April 25, 2022


By Alex Harrington, Executive Director

When it comes to looking for a federal job most job seekers use USAJOBS, the Federal government’s official employment site. However, what you don’t want to do is concentrate all of your time and effort on searching and applying exclusively on USAJOBS; basically, that’s like “putting all your eggs in one basket.”

When looking for a federal job or, for that matter, looking for any job, you must use other job search levers and individual marketing tactics to improve your chances in landing an interview. Moreover, your success in landing a federal job directly depends on your tenacious efforts to turn over as many stones as possible to find those job openings. And while you are looking and applying for Federal jobs on USAJOBS, I would also recommend the following job search levers and tactics.

Leverage The Power of Networking

The old but true maxim, “It’s all about who you know and who they know” is true when looking for a job. More widely known as networking, this approach is the best tool you have in your job search toolkit. So, when you hear someone say, “I guess it’s who you know,” politely tell them: Yes! It’s who you know and it is best to learn how to enlist them into your job search.

In fact, many experienced career experts claim that networking is your number one tool in searching for a federal job. Consider the following:

  • According to the late career counselor and author Richard Bolles, 60% of companies’ new employees were hired through employee referrals; and
  • Nearly 45% of new hires first learned about their new federal job from their friends and relatives.

When it comes to looking for a federal job, networking is by far the best effective tactic you can use in your job search. But keep in mind, when networking with a federal employee you must adjust your approach. For example, you should focus your networking efforts directly with those who work in government or those who know someone who does. These people will be able to help you by providing information about the hiring process, the high demand skills, and what it’s like working for the federal government.

Further, the benefit of networking with a federal employee who works in the agency where you want to work is that they may know which positions are currently announced, or about to be announced. 

Now, allow me to reiterate this point again: focus your time and efforts in networking with federal employees or those who know them. You do not want to waste your time and effort in networking with anyone who has never worked in the federal government, or for that matter has no association with anyone who does.

I often heard in my past workshops, “This person told me not to even bother applying for a federal job because of veterans,” or “This individual said that the government only hires family and friends.” My typical response to these types of questions: So, the person who told you this, do they currently work in government? The answer is always…No.

The lesson here: if you’d like to learn how to sing opera, then find an opera singer to tutor you. Don’t go to a mechanic to learn how to sing opera. Same goes with finding a federal job. If you want to learn more about the federal government and its hiring process, then network with someone who currently works in the government or someone who knows someone who works for the government.

When networking with federal employees, you must also keep in mind that a hiring official cannot just bring you in for an interview. They are bound by law to uphold the following Merit System Principle: 

To ensure that recruitment should be from qualified individuals from appropriate sources in an endeavor to achieve a work force from all segments of society, and selection and advancement should be determined solely on the basis of relative ability, knowledge and skills, after fair and open competition which assures that all receive equal opportunity (5 USC § 2301). Merit System Principle 1: Recruitment, Selection and Advancement

In plain language, the hiring official must avoid any probability of nepotism, partisan politics, favoritism, or other non-merit factors. Therefore, when you are talking with someone who works for the government, just remember they cannot hire you directly. You have to apply competitively along with other candidates.

How To Begin Networking?

You may not know it, but you are involved in networking every day. However, within the context of a federal job search, you want to plan accordingly and target those individuals who are in the position to assist with your job search. 

When you begin networking, begin by asking for job leads from family members, friends, and people in the community (especially those like pastors and insurance agents who associate with various groups in the community). Your personal contacts will be happy to help you. 

Also, be sure to not waste their time, and especially yours by 1) having a clear plan of how you’re going to approach them, 2) defining your end goal, and 3) preparing and sending your questions before meeting the contact.

Target Your Network Groups

I think one of the best ways to help you network effectively is to organize your networks into groups. Try organizing your networks into the following groups:

1) Personal Relationships. Immediate family and extended family; close friends, neighbors and acquaintances; service professionals (lawyer, doctor, insurance agent); helping professionals (minister, priest, pastor, rabbi, counselor); social groups (religious groups, fraternal organizations sororities, sports teams, recreational groups); and job support groups (community, church).

2) Professional Relationships. Organizational colleagues (professionals at all levels, including clerical and support staff); colleagues in other organizations (customers, clients, and collaborators); vendors, consultants, contractors and union representatives.

3) Organizational and Community Affiliations. Professional and trade associations; alumni associations–national and local chapters; union organizations; community or volunteer organizations; philanthropic, cultural, and civic organizations; certifying or licensing bodies; and boards of directors, boards of trustees, and advisory boards.

