The U.S. federal government is the largest employer in the world and comes with its own unique hiring process.

That process changed in recent years since the government added special hiring authorities and skills assessments, partially out of necessity due to the COVID-19 pandemic and in response to the competition for talent.

This ongoing series explores the federal job application process and the ins and outs of how the government classifies, investigates and prioritizes applicants for federal work.

Where to find job openings

Nearly all federal positions are hired through the USAJobs portal, which houses thousands of government listings and processes millions of applications each year.

The key to a successful federal application starts with understanding how to use the site.

The USAJobs profile allows applicants to list their personal information — including demographics like race and age, which are used to track agency hiring data — and to either upload or build a resume.

The system also helps you apply certain filters to narrow down your search. For example, you can filter by jobs open to the public or those offering telework.

USAJobs is not an exhaustive list. Specialty agencies, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation or Central Intelligence Agency, post listings separately on their own websites, so it’s worth cross-referencing job sites with agency career pages.

Assessments are also becoming the new norm in federal hiring. A degree will soon become less important in the federal job application process, but agencies will turn to other means of assessing an applicant’s skills.

This can include actual tests to quantify your skills or subject-matter-expert interviews for highly specialized positions.

The federal government also uses background investigations to determine whether an applicant is suitable for government work. It is generally the longest part of the federal hiring process, but while all jobs require investigations, not all receive security clearances.

Understanding the GS pay scale

The General Schedule dictates how most federal positions are classified and paid. But applicants don’t need to be an expert, if they know where to look.

Series and grade is the government’s system for categorizing and defining jobs. The series is a numbered system for grouping similar occupations. For example, a Nurse is part of the 0610 series.

A ‘grade’ refers to the General Schedule (GS) pay scale – it’s the pay level for the job.

The higher the grade level, the higher the pay. The GS pay schedule is the most common pay schedule, but there are others, including the wage scale and special rates.

A “step” is a raise in salary. In the GS pay scale, each grade has 10 steps.

Are government jobs recession proof?

Federal government jobs have the advantage of relative stability when the economy tanks. These jobs, while not always recession-proof, often offer more job security than private sector jobs, studies have found.

In 2020, USAJobs hosted over 330,000 job announcements, facilitated 1.25 billion job searches, and enabled individuals to begin more than 18 million applications for federal jobs.

Though not a recession by any stretch, the COVID-years saw major economic downturn while opportunities for frontline federal jobs, especially in public health, increased.

The White House’s Office of Personnel Management is enforcing its COVID-19 excepted service hiring authority until March 2023. This enables agencies to directly hire to a position at any grade level for one year — with an optional one-year extension — without going through the normal competitive process, so long as that position is essential for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thus, it may be worth keeping that resume polished and updated even if the markets start to crash.

With reporting by Jessie Bur.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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