I started working at IBM as an undergraduate and continued in various IT roles for the next 20 years. I had even carved out a great part-time remote position when my first child was born, but by the time the second came around and naps disappeared, it was no longer sustainable. So I became a SAHM and their parent participation at school became my focus for the next 13 years.
When my youngest was in his last year, I realized my life would be very different the following year and that it was time to look at re-entering the workforce. I knew I wanted to be in project management and IT was my work background. I could have considered going back to IBM, but I wanted to see what else was out there – it didn’t even have to be in IT. I was open to the possibilities!
I spent the fall updating my resume, gathering information, and preparing. I was hoping I’d find another remote part-time position and I also loved the concept of returnships or training programs for workforce re-entry, but none of these panned out for me. I probably applied for over 100 positions at over 50 workplaces (everything from A-Z or, in my case, American Express to Zoox) and had some interviews but nothing went beyond that.
In the spring, a friend that worked for the county encouraged me to check out the county job site. I liked the idea of directly helping the area I lived in and I was excited at the prospect of having an impact. So, I decided to apply and see what happened. I looked at the posts that I thought would have project manager positions in them and submitted an application for the following job categories:
- IT Project & Administration Manager
- Program Manager
- Senior IT Project Manager
- IT Project Manager
- Business Intelligence Analyst
- Associate Management Analyst
Given how long I had been out of the workforce, I wasn’t sure what level I would get a job offer at. So I picked some categories that I thought I definitely qualified for, some categories that were the next level up, and some categories that were at the level I had been at when I last worked.
And then I began my county interview process. This article is what I wish I had known ahead of time and for anyone thinking of applying for a government job for the first time.
A couple of caveats before I begin:
- This is the first and only government site I have applied with so I have no idea if my experience is unique to this particular county or if this story will be familiar to many so please keep that in mind and I’d love to hear if any of this resonates with anyone else.
- If at any point I come off as sounding frustrated, that is not my intent. I have looked at this entire process like a fairytale, as if I had met a wise witch in the woods who would grant me my wish for a job if I completed these challenges. Many times it took more than one attempt for me to complete a challenge and, sure, there were days I wondered if it would ever work out and I’m forever grateful for my friends that championed me and cheered me on my way. But, I never gave up. I learned from my mistakes and right now the ending is looking pretty happy to me.
The application form and exams
So first, the application process: the government jobs are all listed online but they aren’t for specific jobs but job categories. For example, there was an Associate Management Analyst job category that had a laundry list of general responsibilities ranging from doing cost studies, conducting surveys, data analytics and reporting. A Program Manager job category would have general tasks related to planning, reporting, tracking, etc. I picked a few categories that appealed to me and I thought I would have a good skill match for and applied. So far, not so different from applying for other jobs online.
The next step is to make it past the resume / online application screen. In my case, I made it through all the categories I had applied to and I was invited to take an exam for each one. Because the job descriptions were so broadly defined, I had no idea what I would be tested on. I called the contact number provided and was simply told, “the test will pertain to the job”. I had to choose from the dates and times given for the exam and, for two job categories, the exam was an online / from home exam and the other job category was an in-person exam.
The in-person exam was exactly how I remembered an SAT exam to be in high school. When you entered the room, you had to keep quiet, not leave the room, no eating or drinking, only use the pencil and calculator they provided, put all your belongings on the chair next to you (nothing on the table!), and sit at predesignated places in the room with about 70 other test takers. We were given paper exam booklets (do not turn the page or start until instructed to do so!) and had to fill in ovals with our pencils within the time allotted. There were even several sections of the exam, just like the SAT was for me, and the time allotted seemed to be about the same length of time (over 2 hours). For this job category, there were a lot of questions on statistics, grammar, and behavior (i.e. what would you do in x situation).
The online exam from home was much shorter and was more focused on scenarios and picking the best response from a list of choices. The hard part here was that there could be no other sounds or people walking behind you (the exam was taped) so I had to make sure I had the house to myself for the time I was taking the exam so that I wouldn’t be disqualified.
Once the exams are graded, you are told how you ranked and, if you ranked high enough, your application is forwarded to all the departments that are hiring for that job category. At this point, you will start getting requests for interviews for actual positions.
A department may be hiring for multiple positions within the same job category or there may be multiple departments working with HR reps to fill positions, so you still may get interview questions for the first round that don’t seem to apply for the same position because of that reason.
Another thing to realize is that a department may be hiring internally, laterally, internal with a promotion opportunity or externally. I was in the external pool but potentially competing with these other candidate pools as well. I was never aware of how many other people were applying or interviewing for a particular position so it was very hard to get a sense of how good a chance you had of making it through the first round.
