Early on in my work as a career development professional, I had not once considered the government sector as an option in my own career path for practicing career counseling. There was no specific reason for this; I suppose I just assumed it was not for me. Where did I get this idea? Probably the same place many of our clients get these ideas as well. Government work often holds a stigma as well as certain ideas about both the work and its workers. As with most stereotypes, there is an aspect of truth to some of the beliefs, while in large part these notions are filled with misconceptions and misinformation. As a career counselor, now working in government for almost five years, I have a new perspective on the opportunities available in government work and the accuracies about the beliefs of a government worker.
Why Should Anyone Consider Government Work?
According to information provided by Stanford University, “the government workforce is rapidly aging. Sixty percent of federal employees will be eligible to retire over the next ten years. Similar rates of retirement are expected at the local and state levels. Rapid turnover will lead to significant opportunity for new workers”. This is critical data for career counselors to be aware of both for our clients and our selves, particularly with regards to making career transitions. I have learned that while there are distinct differences in the system, the hiring process, the administration, and the procedures for growth and promotion, not all aspects of the work itself and the skills to perform a specific job are in fact all that different from other sectors, such as non-profit or academia. To know the differences includes an increasing understanding of the many layers and agencies of government work. This is important as opportunities for employment become increasingly available.
Overcoming Preconceived Notions About Government
A change in perspective and reality begins with each of us either directly through obtaining employment in government work or indirectly by informing and empowering others with more accurate information about government work. This begins with:
Gathering the facts and details of the hiring process
Compiling the specifics about the requirements and expectations of a new hire
Gaining a clear understanding of the job descriptions and job titles
Holding the knowledge that government positions are both state and federal, and include positions at the local level, State Capitols, and those in Washington D.C. For state and local information, see: http://www.bls.gov/oco/cg/cgs042.htm
Knowing that government jobs exist in every interest and industry and federal jobs are located all over the country (see: http://www.makingthedifference.org/federaljobs/)
Learning that titles for the given jobs or language used for tasks may differ, but duties and qualifications are often equivalent
Locating the federal agencies which offer student loan repayment assistance if applicable. For example, there are specific positions for mental health professionals working with underserved, at-risk populations which qualify for this benefit. For more information on which federal agencies and specific industries, go to:
Tips and Activities When Considering Government Work
One thing that I have become more aware of and informed about is the tremendous amount of bureaucracy in government work, including the hiring and promotional procedures. To learn and master the system is to know it and not fear it. As with many systems, once on the inside things often are much different internally than they appear from the outside. This is where networking and individual connections provide awareness and understanding unavailable through a traditional job analysis or a standard labor market research of an industry or organization. For example, in my own experience, I have learned that the same job in two differing government agencies may have completely different job titles, position numbers and pay scales. It is critical to know the varying terminology from one department/agency to another so as to assure you are submitting applications for the intended position(s) and not miss out on opportunities.
Tip #1: Conduct informational interviews with current government employees in the departments or agencies of interest. Tip #2: Inquire about the specific policies and procedure for promotion from within each given organization, including questions about: employee development through training, internal programs, and upward mobility. To have another employee or colleague in support of your own career development is critical, particularly in government work. I recommend seeking a position within an agency or workplace team where this is common and encouraged from year one as a new employee. A senior staff willing to guide and advise your career development along the way directly or indirectly through support is ideal, and truly a gift in this sector. This will vary from one department or city to another, and may not be a typical inquiry, but do so anyhow. This will assist with breaking down the bureaucratic confusions and potential barriers.
Tip #3: Ask questions and request support before entering employment in government work. Tip #4: Maintain similar support through a mentor or supervisor once employed in a government position, and throughout the life of your career in government. Developing an understanding of government work, and the vast differences in federal versus state and industry to industry is where the mysteries of government work become less intimidating and secretive. Researching departments of interest is not only doable, but starts with the individual and some basic self-assessments.
On a separate piece of paper, complete the following sentences for yourself, and encourage your clients to do the same. This will help in getting an idea of whether government work is for you.
I am particularly interested in government work and seeking employment within a government department or agency because . . .
The agencies I am most interested in currently within government are . . .
The most important aspect of government work to me is in-line with my work values of . . .
Danielle Gruen, MS, NCC, DCC, is a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor for the State of California, Division of Department of Rehabilitation in Los Angeles, California. She currently serves as Disability Awareness Specialist and liaison counselor in the transition services program for high school and college students. She also serves as lead counselor and provides Disability Awareness training at a local community rehabilitation program serving the HIV/AIDS community. She earned her Masters degree from San Francisco State and has worked in non-profit, higher education, and government as a Career Counselor and Workplace Consultant. She also has a private practice providing local and distance counseling for career transitioners at all stages, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org