Like many Veterans, I had decided a while before I got out that I would take a shot at getting a federal job. There were a few reasons, and I’m sure they were the same ones that make federal employment attractive to most Veterans. First and foremost, there’s credit for military service toward retirement. I also thought about job security, and the desire to do meaningful work. But like many of us, I found out it wasn’t as easy as I thought would be. In reality, the process was stressful and confusing and filled with disappointment. That’s the bad news. But the good news is I’m here to share my mistakes with all of you, in the hopes of making it easier for those of you hoping to land a government gig.
I left the Marine Corps in 2003 not exactly sure what I wanted to do. I realized early on that my lack of planning had been my first mistake. I hadn’t completed any transitional job counseling, and I don’t remember now if it was even offered. Fortunately I found out I was eligible for unemployment benefits to make ends meet while I looked for work. During one of my visits to the employment office I was put in touch with a Veteran employment specialist. She determined I was eligible for Chapter 31 vocational rehabilitation. This program put me through college and paid a monthly benefit much like today’s Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. That was all the push I needed. Fast forward four years: With my degree in communications I was ready to start my federal career. Or so I thought. What I was really beginning was three years of hair-pulling frustration.
I started at the logical place – USAJOBS. I filled out literally hundreds of applications in a variety of career fields. The result was always the same. I would get an e-mail back containing some arrangement of the following phrases: Not Eligible. Minimum Qualifications Not Met. Not Selected. Stop me if these sound familiar. I felt like I was qualified for these positions, but without an interview, how was I going to convince anyone else? I had to do something to get myself in the door.
Determined, I got in touch with someone in HR who had reviewed my resume. I found out that my resume wasn’t being considered because, well, it wasn’t worth considering. I had always been told that a resume should just be a short synopsis of my best qualities and qualifications. The federal resume is a whole different thing. The HR pro told me I should be more specific. List all of my skills, how much experience I had with each, and at what level. Don’t bother uploading a pre-baked resume. Take the time to fill out all the fields on the custom USAJOBS resume. It made a huge difference. Over the next few months, I actually got a few interviews. They went well enough but I still wasn’t getting hired. Now that I had a foot in the door, it felt like I was in this great big crowd of applicants, struggling to stand out. Turns out that’s exactly what it was.
There was one other factor I hadn’t considered in my search: the competition. Of course my status as a disabled Veteran meant I would have preference. On the other hand, there were a lot of other Veterans who would be competing with me for the same position. Many with more direct experience and most probably also had a four-year degree. How could I get noticed in such a talented group? For me the answer was getting a master’s degree. I hated the idea of going back to school but I knew it would give me an edge in the job market. So even though I was working full time, I decided to take the plunge. I busted my hump for a year and a half and got my master’s degree in May of 2011. I started my career with VA in September. It’s a great job and I’m proud to work for my brothers and sisters who served. For me it was all worth it.
If you’re thinking about a federal position, I have a little advice based on my own experience. Get all the training you have time for. Make sure it all shows on your resume. Be willing to relocate if at all possible. Be patient. And most importantly, if it something you really want, don’t give up. Good luck.
Phil Walls served in the Marine Corps from 1999 to 2003. He is currently a Public Affairs Specialist in VA’s Technical Career Field Program.