The Interview Process (as I understand it)
Once a department contacts you for an interview, you are given a choice of some interview slots that you can schedule for. All of my interviews were by phone or online (none in person) and sometimes cameras were on and sometimes they were off. Sometimes they were 1-1 and more often there was at least one other person interviewing.
The very first interview I did was by far the most unusual one I have ever experienced. I really wish this interview had not happened first or that I had known this format was a possibility so I could have been better prepared for it.
Here’s what happened:
There were 30 minutes allocated for the interview and it was an online format. I joined with my camera on and there were three other screens, all off. I thought about turning my camera off too but it seemed awkward, so I left it on. The first black screen spoke and introduced themselves and the other panelists. They said they would be asking me a series of questions and to please be mindful of the time so they could all be answered within the scheduled meeting. The only person that spoke was the same black screen. The other two screens remained off and silent for the entire interview.
I was very nervous and wasn’t able to see the clock so I raced through the questions. The interviewer thanked me and appeared to be wrapping things up. I asked, if there was still time left, if I could ask some questions or perhaps elaborate on some of the earlier questions I had answered. I was told, “NO”. So, that was that. After I got off the meeting, I checked the time: seven minutes. The entire interview had lasted seven minutes. Needless to say, I did not get invited back for a second interview for this area.
The next first-round interview (different department, different job category) was much more like what I’ve experienced in the past. Cameras were on and, although there was a standard set of questions, it was much more conversational and I had an opportunity to ask questions.
After that, I began a series of interviews for a variety of positions. Mind you, I had applied for a few job categories so I was aware there would be differing positions, but the ones I interviewed for ranged from manually entering inventory in-person at multiple sites to working onsite with very fixed hours to fully remote work. Some were very clearly a better fit for me than others. Unfortunately, it was very hard to tell what kind of job I was interviewing for until the first round interview so I had to get to that point before we both realized it wasn’t a fit.
I think I had around 30 first-round interviews that didn’t go any further than that. I thought some had gone better than others, and some positions I was definitely more interested in than others. It was really important for me to keep myself motivated during this time and tell myself that with each interview I learned or got to practice something and it didn’t mean anything was over. In fact, the county specifically said my profile would be active and available for consideration for years. My friend that works for the county said that patience was key and to keep trying and eventually things would work out.
In the end, it only took about 4 months for me to get to where I am now. I only had one second round of interviews because I was extended and accepted an offer after that. I think it’s safe to say that if you get to the second round of interviews, you have a pretty good shot at getting an offer because I think that pool of candidates has been narrowed down considerably.
The second round of interviews was for the specific job in that department. It was an online, on-screen panel interview that had members that had interviewed me the first round as well as a couple new interviewers that were closely tied to the job. Again, there were standard questions asked but it was a conversational style with opportunities to talk back and forth and for me to ask questions.
The job offer and pre-onboarding process (so far)
The job offer is pretty straightforward. The pay range for the job category is posted when you apply so you know exactly what range your pay will fall in. There is a probationary period and planned pay raises and I’ll be joining a union for the first time so that will be another new experience for me yet to come.
There is a background check, which I expected, and a physical, which I did not expect. I haven’t had to do a physical for a job and when the online pre-appointment surveys were asking me about latex allergies, claustrophobia, respirator use and food allergies, I had to wonder what exactly I would be doing for what I thought was a fully remote office type role. I even asked my HR rep if I had been sent the right forms and was just told that they were standard forms. So I filled them out and wondered what the actual physical would entail.
The physical itself was pretty short and straightforward. It consisted of a brief review and confirmation of my pre-appointment surveys and my supporting documentation, a simple vision test using a chart (plus another one for color blindness), a blood pressure reading and a blood test. If my blood tests indicate I no longer have immunity, I may need to take a series of vaccinations but that is yet to be determined.
This brings me to where I am today. I am looking forward to starting my new job with the county soon and I’m still not exactly sure what to expect but I plan to be open, patient, flexible, and take it one step at a time.
One last piece of advice: if you have a contact that works for the government and knows of a specific position they think you would be great for, make sure to ask them what job category it is in so that you can apply for that! If you don’t apply for the right job category or miss the posting deadline, you have missed that opportunity and it might not come up again for over a year!
I would be curious to know if others have had similar experiences in their quest to work for the government. Hopefully, I’ve given those that haven’t done this before an insight into how things might go so that you can be prepared to be open, flexible, and very patient with the process as you never know how slow or fast it might go. Give yourself lots of grace and use as much as you can as a learning opportunity.