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

Frustrated applicants target the system, complaining of convoluted process

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.”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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Reader Comments

Wed, Oct 7, 2009

I recently applied for a Government job and ran into issues with the application questionnaire. It seemed, by the specifics in the questionnaire, the job was written with a certain individual in mind. The questionnaire focused on very specific experience which allowed little room for transferable skills. For example, one question dealt with budget, scheduling, and planning experience interacting with certain state agencies. The wording excluded the possibility for the same experience only in support of a different domain (military customers and prime contractor customers). I answered the questionnaire based on the specific wording and chose not to take poetic license for having these skills from another domain. My application was rejected based on an initial score which presumably was performed by an automated tool.

Fri, Oct 2, 2009 Bill Cleveland

I have been applying for numerous federal jobs and one of the places (to remain nameless) has put out numerous openings just to cancel them a few week later. For those that don't get canceled, they are so specifically written that it appears they are for one person. Having worked as a contractor for two federal agencies, I also realize this happens. I was all but told that at one of the places. I was told that they wanted a certain person (for a job out of my field) so they wrote the description based on this persons qualifications so when it went up, that person seemed to have everything they were looking for. I also talked with an individual who has hired in the past and he told me it happens all the time. He puts in a requirement, takes resumes and if the person he wanted isn't in the cut (they use an automated program to weed out resumes) then he states "no qualified candidates" and changes the requirement a little and re posts. I recently applied for a position at the federal agency I work for. The person who contacted me didn't realize I already was a contractor for the agency and offered me an interview. The position has been open for about 2 years and very few people have applied in the past. I thought the interview went well and I had all the qualifications they were looking for. It has been 7 weeks (I was told 4-6 for an answer) since the interview and I heard through the grapevine that it was offered to someone from out of state. I have not officially heard word it is filled. When I inquire, I am told no decision has been made. The other rumor in the wind is that they wanted someone not in any way connected with the organization or in the area. I am already working so not a huge deal, but why interview me if they didn't want anyone from the area? I have just about given up seeking out government employment and will work as a contractor.

Fri, Oct 2, 2009

I've applied for numerous government positions at the agency where I've been a Contractor for over 11 years. It took 4 months before I was notified of an interview. Its been 2 months since my interview and my on-line status has not been updated. I've been hearing through the grapevine that the Hiring Manager is in the process of canceling the position and reopening it with a different announcement number because he didn't feel any of the interviewees were qualified - this is based on answers given for the 8 questions developed by the Hiring Manager and asked by the interview panel. The Hiring Manager was looking for a specific topic to be discussed/answered and because NONE of the 5 interviewees were able to deduce that based on the questions, we are all deeemd "unqualified". I wrote the questions down and have re-read them numerous times since the interview. I've asked others the same 8 questions and they have all answered them as I did. None of the questions were worded to elicit the response the Hiring Manager is now saying he was looking for. If 5 people were deemed qualified enough to get an interview and NONE of the 5 people provided the answer the Hiring Manager was expecting, then there's obviously something wrong with the questions and NOT with the individuals selected out of scores of applicants to be interviewed. A few of the other interviewees are also Contractors at the same agency and they feel as I do: that either the Hiring Manager doesn't know how to construct quality questions to elicit the expected response or the Hiring Manager had someone else in mind and that person didn't make the interview list. And I disagree with the statement in the article that says that "unhappy people tend to be more likely to share their complaints". People trying to enter the Government workforce aren't neccesarily unhappy as the article claims, but are driven individuals who are looking for other opportunities for professional growth and to utilize their skills. The Agency I support also does not provide the written correspondence, as required by law, to individuals who choose to use their disabled veteran's status - so there is no way for these individuals to know "why" they weren't selected. As with all government "red-tape", there's definitely room for improvement.

Fri, Oct 2, 2009 bob DC

I'm a Federal IT professional. I hate the system as much as everyone trying for a Federal IT position. The first time I applied for Federal employment it took 6 months, the second when I was applying for a higher position it took 7. The system must be fixed for quicker response. And, many positions I applied for I never received acknowledgment or updates.

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