8 reasons why the government hiring process doesn't work

Readers share their experiences trying to get jobs in the government

What a scenario: The federal government, according to a recent report, needs to hire as many as 11,000 IT professions within the next couple years, yet according to our readers, the government hiring process is bureaucratic to the point of being dysfunctional.

Dozens of readers responded to a recent column by GCN’s Bill Jackson (“Do federal hiring processes discourage qualified applications?”). In the article, which also appeared on FCW.com, Bill relayed the story of a reader who has had no luck landing a government job despite being a certified security professional with 20 years of experience and security clearances from the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

What gives? Here’s what’s going on, according to our readers posting comment’s on Bill’s story.

1. Open positions are often a ruse

Numerous readers note that “open” positions in government aren’t open at all, because agencies already have someone on staff they want to promote.

“I've seen this at the directorate where I work for years,” one reader wrote. “Our government lead tried to shoehorn a contractor with no experience into a senior government slot and when the person couldn't make the finalist list, they just didn't hire anybody and the slot was lost.”

Another reader pointed out that these positions always include requirements for experience that only government employees would have, such as doing capital planning and investment control and OMB Exhibit 300 business cases.

A federal employee wrote to say that the problem is not necessarily the hiring manager, but the system. In an office where this reader worked, the human resources staff would put together two lists of candidates that might be interviewed, one with feds and one with public applicants.

“The feds list has an unlimited number of people on it. The public list only has the top 3 highest-scoring applications. The scores are computer generated, based on how many ‘buzz words’ you use. So you can be a fantastic candidate, yet have no shot because your application was never seen by a human being.”

2. Hiring decisions left to HR

Other readers picked up on the point that the human-resources staff was picking out candidates, not the hiring manager.

“In the domain of IT, HR professionals are not informed enough about the technology to be in position to make the right decision,” one reader wrote. “The front-line manager should always be involved when the selection has to be made from the best qualified list.”

The apparent use of key words also annoyed people, because it turns the job competition into a resume-writing contest.

“Applicants need to understand what the buzz words are in the job description and make sure to use them in their application and/or resume,” one reader advised. “It doesn't seem to matter if you are well qualified: The exact words in the application are important.”

3. Hiring officials are non-communicative

Another common complaint is that many HR offices are bureaucratic black holes: They suck applications in by the dozens, but little information comes back out.

One reader notes that the Defense Department is especially frustrating, not once responding to the reader's applications. “I have suspended applying for DOD or DOD-related positions,” the reader added.

4. Hiring preferences complicate the picture

Hiring criteria is an especially tricky issue. The federal government, as a public institution, makes a point of giving special consideration to veterans in some cases. Some readers take issue with this preference.

One reader wrote: “I’ve worked 12 years as a contractor in the IT field for DOD. I enjoy my job. I would do it in an instant as civilian, even at lower pay. But, because I’m not a vet, I’d be unqualified to my same job if it were to be posted. The system doesn’t work.”

“IT specialist or janitor, if you are not a veteran you will not have a chance no matter how qualified,” wrote another reader.

However, we also heard from someone who is both a veteran and a well-seasoned tech professional who also is getting nowhere in his quest for a government job.

5. Little chance of appeal

And what happens if you do not make the interview list and want to appeal? Good luck, said one reader.

“You will not find out how to do this anywhere on USAJobs.gov. Basically, it is not published for the applicant so there will be very few appeals. If you find an e-mail or phone number it usually is an automated response.”

6. Applicants aren’t ready for the bureaucracy

This perspective came to us from oracle2world:

“A lot of folks are just not suited for federal employment. 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.”

Patience is certainly necessary, based on many comments. We heard from a reader who began applying for jobs after his second enlistment back in 1998. “Thousands of applications and multiple degrees and certifications later, I decided to give up in mid 2008. After 10 years of applying and 3 interviews, first interview was in 2006 by the way, I figured it just wasn't going to happen.”

Some frustrating situations play out much more quickly, but are frustrating all the same.

One reader tells of actually being selected for a position, only to have the job put on hold because of budget problems. “When the money was finally allocated, I was told that my certification had expired and that the hiring process would have to begin all over again!! I turned down several other offers during this time period, waiting for the hiring process to run its course.”

7. Good government work is not done in government

One reader came at the problem from a different direction altogether.

