How to Get Hired in Washington

Expert advice on how to get a federal job or on Capitol Hill.

By + More

While President-elect Barack Obama seems to be making Washington work cool again, the economic downturn and upward-spiraling unemployment rate are lending their own weight to the appeal of gaining secure employment in the federal government. Lily Whiteman, the author of How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job, spoke with U.S. News about finding work in the nation's capital. Some good news: There are opportunities for people at all stages of their careers. Excerpts:

Are baby boomers retiring from federal jobs and creating openings, despite the financial crisis?

The official statistics from the Office of Personnel Management show that within the next few years, about 40 percent of feds are expected to retire. That's not the number of people who are eligible—that's the number who are actually expected to retire. That includes about 90 percent of managers. What does that mean for younger workers right now?

You can see that federal agencies are really concerned with backfilling for the outgoing top brass. They've rolled out new internship programs, programs for students, and special two-year management training programs for recent grads and young professionals. These are really great programs that are designed not to be busy work, like many internships are, but really to give young people training, mentoring, rotations—a leg up to move fast into management. Some of them target women and minorities or people with disabilities. And the ones targeting minorities pay great salaries, housing in many cases, transportation to and from the program. What are my options if I'm a blue-collar worker in my 50s with a couple of decades in the auto industry in Detroit?

The federal government hires lots of blue-collar workers. If you look on, and you search for professions like carpentry, air-conditioning repair—there are openings. I talked to a recruiter who said the CIA hires hairstylists and fashion experts from Hollywood help create disguises for their spies. They hire refugees from the dot-com bust and from Wall Street to help analyze the trails of terrorist groups. A lot of people you would never think get hired by the government get hired by the government. Is the hiring happening in a few f ederal agencies or a broad swath?

It's really broad. Private industry must shrink during hard times, but federal agencies have legal mandates that they have to fulfill, no matter what's going on. Do most people need connections to get hired or into internship programs?

A lot of people think that you have to know somebody. That's completely untrue. Are federal agencies looking for specific work experience or transferable skills?

They totally look at transferable skills. They're hiring record numbers of experienced professionals and people who come from private industry. Also, with the economic crisis, there are going to be a lot of feds managing the $700 billion bailout. There are new agencies being created. The [Securities and Exchange Commission] is getting a big boost. The Government Accountability Office, which is helping oversee the bailout, is looking for banking experts to help manage it. Whenever there's change, it creates opportunities because there's flux. Does networking matter more when it comes to getting a job in the Obama administration?

The media are really focused on the political appointments, and there's only around 7,000. The federal government hires over 200,000 people every year. For political appointments, you generally have to be a leader in your field, and you have to have some political connection or be able to generate one quickly, or have the backing of an influential group, like a union or an association. Is a job on Capitol Hill very different from federal agency work?

Capitol Hill is very different. Generally, the advantage is you're closer to the power than you are with federal agencies. It's generally easier to have influence at a younger age if you're working on Capitol Hill. The disadvantage is the pay is significantly lower than federal agencies, the hours are longer and much less predictable, and you don't have the civil service protections. If you work for a member of Congress who resigns, doesn't get re-elected, or doesn't want you on their staff anymore, you lose your job. Congressional jobs are great steppingstones to jobs with lobbying agencies, associations, and nonprofits, too.