4) Opportunistic Networks. Volunteering at a community group; talking with classmates during a training course; conducting informational interviews (not for job searching but learning about an industry and/or occupation); and working on a government contract.

5) Social Media. LinkedIn; GovLoop; Indeed; and Facebook (to name just a few).

Setting Yourself Apart from the Herd

You can take the following creative approaches to help set yourself apart from competing peers:

Elevator Pitch

In today’s busy workforce a networking contact, recruiter, or that ‘person-who-can-hire-you-right-on-the-spot’ do not have the time to listen to a 20-minute litany of job titles and duties. In my time working with unemployed people in the community, I have had my time commandeered many times by job seekers who felt the need to begin their work history the day after they left high school. 

The lesson here: if you want to be successful in grabbing the attention of those who you are networking with, prepare an elevator pitch that briefly captures your expertise, professional accomplishments, and vocational passions, and what you are looking for–with a duration roughly between 30 to 60 seconds, or about 70-80 words. It is definitely not a litany of your job titles and experiences. In fact, it encompasses the foundational elements of your professional brand

Here’s an example of an elevator pitch from How To Give an Elevator Pitch (With Examples), LinkedIn Career Guide:

Context: In an interview

Job Title: Executive Assistant

“Hi, my name is Mark. Thanks so much for sitting down with me today. After graduating with my bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, I’ve spent the last three years building professional experience as an Executive Assistant. I’ve successfully managed end-to-end event coordination and have generated a strong professional network for my colleagues. I was excited to learn about this opportunity in the sports management space—I’ve always been passionate about the way sports bring cultures together and would love the opportunity to bring my project management and leadership abilities to this position.”

Networking card

Lily Whiteman, author of How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job, recommends creating a networking card. She claims that this tactic will “make it easy for your contacts to sing your praises by arming them with your networking card” that provides a list of your core credentials and contact information.

One-Page Résumé

Another good tactic to use is having a one-page résumé handy to give to your contacts. Author Kathryn Troutman recommends incorporating a one-page résumé, calling card that “you can use while networking.” Troutman emphasizes that the one-page résumé is “not intended to take the place of a job application or another more serious marketing package, but it does help others remember you when they hear about opportunities that might interest you.”

Online Presence

In the cinematic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Aragon said to Théoden, the King of Rohan, “Open war is upon you whether you would risk it or not.” 

This is a perfect metaphor that aptly fits the presence of social media today. You can ignore it or accept it. Either way, it is truly upon us. Therefore, as a job seeker, establishing a professional presence online can enhance your individual marketability and brand. And one of the best professional online platforms you can use to market your professional brand, skills, and expertise is LinkedIn.

LinkedIn can help you establish and maintain your professional network. It is also a great tool to showcase your insights and expertise by commenting on various featured industry news and trends or even writing your own professional articles on particular industry or business issues. And LinkedIn allows you to actively monitor and follow your target audiences (e.g., industry partners, legislators, opinion leaders, etc.), follow trade publications (e.g., Government Executive, Federal Times, etc.) and news aggregators. 

To make sure LinkedIn is working for you, be sure to bolster your profile by:

  • Updating LinkedIn profile to 100%.
  • Integrating all your social profiles (professional blog, website, etc.)
  • Asking for Recommendations and Endorsements.
  • Participating in group discussions and lead conversations.

Contacting HR offices

Another recommended tactic is contacting human resource (HR) offices about the latest job openings at a particular agency. This approach is best used when searching for jobs at agencies that are not required to be posted on USAJOBS.

Keep in mind, however, that some HR offices may not be aware of every opportunity in their particular agency. A hiring official may be deciding to add another position to a program but has not approached HR about it. However, there are still many benefits of calling agencies directly. HR sometimes can refer you to suitable openings quickly or possibly assist you in matching your skills to federal jobs. In addition, HR representatives are able to break down the bureaucratic jargon of special hiring programs into layman terms.

But I know what you are thinking: Alex, I don’t know how to contact HR offices directly! 

As with any industry, you have to learn where to go to kick over those stones to find leads or information. The same goes with the federal government. Try using the following tactics:

Job Announcement: “How to Apply” Section. Every job announcement on USAJOBS includes contact information for the Agency’s HR office or personnel center under the “How to Apply” section. If you have questions about a particular job announcement you can contact HR via the information provided by them.

A-Z Index of U.S. Government Departments and Agencies. USA.gov, a government website with information and services for the general public, has a list of contact information for U.S. federal government departments and agencies including websites, emails, phone numbers, and addresses. 

LinkedIn Groups. You can also find Federal HR contacts on LinkedIn’s Groups. There are groups such as “US Federal HR Specialists and HCM Industry Professionals” and “DHS Human Resources Professionals.” Just type “Federal HR” in the Groups’ search box on LinkedIn.

