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The U.S. Government is the Nation's largest single employer. But if you're job hunting, don't think of Uncle Sam in singular terms. About 3 million Federal workers are spread out among more than 100 Government departments, agencies, commissions, bureaus, and boards. You simply cannot send an application to a single Government entity and be considered for every job that exists.
Today's merit-based system of civil service has roots more than a century old. The Pendleton Act, passed in 1883, was the first step toward overhauling the excesses of the patronage system. Congress agreed to reform civil service laws only after President Garfield was assassinated in 1881 by a disgruntled office seeker he had declined to appoint. Until then, jobs went to political supporters, regardless of merit. Now, the political positions that exist, about 3,000 jobs at the top, are reserved for those who work closely with Cabinet members and the President. So unless you're a friend of the President or a friend of a friend, you'll have to get your Government job on your own.
And there's more than one way to get a Federal job. There's more than one way you can apply for jobs, more than one way you are evaluated, and more than one person doing the hiring. There are affirmative employment programs, cooperative education and other student employment programs, and summer job programs. How you apply for a Federal job depends on your qualifications, the number of vacancies in your field, the number of people applying, where you want to work, the salary you expect, and the kind of job you want. If you are looking for a job with the U.S. Postal Service or are qualified to start above the entry level, you can apply directly to agencies. But if you are a college student or a college graduate looking for a white-collar Federal job, keep reading. The accompanying box, "Who Is Being Hired by the Federal Government? The Word from OPM," gives the short answer to that question, but the long answer is a little more complicated. This article will help you find your way through the Government's hiring maze.
Federal employee salaries are based on several pay systems. The largest is the General Schedule (GS). The chart shows pay scales for 15 grades covering most white-collar Federal workers, as of January 1, 1993. Blue-collar salaries vary by city or region.
Entry-level positions for most college graduates begin at the GS-5 or GS-7 level. Generally, entry-level professionals and administrators are promoted two grades at a time, often annually, until they reach GS-11. Subsequent promotions are one grade at a time.
Most people are hired at pay step 1 of their grade. Advancement by steps, or within-grade increases, occurs after 52 to 156 weeks, depending on the person's current step.
To make the Government more competitive with private employers, some Federal workers are paid special rates. Higher salaries are paid to some workers who are in short supply, such as engineers, scientists, and health personnel. White-collar workers in New York City.
A Look at ACWA
ACWA, or Career America, is OPM's job-entry program for college graduates who will, if hired, start at the GS-5 or GS-7 level. College seniors within 9 months of graduation may also apply for jobs through this program. Many of the occupations require a specific degree or completion of certain courses, but you can qualify for others with any degree. No experience is required for any of these occupations, but related experience can always help you compete.
ACWA covers 116 administrative and professional occupations in 7 groups, the first 6 of which require separate exams:
Group 1: Health, Safety, and Environmental
Group 2: Writing and Public Information
Group 3: Business, Finance, and Management
Group 4: Personnel, Administration, and Computers
Group 5: Benefits Review, Tax, and Legal
Group 6: Law Enforcement and Investigation
Group 7: Professional Occupations. Not Requiring an Exam
Some of the 100 occupations in the first 6 groups have specific educational requirements, but most do not. All 16 occupations in group 7 are professional and, by OPM's definition, require certain academic coursework. The requirements for all 116 occupations, as well as the employment in each.
You can start your search with a check of U.S. Government listings in the blue pages of the phone book. Call the agencies you think are likely to hire for your occupation. Of course, not every occupation is employed by every Federal agency. On the other hand, you might be surprised at the range of jobs within an agency. For example, you know the Army Corps of Engineers hires engineers, but it employs many other kinds of workers as well. Don't assume that all educators work for the Department of Education or that every librarian is employed by the Library of Congress. Education majors are employed by the Departments of Defense, Interior, Justice, Agriculture, Transportation, and Treasury, among others. Library science majors work in such offices as the Executive Office of the President, Government Printing Office, and Patent and Trademark Office and not to mention the departmental libraries throughout the Government.
Consider visiting Government offices in person to ask about openings. In some Federal buildings, you won't be allowed past the guard desk (though there might be a drop-off box for applications). But in other offices, especially in smaller cities, you might get a chance to meet with someone. Each personal contact you make increases the probability of your getting hired. After all, often the only way you find out about a vacancy is if you're in the right place at the right time.
You might also learn about openings for positions other than the one you're looking for, including clerical and technical jobs. Don't eliminate these outright just because the starting salaries are below those usually offered to college graduates. You may think you're overqualified for some jobs, but they may be good stepping stones to your desired career. Mobility is often easier from within, where you learn more about the agency and have more access to job vacancy information. Many agencies also offer training programs for employees, which can help you gain experience and advance to more responsible positions. Before making a commitment, check out the situation at the agency you are considering working for.