The reason it is so difficult to find a good IT job in government is that there are so few good IT jobs to be had, this reader said. During the outsourcing boom of the last eight years, the best jobs were not found to be inherently governmental and so were shipped out to the private sector. That leaves high-level management jobs, which are difficult to fill from the outside due to all of the problems spelled out above.

8. NSPS

Of course any discussion about government hiring and management practices eventually has to come around to the National Security Personnel System, which everyone loves to hate. So we close with this:

“NSPS was supposed to fix the broken hiring process, right? [inject sarcasm here] You know, make it easier for the government to attract, hire and keep skilled workers? How's that working out at your organization? It sure hasn't happened at mine. We just lost a very talented IT professional to the public market, because in over three months he could not get into any the of the five advertised jobs in IT security that he desired.”

About the Author

John S. Monroe is the editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week.

Reader comments

Fri, Sep 6, 2013

I work at the v.a. medical center in detroit ENG.MY BOSS HAS NO REASON TO BE IN THE PISITION. He does not have a jouryman card and he has the worst record in the dept a very lazy person how does this happen please help me understand

Tue, Jul 24, 2012

I have been interviewed several times for helper positions at PSNS and I was even told at one of the interviews that I was hired, but then I never heard back from the shop. A few classes of helpers have passed me by and I get nothing. I'm a contractor at PSNS and one day I ran into the manager who said that I was hired and she responded by saying that there was a limited number and they had to hire those with more experience, I responded with "um at the interview I thought you said that you were looking for helpers with zero experience" she responded with "at least your a contractor, you should be happy your here". It is no secret that if you have a parent working for PSNS that, that is your key in, and if you don't it will be hard.

Sat, May 26, 2012 Larry.

Ah, the safety and security of a government job. Well. In many situations, I see jobs advertised with one opening. Good luck with that. Legally they must advertise the position; in many cases they already have someone in mind for it. So you can be highly qualified yet have nil chance. I think DOD is the worst offender. As a former GS-12 and 13, I speak from experience knowing that three GS-14 slots were advertised, and the three people hired were already GS-13s within the organization (and also all three were retired military). So much for fairness and open competition. And I believe that we had some 60+ referrals and the list was eventually whittled down to nine candidates, yet the three who were already established here and had "the influence" were selected. Anyone at the GS-15 level, and anyone at the Senior Executive Service level, can strongly influence hiring: hire their daughter, their son-in-law, golf buddy, whatever. Meet and get on good terms with a senior person and you might have a better chance. The hiring system itself is terrible. Applicants who are well-qualified either are glossed over, as computers are used to scan for keywords in the resume or application. This usually results in a "Not Qualified" rating. If you do get past the initial scan and then get a "Referral" you still may never hear anything as the hiring manager simply chose someone else. Good luck trying to contact a human, by phone or e-mail. They usually do not want to hear from you, even if you are just trying to determine your status as a potential employee. Everything within the system is basically "closed" to outsiders. Communication is one way only, automated e-mails, and if you are lucky enough to get a "Tentative Offer" you will be e-mailed about that as well. Someone needs to fix the system and give everyone else a fair chance.

Tue, May 22, 2012 Furious

I apply 3 times this year 2012 to a federal jobs, after this long process of answering questions, and applying, they cancelled the positions. What is that a game???

Thu, May 17, 2012

I regret to say that I can't offer any helpful assistance but, have my own USAJOBS "story" with respect to the very first Fed job application process I engaged in: To brevitize: I was/am well qual'd in an uncommon specialty area. 3 months after the interview, having heard nothing [official or otherwise] I contacted one of the "hiring authority" reps [at the site] to check status and was told [via a later email] that the hiring process for the position was "paused" due to budget. I've since moved on to other possible opportunities and pretty much forgot about it. Got an email TODAY [now 7 months after the interview] with the official disposition from the HR branch. Another applicant got the job. Does this seem kosher??? Is it reasonable for me to expect to be notified if a position I have an application in the air for [and drove an hour to interview for] has been "unpaused"??? I guess I am a little po'd at the lack of communication with/consideration for people [like me and a lot of you] that take the time and navigate the hassle to research the myriad of requirements and show enough interest in the program to complete a federal application. Maybe this is an accepted/established way the [DOD] does business? I've pretty much put all my pursuits of federal employment on the back burner [ way, way, way, back] The bueracracy deserves what it sets itself up for. O'K: Done whinin'

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