Navigating the Federal Hierarchy: Tips for Attaining Employment and Career Success

By Eraina Schauss

Recent years have shown the precipitous increase in federal job applications. Beginning with the financial market collapse of 2008, thousands of private sector jobs vanished every month. Historically in times of poor market conditions, the federal government has become the employer of choice. The case of the economic crisis of 2008 was no different; the federal government was one of few employers with vacancies. Coupled with competitive pay, terrific benefits, pensions, and traditionally better job security than the private sector, the federal government became the employer of choice for many Americans.

The Emphasis on Competencies
Unlike many positions in the private sector, the federal government has a very specific and lengthy process it uses to screen and identify potential hires. This process typically begins with a lengthy online application. Previously, applications focused on an individual’s ability to convey specific Knowledge, Skills and Abilities, KSA’s for short. These skills and abilities have since been replaced with the term “Competencies”, and potential hires must be able to prove mastery over the specific competencies required for the vacancy. Therefore, if a position listed focuses on the competencies of leadership and teamwork, an applicant must provide evidence through their resume and application essay that they have developed mastery over these competencies from previous job experience. The purpose is based on the philosophy that if the candidate had previously excelled in this area, the candidate will continue to do so. Therefore, previous success with a skillset indicates future success in employment. Given this, it is critical that applicants specifically format the job experience section of their resume to reflect each competency listed in the vacancy announcement, therefore, increasing their likelihood of attaining an interview. Also, when possible, candidates should quantify results that were the outcomes of job competencies. Candidates who successfully depict anecdotes that relate to the mastery of a certain competency are given a higher rating on the job application than those that do not.

Another key component to the application is the mention of specific keywords listed throughout the vacancy announcement. Job seekers should be sure to include as many exact keywords as possible from the competencies and requirements listed on the vacancy announcement. The more keywords that match those listed as requirements, the higher your application will score and will increase your chances of making it to the next part of the hiring process. Lastly, be sure to note veterans and disability status if relevant, and, education and volunteer experience.

Once the application has made it past the entry screening process (most applications are either reviewed by lower level screeners or a computer and are rated on a scale of 1-100 based on the ability to show competence and potential), the application will then be passed on to hiring managers at the specific agency. At this time, the application will again be reviewed and then the candidate will move on to the interview stage.

The Interview Stage
Depending on the agency and job to which you are applying, this phase can look very different and have various stages. For most positions, the candidate will be called in for an in-person, panel interview where questions will be asked about mastery over the specific competencies listed in the vacancy announcement. In order to best answer, candidates will need to present a past scenario that highlights their mastery. So if asked about conflict resolution, candidates should tell an anecdotal story with a beginning, middle and end that highlights their mastery over this specific skill. Candidates should not expect dialogue from the panelists or be alarmed by this process; the interviews tend to be very one sided and formal. High ratings in the interview will move the candidate onward. For some agencies, this will mean an offer, for others, it will mean more interviews and assessments, physical exams, drug screens and background checks.
For some, the federal hiring process can be time intensive and laborious and should take note that just because you haven’t heard the status of your application does not mean that you are not still being considered. Be sure to note that things often move slowly, especially if you are going through the security clearance process and have lived overseas. Just remember to be patient.

New Employment
Hopefully, the candidate has completed the process, was hired and started in the new position: CONGRATULATIONS on becoming a civil servant. In order to successfully navigate the bureaucratic hierarchy of an agency, there are several key steps to keep in mind. First, employees should be sure to speak with supervisors about future ambitions. Many government agencies have career plans that get reviewed annually, offer advancement opportunities and detail the best ways to achieve goals. New employees should not be frustrated, as some agencies require a certain time commitment before becoming eligible for promotion. Use that time wisely and develop plan of action to master the competencies listed for the future aspired job. Take initiative; ask permission to take on extra responsibilities at work that would lead to mastery over the competencies listed for advancement. Some agencies will provide employees with extra training and coursework and education…..take advantage. The more an employee can show colleagues, supervisors and management motivation and willingness to climb the ladder, the more likely the employee will be seen as someone who will succeed in the organization.

Network to Move Laterally or Vertically
Like many private sector agencies, most jobs and promotions are filled internally. Employees should network with coworkers and those in the more senior management positions. Being known around the agency for being a competent, hardworking, and motivated, an employee will find ample opportunity for promotion as word will travel quickly. Should no new position or promotion arise or if the employee would like to make a lateral or vertical move to another agency, following the exact steps from the previous experience, (i.e., highlighting all of your competencies and accomplishments from your current position) will most likely lead to the desired goal. The good news is that once you have succeeded in attaining a federal job, it is easier to make a transition to another agency.

Candidates and new employees should always remember to follow this specific process when conducting a federal job search, as it obviously differs from the private sector. Career services practitioners can share these tips with clients. Keeping in mind these simple steps will assure success in navigating the federal hiring process and lead to a fruitful federal career.


Eraina Schauss, Ph.D., LPC-MHSP, NCC, is an Assistant Professor University of Memphis, Tennessee. She has worked as a federal career coach and in the areas of career development, clinical mental health counseling and higher education for the past 10 years. Her research areas of expertise remain in the area of career development and the relationship between counseling and neuroscience. She can be reached at eschauss@memphis.edu

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Kathryn Troutman   on Saturday 08/01/2015 at 11:10 AM

Dr. Schauss, I like your Civil Service Applicant Competency article. The competencies are so important and not taken seriously among job applicants. My favorite competencies are: customer services, flexibility, teamwork, resiliency and communications. It is truly amazing that if a federal job applicant does not mention these competencies and skills (and prove it with past experiences / anecdotes), they may not get Best Qualified for a position. The competencies are real and important for an applicant to show that they can work in a federal job to meet complicated missions and be flexible with changes that come up on the federal job everyday! I am the author of 7 books on federal resume writing and job search, including Federal Resume Guidebook, 5th edition. Your article is very good!

Rebecca Dedmond   on Saturday 08/01/2015 at 11:30 AM

Eraina, Thank you for this clear, concise, and information-packed article. Clearly your background and experience will impact all readers and practitioners, whether career counselors, career development facilitators, or coaches!

Renate Stewart   on Saturday 08/01/2015 at 12:29 PM

While this article gives a great overview on the emphasis on competencies in federal job applications and announcements, the key area of questionnaires was missed. Many agencies are using the addition of these questionnaires as an easy screening tool to determine the level of competency of applicants. Often an individual cannot fill out these questionnaires till after submitting the application and have missed key areas that need to addressed. I always advise my clients to preview the questionnaire to ensure they have identified all competency areas, key words, and key phrases that will need to be described in their applications. In the directions for the questionnaires there is often a statement such as: “Responses to questions that are not fully supported by the information in your resume may result in lowering to your rating.” Just one more way to ensure an individual is being rated as high as possible so they can move to the interview stage.

Andre J. Castillo   on Sunday 08/02/2015 at 01:54 PM

Have you see www.mycareeratva.va.gov? It's the best authority on Federal hiring. It has a lot of articles and training resources to help anyone navigate Federal hiring.

(I'm the former PM for that program.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.