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Workin’ for the Man

The government might want to put more than your tax dollars to work.

Looking to work at an organization that won’t go out of business, doesn’t do massive layoffs, and needs technology-savvy employees desperately? Then Uncle Sam wants you.

For some, the opportunity to work for the government isn’t just a way to take shelter from the current economic storm or to revel in a family-friendly atmosphere. Rather, it’s a chance to make a difference in one’s community or work on interesting projects that draw them into the public sector. Tim Guerriero, a customer service representative for the Massachusetts portal enjoys dealing with citizens on a daily basis.

He likes having the opportunity to help people find the right government agency or utilize the portal effectively. He also looks forward to staying put in his G-man seat. “We’ll improve our service by using technology to meet our customers’ demands, such as building more interactive help on the portal,” he says. “The technology and improved customer service will change the aspects of my job, and the government as we know it.”

Not traditionally known for cutting-edge methods or a fast pace, the government is trying to play catch-up with industry by hiring more tech workers and updating its computer systems. A few years ago, when entry-level software programmers made enough to actually buy instead of rent in San Francisco, the government was hurting for good employees. A modest but regular paycheck, combined with the ability to serve one’s country, didn’t appeal to the majority of high-tech professionals, who craved risk over stability. But times have changed.

Because of e-government initiatives and the retirement of many high-tech employees, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has made major changes in federal IT job qualifications, classification standards, and entry-level pay rates. Many individual federal agencies have also received special authority to ease IT recruitment constraints.

As of the end of fiscal year 2000, OPM data showed a total of 59,577 IT professionals in the federal government at the end of 2002. In the next 10 years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts, the federal government will need at least an additional 16,000 IT workers.

Personality type

With the government continually hiring, and so many skilled employees stranded after layoffs, it would seem natural that there would be a surge in interest in government positions. Yet this doesn’t seem to be the case, says Michael Turner, vice president of marketing at ComputerJobs.com.

“From what I’ve noticed, there are a lot of assumptions that working for the government is lame,” he says. “People think there will be dull projects with no stock options, and it will be boring. They also don’t want to be working for The Man, so they’re not even considering the government in their job search. That’s too bad, because it’s a great place to be looking at for employment.” Despite its wealth of openings and rock-hard stability, the government is not a place for everybody, Turner says. A first step for any job seeker thinking about working for her country is to see if personality meshes with environment. Those longing for a company that runs at top speed and rewards obvious ambition might want to stay in the private sector. Also, some may have bad associations with the administration and its agencies.

“Everybody has heard a horror story about the government,” says Ira Hobbs, co-chair of the Workforce and Human Capital for IT group at the Chief Information Officers Council. “They’ve had some problem with the IRS or the post office, or some other agency, and from those incidents, they’ve formed a perception about the government as a whole. We hope that people are hearing good things, too. I’m sure we have our downsides, like any other place, but there is a lot of good stuff going on here.”

The council is focusing on reducing the length of time between application and interview, and launching more online job fair efforts. It’s also trying to shine up the image of the government workplace. Hobbs says, “When you do information technology for the government, you’re impacting the lives of literally millions of people. The government also gives a great deal of autonomy to its individuals, which is not always the case in the private sector. We’re also family-friendly, pay competitive wages, and have exceptional benefits.”

Although this is the kind of nice pitch that many job seekers love to hear, all the positive aspects of government employment are irrelevant if there’s a fundamental disregard for politics and its machinations. Turner says that he wouldn’t want to be a G-man himself because he loves working 60-hour weeks and having tough deadlines. He also has some political leanings that would prevent him from putting his heart into any government job right now, a frank admission that any applicant should think about deeply before sending in a resume. If the mere thought of working below a photo of George W. Bush makes you distraught, perhaps your talents would be better utilized elsewhere.

Find your level

If, however, you have no serious quibbles with the current administration, like to get home by primetime, and enjoy the thought of a non-fluctuating paycheck, the government can definitely use you.

Jason Whitley, CEO of Govjobs.com says that in terms of opportunities, the government is where the private sector was six years ago, rife with openings and looking for scores of displaced IT workers to fill them. “There are a lot of new jobs,” he says. “And as the economy improves, their staffing needs are only going to increase.”

