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Newcomer's Guide to the Federal Government

Newcomer's Guide to the Federal Government

Eric Yoder | Washinton Post

This time he really means it: Uncle Sam wants you.

Not to fight in World War I, as in the old Army poster, but to fill one of tens of thousands of positions available each year providing services to the American public. After a number of false starts, the government has now definitely committed itself be being an employer of choice.

The government needs to replace large numbers of more senior employees who will be eligible for retirement over the next several years¿on the order of 60,000 per year. Meanwhile, there are numerous national challenges to be met. It’s federal employees who will be at the center of the action.

If you’ve just become one of them, there are some things to know. The same applies if you’re thinking about becoming one of them.

“There’s no place where you can make a bigger difference on a broader stage than in the government. The government is our tool for addressing society’s greatest problems. The opportunity to make a difference is unparalleled,” says Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service.

“It doesn’t matter what you do, from being an architect to a zoologist, there is fascinating work to be done. It’s a misperception that the government is an army of clerks. It’s a knowledge institution and you have some of the most cutting edge opportunities in every occupation available to you. You can’t beat the sense of mission,” he says.

The Partnership,, operates programs to encourage people, especially younger ones, to consider government as a career, and provides resources including a guide to the best places to work in the government.

The group estimates that in the years just ahead, the government will have a special need to fill jobs involved with protecting the nation. This includes tasks ranging from securing borders, ports and airports to countering possible bioterrorism. The government also has serious needs for nurses, physicians, contracting experts, accountants, financial analysts, IT experts, attorneys, air traffic controllers . . . the list goes on and on. There are several thousand job categories in government employment, with positions available across the country and around the world.

Another misconception about the government is that it’s difficult to change careers once inside. Skills can be used or developed in any of a number of different jobs, agencies and locations, Stier says. “While it’s a single employer, it offers an unparalleled diversity of opportunity,” he says, “in a way that no other organization comes even close.” The government also offers more responsibility at younger ages than many other employers, he says.

That’s something of a secret, because for the decade of the 90s, the government did relatively little hiring as it cut back its employment. The result was that as an employer, it was isolated from the labor market, in effect hanging out a “No Help Wanted” sign.

When hiring picked up after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the government found that its hiring processes were outdated, and that it had fallen behind in offering the kinds of workplace flexibilities that today’s job-seekers and employees desire. So, in recent years, the government has stepped up family-friendly programs such as telecommuting, flexible work schedules and alternate uses of leave, while making more and larger cash payments to help recruit and retain employees. In addition, it has added several new types of insurance offerings to its employees.

Those benefits have been added on top of a basic salary system that seeks¿not always successfully, to be sure to make federal salaries basically comparable to those of similar jobs elsewhere. Plus, the government offers insurance and retirement benefits that in many ways are superior to the offerings of other employers.

A recent government survey of people it recently hired found that more than half of them, when setting out on a job search, specifically wanted to work for the federal government, versus just getting a job in general. Many of them wanted to get into a particular occupation, or a particular agency, while others were motivated by the chance for public service.

Once people get into government, they tend to like it for the job security, the benefits, the promotional potential, the sense of purpose and various other reasons. In fact, the survey showed that of newly hired employees, almost half of those under age 30 and four-fifths of those over age 30 already expect to stay with the government for their entire careers.

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