The search for federal IT jobs: Just a buyer's market?

The story of problems encountered by a would-be government IT worker generates a host of complaints about hiring practices in the federal workplace.

A recent column about the challenges of applying for government jobs touched a nerve with a lot of readers. Despite a perceived shortage of experienced IT professionals needed to replenish an aging federal workforce, dozens of apparently qualified people wrote to complain that the hiring system discourages talented applicants.

The writers describe a convoluted, arcane and inconsistent process that unfairly favors insiders and values buzzword compliance over competence.

“I have submitted applications for various agencies with no word back,” wrote one reader who described himself as an IT professional with more than 20 years' experience as a government contractor. “The hiring process is a murky process at best and differs from agency to agency. It is a nightmare to try to get a government job.”

According to the complaints, hiring officials do not acknowledge applications or update applicants of their status, and apparently qualified workers are eliminated arbitrarily from the running by preferences given to veterans and current government employees. Job requirements often are tailored to meet the qualifications of a preselected worker, they claim, and applications are evaluated by bureaucrats unqualified to assess the applicant’s competence.

“If the sections of the application are not filled in according to the gatekeeper’s checklist, your applications will never make it past the gate,” one wrote. “It is really important to fill in that application with the gatekeepers as your target audience.”

We should be careful not to read too much into these accounts. Although 36 responses in a week is a lot for one column, it represents a tiny sliver of the potential government workforce. It also is a self-selected group, and unhappy people tend to be more likely to share their complaints. We have not evaluated the qualifications of those who submitted comments; some might not be as qualified as they think.

Nevertheless, such a lopsided outpouring of frustration would seem to indicate there is something behind the complaints.

“A lot of folks are just not suited for federal employment,” one person wrote. “If you can’t navigate the hiring process, you won’t be able to navigate the bureaucracy and have the patience needed over the long haul.”

That is a valid point. But considering GCN’s readership, those who wrote in with their experiences tended to be people already working in government or as government contractors. They already have navigated the hiring process or are at least familiar with the bureaucracy but still felt compelled to complain. A survey released recently by the Partnership for Public Service showed that agencies intend to hire more than 11,500 IT workers from fiscal 2010 to 2012. If current employees are being driven to give up job searches because of the roadblocks they encounter, where are all of these new hires going to come from?

On the other hand, maybe it's not as bad as we think.

“I don’t know where this supposed IT professionals shortage is,” one person wrote. “Whenever we announce for any GS-2210 vacancy, we get swamped with beaucoup well-qualified applicants. Our hiring managers can afford to be very picky, as this has long been an occupational buyers’ market. There seems to be a serious disconnect between perception and reality.”

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