Feeling the sequester blues? Cheer up — your government job may be more secure than you think. CQ Roll Call spoke with Lily Madeleine Whiteman, the author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job,” about what the sequester means for federal employment and why a federal job — despite looming furloughs or pay freezes — is still in high demand.
Q. What advice do you have for people who still want to enter government?
A. The federal government is the nation’s largest employer, with almost 2 million federal employees. What’s more, the federal government is currently undergoing a massive retirement wave; tens of thousands of federal employees are retiring every month.
Despite the sequester, federal agencies will continue to hire large numbers of job-seekers into internships, fellowships and permanent jobs. However, even under the best of circumstances, competition is keen for federal jobs because they offer opportunities to do good, important and interesting work; are secure; and (the ongoing salary freeze aside) generally offer competitive salaries and benefits and involve humane, family-friendly work schedules.
Nevertheless, some agencies are leaving some vacancies open because of budget uncertainties related to the sequester. Therefore, it is safe to assume that reductions in hiring would only increase competition for federal openings.
Q. Is working for the federal government still the stable job it once was?
A. In most cases, federal jobs are as secure as ever. Most federal employees have strong job protections for good reason: If it were easy to fire federal employees, each new presidential administration would be able to purge federal employees of the opposite political party. The security of federal jobs is designed to insulate federal agencies from such political favoritism/revenge and thereby preserve institutional knowledge and promote fairness.
Generally speaking, even federal employees who may be furloughed will still have job stability.
Reductions in force — the federal government’s version of layoffs — are much rarer among federal agencies than in the private sector, and they involve a protracted, slow process, so they take a long time to carry out.
Q. How do federal workers react to a changing economy? Do you feel the federal government is immune to market forces?
A. Because of the tough economy, the budgets of many agencies have tightened. As a result, federal managers tend to be particularly cost-conscious; they are reducing travel and training, carefully justifying resource-intensive activities and are avoiding expenses that could possibly be interpreted as extravagant or frivolous. Some agencies, such as the EPA, have announced that they will reduce grants.
In many agencies and offices, contractors fulfill important functions. But because of tight budgets, some contracts for such contractors have been eliminated. When staffs shrink, federal employees are often asked to do more with less which, of course, creates stress.
Because of the budget battles in Congress, federal employees have been denied a cost-of-living increase for the past two years and will almost certainly be denied one again this year as well. As far as I know, the three-year length of the ongoing cost-of-living freeze is unprecedented.
Q. How do you think the uncertainty that comes from the sequester will affect the federal workforce overall?
A. The sequester, by design, was an odious option that no one wanted. ... And the cutbacks associated with the sequester are hurting hardworking feds in several ways: Many feds make modest salaries and live paycheck to paycheck. Plus, the majority of feds live and work in large cities where the cost of living is high. Therefore, the cumulative impacts of repeated salary freezes (which also impact retirement income) and unpaid furloughs will pose a large financial burden.
That said, my personal experience as a fed suggests that most feds are admirably keeping their shoulders to the wheel, diligently working as hard as they always do — mindful of the political budget battles but undistracted and undeterred from their work at hand.
Q. What is the best advice you would give someone who wants to work in government?
A. Focus on your résumé and interview. Craft your résumé’s job summaries as quick-read bulleted lists of achievements that parallel your target job’s demands. Include validation of your success, such as promotions, performance reviews, verbal and written praise and evaluations of events you organized. Prepare for interviews by researching your interviewer(s) and target organization, producing achievement-oriented answers to likely questions.