if you can land a really good job in your field, what's an hour?"
It's best to be patient throughout the process of applying for a federal job, Ramsayer says. The lagging economy has created a bottleneck of candidates and a challenge among federal recruiters to find the best people.
"If they do a job posting, they get 200 (applicants). Now they have to go through and find the best candidate in 200 versus the best candidate in 20," he says.
Although a recent presidential mandate set a goal of filling each federal job within 80 days, Ramsayer says he has heard stories of the span from job posting to job closing stretching six months or longer.
Look beyond the main federal-jobs website
If you know you want to work for a specific federal agency, you can limit your search only to its postings on USAJOBS. Most, but not all, federal agencies are required by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to announce job openings through the site.
Agencies also maintain their own employment databases, which can be useful for finding job openings not listed on USAJOBS.gov, such as those of the CIA.
In this down job market, don't limit your government job search only to the federal government, Ramsayer says. "There's also state and local and education jobs that, in Monster's definition, fall into a government job," he says. "All 50 states also have their own job board."
Monster maintains GovCentral.com, a career website covering the full range of government jobs.
Lost in the federal-jobs jungle? Get help
If you're still feeling overwhelmed, get help. "There's a lot of help out there, and much of it is free," Ramsayer says.
"All of the (federal) agencies have an office of veteran recruitment to bring more veterans into public service as they are being discharged." For nonveterans, Ramsayer suggests one-stop career centers, formerly known as unemployment centers, or civic and nonprofit organizations, such as Goodwill, which offer assistance in navigating the federal-job application process.
USAJOBS and GovCentral also have detailed information to take you each step of the way toward landing a spot in Uncle Sam's workforce.
If you can afford it, you might consider hiring an expert in federal jobs to write your resume and application. On its website, Troutman's firm charges anywhere from $585 to $1,500 for a federal resume based on the level of the position being sought.