One challenge in finding a position is the abundance of places to look. Besides the choice of federal, state, or local level to target, there’s also the profusion of agencies to consider. A glance through government portal FirstGov reveals a breadth of organizations with Web sites, from the Administration on Aging to the Veterans Day National Committee.

“Technology professionals interested in government positions should follow their interests, just as they would with other jobs,” says Allan Hoffman, tech jobs expert at Monster.com. “Is it health care? Is it the environment? Agriculture? The government is huge and varied, and techies need to research specific departments in search of opportunities.”

There are a few general sites that collect jobs from a variety of agencies, with the most prominent being the official government job site, USAJobs, which has a special section for information technology and telecommunications jobs, and another for technical jobs. The site lists federal, state, city, civil service, and military-civilian job opportunities. It’s basically the virtual equivalent of the Federal Employment Information System, an automated government job system that allows job seekers to hear descriptions of jobs by phone (tel: 478-757-3000).

However, even though both USAJobs and Govjobs.com list a large number of open positions, often the agencies prefer to do the searching independently, which can make finding opportunities more difficult. Spending some time surfing through FirstGov is a good start, as is simply letting your fingers do the walking through the blue pages of a local phone book, which lists all the government agencies in your area.

Target practice

Steven Niznik, The About.com Job Searching: Technical guide, says, “Another way is to go straight to the source by checking the job opportunities at specific government agencies of interest. Many now fill their jobs much like employers in the private sector.” He notes that most have Web sites where they list their jobs, and offer the choice of submitting a resume or an Optional Application for Federal Employment to the agency directly, rather than depend on a go-between like the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

But agencies may be changing their plans, if the OPM continues to improve its candidate-gathering abilities. As the government gets more comfortable with attracting the best and the brightest through virtual listings, the online job fair should begin to get more play as well. The CIO Council’s Hobbs says that such a recruitment technique had its debut last April, when the OPM held the first online fair to recruit IT workers. He calls it the wave of the future, and a huge improvement over the way managers find candidates now.

“We certainly hope to do more online job fairs,” he says. “We’re definitely going to start to utilize this approach more, because we were extremely pleased with the results of the last one, and with the quality of the applicants.” Such an approach may begin to minimize the damage done by those who send out e-mails about the ease of procuring a public sector job. Perhaps because there’s no centralized agency for all job opportunities, despite the work done at OPM, government jobs listings are ripe for spammers who promise to simplify the process–for a price, of course.

Niznik says, “Con artists lead thousands of job seekers into believing that, for a fee, their chances of landing U.S. government jobs are ‘guaranteed’ or greatly improved. The con artists imply that they possess some secret inside track to government jobs. They also use official-sounding company names, such as the U.S. National Employment Center, to imply that they are affiliated with the government.” The information, application forms, sample test questions and job lists provided by these scammers are all readily available from government agencies at no charge, he adds. Although the government’s love of red tape and paperwork can make the application process more time-consuming and detail-oriented than filling out a standard résumé, there are also plenty of resources that help you line by line. Such how-to books are often found at the library, and USAJobs is chock full of links to help the researcher.

“There is no secret inside track to government jobs, especially one that’s worth a fee,” Niznik says. “The bottom line is, never pay for information about government jobs.”

Thinking ahead

For those who want a long-term friendship with Uncle Sam, there are a few strategies for making sure the love lasts. The first, like any good piece of advice, is simple: Pick a growing field. This is an oft-repeated nugget of wisdom for the private sector as well, but when going after a government position, the areas to watch may not always be the same. Or, in the case of security, the government’s interest may be greater than that in industry.

“It has long been speculated that terrorists with limited means could bring a country to its knees, by compromising its major computer systems in a coordinated attack across the Internet,” says Niznik. Less than a month after 9/11, government interest in cyber security became so pronounced that a special advisor to the President was appointed to act in conjunction with Tom Ridge, the Director of Homeland Security.

Other areas are also hurting for talent. A recent report from the CIO Council stated that in 2001, approximately 70 percent of the money spent on IT was paid to contractors. The report reads, “Agencies are outsourcing development and maintenance of IT infrastructure, the design of IT systems, and IT support provided to non-IT staff members. There is, and will continue to be, a growing demand for IT professionals who can develop IT strategic plans, assure the adequacy of IT systems security, or manage IT projects that are being performed by contractors.”

Yes, Uncle Sam wants you. And if you want to make a difference, you may just find your niche working for him.

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