Federal Yellow Book and Other Directories. This resource is not well-known, but one of the best tools you can use to find contact information on Federal Agencies and offices. But you’ll have to go to your local library to see if they have the Federal Yellow Book or other similar directories.

Google Search Engine. Another great tool to search for federal HR contact information is taking advantage of Google’s search engine functionality. Google indexes all types of information for its search engine, and if you have a basic understanding of “Boolean Search Methods”, you can find federal HR contact information most of the time.

The lesson here: One of my daydream jobs in the government is to provide employment training to veterans. So, to try to find a contact online I use the following Boolean Search Method in Google.

I type in the Google search box: Veterans' Employment and Training Service (VETS) "AND" HR Department "AND" contact information. When I hit ‘Enter,’ the search results come with with the following:

I scroll down the webpage looking for a contact associated with veterans training...and VOILÀ!! I found the National Veterans' Employment Manager.

Now, I don’t want to send them an email like: “GIVE ME A JOB! I NEED ONE NOW!” (Yep, I’ve received these types of emails before, so please don’t do that).

Remember: I am networking, so I will do the following: 

Have a clear plan of how to approach them. First, instead of contacting the National Veterans’ Employment Manager directly at their work email, I searched and found their profile on LinkedIn. I sent them a connection request, and they accepted. I followed up with the following message, to which they responded and agreed to meet with me.

Hello [Mr/Ms. Last Name]:

I hope this email finds you well. My name is Alex Harrington and serve as an [Title] at [Agency], as well as an Executive Director for Federal Career Connection, Inc., a volunteer-led educational non-profit that builds awareness on how to participate in public, national, military, or other federal service professions for individuals who have a calling to serve.

I noticed that you have a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction. I would welcome the opportunity to chat very briefly by phone or virtually over Teams or Zoom to gain some of your insight and expertise on how to improve our small non-profit’s training delivery capabilities. 

Also, if time permits, I would also like to learn more about the Veterans' Employment and Training Service and your experience working in this area. 

I am available next week. Please let me know if any particular day/time is best.  

Very Grateful

Have a clear goal. When establishing a new contact, my initial goal is to learn more about them, their profession, and the industry they work in. In fact, I tend to make it more about them than the what’s-in-it-for-me approach. Essentially, I strive to bring value to them first. 

Have a set of questions already prepared before we meet. For an informational interview or similar type of meeting, I will always provide a set of questions along with the calendar invite. By providing a list of questions—between 3 to 5—I maximize the allotted time and ensure the meeting is focused on the goal.

Research and Apply for Jobs on Agency Websites

Even though USAJOBS is the federal government’s primary location to look for a civil service job, you should also look at individual agency websites to check their career opportunities. You should be able to find a ‘Career’ or ‘Opportunities’ link on the home webpage. Most, if not all, agency websites will have information about their current vacancies and internship opportunities, fellowships, and co-op programs. However, just remember that some agencies don’t update their websites on the same day they submit to USAJOBS.

Using USAJOBS To Its Full Potential

As I indicated up front, when it comes to looking for a federal job, most job seekers use USAJOBS – the federal government’s official employment site. The platform serves as a database that contains a decent federal job search engine (which by the way, was developed by Monster.com).  

While I do advocate using the other job search levers and individual marketing tactics to improve your chances in landing an interview, USAJOBS is the first place to check for federal job openings available to the general public. And not only does USAJOBS provide a job seeker with a convenient single location to look for federal job vacancies, it also provides a résumé builder, a search agent (renamed as ‘saved searches’) that automatically searches for jobs based on your job criteria, and the flexibility to upload a cover letter and other required documents. Simply put, USAJOBS is a far cry from the old way of posting vacancy announcements as paper notices in post offices throughout the U.S. 

To learn more about networking, check out the following blogs by one of my favorite federal career experts: Lily Whiteman, author of “How to Land a Top-paying Federal Job."

You can learn more about USAJOBS at:

You can also check out these helpful links:

Please follow us on Twitter @FedCareer and join our Federal Career Connection page on LinkedIn or find us on Meetup at meetup.com/mbc-cnm.To get updates on upcoming workshops and career coaching sessions, visit https://federalcareerconnection.org/events/

Alex Harrington, GCDF, CCSPIs a Nonprofit Entrepreneur ● Community Leader ● Author & Blogger ● Certified Career Services Provider and Global Career Development Facilitator. Alex also served in the U.S. Marine Corps and is a Persian Gulf War veteran.

Alex Harrington
Chair & Executive Director
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