Federal vs. Civilian Job Search Process

Updated: July 10, 2020

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    Getting a federal job can be more complicated than getting a civilian job in some ways, and much simpler in others. The very first thing to remember when searching for a federal job versus a civilian position?

    Federal vs. Civilian Job Search Process The federal job application process operates differently and those who don’t fully understand that often wind up wasting time applying for jobs they have no hope of being interviewed for. We’ll explore why that is below.

    Civilian Versus Federal Job Searches: The Basics

    Civilian job openings are broadcast far and wide on job platforms such as Glassdoor, Monster.com, LinkedIn, etc. This is a double-edged sword.

    If you are a veteran or a military spouse seeking a job that requires military skills but doesn’t qualify as a federal job, your ability to find such openings at private companies is far greater when using the multitude of employment websites.

    But it also means a vast amount of competition–for every one qualified person responding to an ad for a cybersecurity job, there are untold numbers of other applicants trying for the same position with varying degrees of competence or qualifications.

    The sheer ubiquity of the job post (many companies post their vacancies cross-platform as far and wide as possible) creates a situation where your resume is likely screened in an automated fashion at first, and reviewed by a human later.

    And civilian resume aesthetics are different, too. When applying for a civilian position you may need to keep your resume short and easy to scan, but for federal jobs a longer format–the “federal resume” is required. We’ll learn why below.

    Federal Job Application Considerations

    Before you fill out a single online form, you should know three things about applying for federal jobs:

    1. Federal jobs usually have a limited window of time to apply–there are opening and closing dates for many federal gigs. You may find outdated job posts here and there the same as when searching for a private sector job–be sure to check the closing dates for the position before you start the lengthy process of applying.
    2. Federal jobs may be screened according to keywords in both the cover letter and resume. Don’t skimp on the cover letter.
    3. Federal jobs require citizenship, an honorable discharge (where applicable), and may require drug testing, background investigation, relocation, and additional training.

    You won’t be headhunted for a federal job in most cases, especially as an entry-level applicant. Listing your federal resume on LinkedIn and other job platforms won’t attract a federal hiring manager to you–you should expect to manually apply for every government job you are interested in as a general rule.

    The Major Difference Between Federal Job Openings And Civilian Opportunities

    The federal government has a specific application process for its vacant positions and jobs are advertised on a single official site called USAJobs.gov.

    This federal job site does not take the place of the individual agency advertising the job–federal full-time employment and contractor jobs are also advertised on the official site for the applicable government agency.

    If you want a job at the Department of Justice or the Department of Energy you often have the choice of reviewing the job listings at the DOE or DOJ official site and applying there or being redirected to USAJobs.gov.

    If You Want A Federal Job, Create An Account At USAJobs

    If you are committed to interviewing for government jobs, it is necessary to create an account and a resume at USAJobs.gov. Expect to maintain this account regularly and update it for each individual application until you land the job you want.

    Applying via USAJobs is much different than you should approach civilian job ads. Those who do not understand this concept often find themselves wasting time in the job search experience by not creating the proper resume for the federal job, assuming that applying for the job is not as competitive as it is.

    There are plenty who understand that USAJobs.gov is THE official U.S. government clearinghouse for federal employment opportunities and have learned how to use the system extensively–these applicants understand that glossing over certain portions of the resume process can have negative consequences.

    The Federal Resume Versus The Civilian Resume

    If you have done any research on federal hiring, it’s likely you already know that USAJobs.gov requires a lot more in the resume department than many non-government jobs. Federal resumes are encouraged to be long, detailed, and heavily targeted. You should never use a generic resume to apply for a federal job.

    How much longer are federal resumes? Up to five pages in length is common. This is due to a variety of factors including the fact that you will need to use keywords in your resume that match the job description of the individual position listed.

    In fact, your entire resume must be tailored to fit each individual job opening so you can match your experience and education directly with the requirements of the job.

    Civilian resumes tend to cast a wider net, but the thing you absolutely MUST keep in mind for federal hiring is that the resume is meant to tell the interviewer exactly how your experience DIRECTLY relates to the job description, education and experience requirements, etc.

    That means you will need to be detailed about the relevance of your education compared to the job requirement. It also means you will need to re-write your resume to specifically address the job duties listed–how does your past experience directly address those job requirements?

    Those who have never applied for a federal job or have little experience doing so often miss this nuance of the federal employment system–the federal government’s hiring managers are required to ensure you really do have the direct experience and education for the job advertised.

    Tips For Applying For A Federal Job

    Include ALL relevant experience. Your interviewer and hiring manager are not allowed to assume anything about you as a job candidate–it will be your job to communicate why you are the best person for the job.

    Some have civilian resume writing “damage” and feel awkward about writing a long, multi-page resume that includes all the relevant data. Don’t forget that for every person who does NOT do this, there’s a job seeker who will.

    There are different kinds of experience you should list on your USAJobs resume:

    • General Experience, knowledge, skills and abilities that are relevant to the job description and education requirements.
    • Specialized Experience including the knowledge, skills, and ability to thrive and grow in the position.
    • Education is crucial for many government jobs and some may be offered to an applicant strictly based on the educational qualifications rather than the amount of on-the-job experience in that subject matter area. Many jobs require a combination of education and experience, but not all federal jobs do.

    Same Resume, Different Day? No.

    Don’t apply for more than one government job with the same resume. Specifically tailor each resume to fit the specific job advertised. Even the USAJobs site itself encourages this. The key is to list RELEVANT details, not every class or job you’ve ever tried. You will need more detail in your relevant bullet points,too.

    It is not enough to put down that you were a team leader, or had seven people working for you as a supervisor. You’ll need to add what the specific, job-relevant duties and responsibilities were and what the outcome of your work included.

    Include Results

    Did your team save the company money, staffing hours, or resources? Include that information where appropriate. Did you team win awards, recognition, or accolades for innovations or accomplishments relevant to the job you’re interviewing for? Add that information.

    Civilian resumes may require you to be more concise or to omit certain information. Not the federal process. If it’s relevant to the job you want, assume it goes on the resume.

    Mistakes To Avoid

    Things to watch out for when you apply should include making sure you are eligible to apply. What does this mean? Some jobs are advertised for all applicants, others are advertised in the federal sector only to those who have held or currently hold a Civil Service rating, and some are advertised as open only to current employees of the agency doing the hiring.

    Don’t bother applying for a job you are specifically left out of in such cases–if you aren’t a current DOE employee and the job is advertised for employees only, no exceptions will be made.

    Federal jobs require citizenship and proof of it, so if you have any issues at all with paperwork such as a lost or missing Social Security Card, birth certificate, or discharge papers be sure to have them squared away BEFORE you apply. Your competing job seekers will.

    When you actually begin the application process at USAJobs, you will be required to upload a variety of documents and you may be expected to both upload your resume and manually enter the resume data, too.

    This redundancy frustrates many new users, but it’s a rite of passage for many government jobs. Don’t be in a hurry to get the process started and finished, you will need significant time to create and maintain your applications.


    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News


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