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So You Want to Be a Bureaucrat: 3 Easy Ways to Navigate the Red Tape

So You Want to Be a Bureaucrat

You've often wondered about a career in federal government - but maybe it just seemed too hard, too complicated, too "cloak and dagger." Perhaps you're a little apprehensive about breaking through the red tape, navigating the hiring process, or leaving the familiar grind of the private sector. Let's face it, there's not a ton of readily available information out there illuminating how to land a federal job.

Well, fear not.

Becoming a federal employee doesn't have to seem so dark and mysterious. Follow the next few guidelines to federal employment and you'll be pushin' paper in no time!

The Good

You're in luck!

According to its own HR agency, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the U.S. federal government consistently employs around 2 million full-time, temporary, and seasonal employees, according to OPM's FedScope data. In fact, no matter what you do for a living, the federal government likely has a career path that's right for you - Uncle Sam boasts approximately 350 different occupations around the globe, including careers in mathematics, social science, human resources, contracting, finance, medical, administration, engineering, science, and technology, just to name a few. You can check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook for more information on relevant federal occupations.

Actually, not only are there a ton of careers, but the ways in which the government hires abound. Numerous hiring paths target students and recent graduates, veterans, the general public, current or former federal employees, and many others at varying levels of responsibility and pay (more on this later). In fact, there are so many available authorities that it can get a bit confusing, if not overwhelming.

But despite the confusing and sometimes changing requirements and authorities, many Americans seek employment with the federal government for a variety of reasons including competitive pay, job security, public service motivation, stability, benefits, training, retirement benefits, and work-life balance. But not unlike other employment sectors, along with the benefits of civil service, comes a number of significant challenges to navigate.

The Bad

Not so fast...

This is where things get a little less rosy and a little more bureaucrac-y. The federal government is well-known for its red tape and bureaucracy and for good reason - the size of such a massive outfit necessitates some pretty heavy administrative lifting, especially when responsible to the American people, Congress, and "watchdog" organizations like the U.S. Government Accountability Office. And certainly the search for government employment is not all good or bad - some of this process is down right ugly.

The Ugly

Of course, the government's uniquely bureaucratic challenges extend to the hiring process, which some find overly complex and confusing - but with the right mindset and tools at your disposal, navigating the red tape like a roadmap to getting your government gig is entirely attainable. Exercise some of the tips below to lift the fog and land your first job in civil service:

1. Master USAJobs

Because most federal agencies, except many intelligence agencies and some other excepted service agencies (think Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigations, National Security Agency, U.S. Postal Service, etc.), are required to use USAJobs, this job board interface is like the virtual gatekeeper of federal job vacancies. ClearanceJobs provides a pretty good list of agencies that aren't required to use USAJobs here. You'll have to search up those agencies' vacancies separately.

However, for most intents and purposes, mastering the USAJobs search and application process is the linchpin to finding the right government employment. But to know USAJobs, you must first understand that your resume has to navigate a series of automated and in-person wickets.

The first USAJobs hurdle is the search criteria - so we just need to get in there and poke around. Discover alternative locations, keywords, filters, hiring paths, and more. You might just find something unexpected...but if not, keep looking. Positions open and close all the time; one proven way of keeping up to date is with the site's search and announcement save functions.

And when you do find a potential job match, and eventually you will, don't rush the application process. Applying on USAJobs requires intention and thoughtfulness - read the announcement carefully, paying special attention to keywords and knowledge, skills, abilities, and education. You'll need to incorporate this information into your resume to maximize chances of making it beyond the automated screener and initial manual HR specialist chop.

Of course, this only gets you through USAJobs and hopefully forwarded to the agency for their review and interview process. Remember - interviewing is a perishable skill so be sure to practice it!

2. Take full advantage of hiring paths and other authorities

There are a number of hiring paths from agency internal to veteran, recent graduate, individuals with disabilities, public and many others. Actually, I wish I had known about and understood federal employment and USAJobs as an undergrad student and recent graduate. The opportunities for internships and entry level positions are limitless, especially for a recent graduate who might be more inclined to relocate than other job-seekers in different stages of life. In fact, many student and recent graduate opportunities at the entry level will nearly automatically promote to the next grade for two 2-3 years until the employee reaches the full job performance level - some even to management positions.

Other important paths and authorities that give job seekers a competitive edge include disabled veterans, military spouses, individuals with Schedule A disabilities, tribal affiliation, and other special authorities defined in federal hiring regulations. These, along with direct hiring authorities, will differ across agencies, locations, and career paths.

Actually, this is a great opportunity to highlight that the government is currently desperate to fill several mission critical career fields in high demand across the government, including: mathematics, engineering, human resources management, contracting, auditing, economics, nursing, sciences, IT management, and cybersecurity.

So whatever hiring path you're eligible for, make sure you take full advantage of the many opportunities and allowances that USAJobs presents.

3. Try federal contracting

Finally, maybe you haven't had much luck on USAJobs or haven't yet found the right opportunities to break through.

Try contracting.

Federal contracting is quite different from federal employment - and you don't want to confuse the two. In many cases, contracting can be much more lucrative but is also significantly more unstable. Many contracting organizations can't plan well past the execution of a contract and contract renewals are never guaranteed.

However, getting a federal contracting job can be a precursor to doing similar work in a related organization. That is to say that I've known lots of contractors who were hired as federal employees doing the same work, in the same government office, that they did as contractors. Others make positive impressions in the federal government by building strong and professional relationships with government employees. Sure, this may be the long way around but it works out well for many, many people and should not be discounted as a plausible path through the red tape to a long-lasting federal career.

Final parting advice: don't be shy. Really get in there and dig. You may not land your first federal job on the first try, or second, or third - but then again you just might. It may be days, weeks, or months until you finally receive that coveted offer but whatever you do, don't give up.

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