While job seekers are hot to land one of the more than 7,000 political appointments that President-elect Barack Obama will have to make, the cold truth is that most average Joes won't come close to scoring one of these. Lily Whiteman, author of How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job, says those jobs are filled by people who are leaders in their fields or by people with significant political connections, especially those with the backing of an influential organization, like a union.
But take heart: If "Yes we can" is still ringing in your ears and you long for a shot working under an Obama administration, Whiteman has some great advice for finding work in a federal agency.
Here are some tips:
Get into an internship program. Federal agencies are going to have plenty of openings as baby boomers head out of the workforce and into retirement. Many agencies have created student programs and internships that offer work experience or even management training. Whiteman says the programs are "designed not to be busywork" and offer real learning opportunities. Some of these can be found at StudentJobs.gov.
Put your private-sector expertise to work. There are job opportunities for people at all stages of life. Federal agencies are "seeking diversity," Whiteman says. If you're a parent heading back to work after raising kids, or you've recently been laid off from the banking industry—there are opportunities to use your private sector know-how in the public sector. Washington's banking bailout has agencies like the Government Accountability Office and the Securities and Exchange Commission looking for experts.
Go to job fairs. Job fairs are a great way to get a federal job. The agencies in the intelligence community and those that deal with banking "have job fairs all the time and sometimes do on-the-spot hiring," Whiteman says. While USAJobs is a first stop for most people looking for jobs with the federal government, you should be checking out the individual agency websites as well. For example: Here's the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s job fairs schedule. The fairs are often held on college campuses.
Do your research. It's hard to make a compelling pitch for a job if you don't know much about the organization you're pitching to. One of the key differences between private-sector jobs and public ones is that federal agencies are in the news all the time, Whiteman says. You can scour the website, read the press releases, and check out recent news stories as well. Know the current issues and the controversies.
Be patient. Applications for most federal jobs take longer than traditional applications. There are, yes, essay questions to answer. But take the time to answer them well, and you'll be way ahead of many of your competitors. Part of the reason the essay questions are there is to screen out the applicants who aren't that interested, Whiteman says.
Practice before the interview. It's kind of surprising, but when it comes to job interviews, most people actually don't bother to prepare. They try to wing it "and they crash and burn," Whiteman says. For the many who feel anxious going into an interview because they don't know what to expect, Whiteman has some very insider advice: "I can tell you what's going to happen: You're going to be asked some very common questions." This is a long list of common questions, but it's worth practicing several of them. The goal is really to communicate your knowledge of the agency or office, your passion for its goals or mission, and the ways in which you are qualified to—and interested in—helping it advance those goals.
Use your phone and be a squeaky wheel. OK, don't be too aggressive, but get your résumé out there and in front of agency hiring managers. Hiring managers can create jobs for you, Whiteman says: "If they have an opening and they're impressed with you, they can tailor it so that you will be qualified for that opening." Follow up on applications and interviews. (Again, don't take it too far. Here's some advice on being persistent, within reason.)