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Uncle Sam still wants you

Federal workforce career opportunities for recent college graduates
By Jeremy J. Ray ('99)

From deciding on a major to writing a resume, JMU's Career and Academic Planning office provides students the help they need to plan their futures. The office maintains a comprehensive list of career and graduate school fairs on their website.

Need more career advice? Whether deciding on a major, writing a resume or looking for a job fair, JMU's Office of Career and Academic Planning helps students plan their futures.

The decision to leave a good job working for the State of Florida and move my family 1,000 miles to Washington, D.C., to take a job with the federal government was a weighty one — but it was worth it. It has been challenging, exciting and great for my career.

My Madison Experience provided the strong foundation I needed to enter the work force and later pursue an M.B.A. It also helped me land a job with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. There are plenty of federal career opportunities available to new graduates.

According to a government-wide survey released in October, the federal government needs to hire more than 270,000 workers for "mission-critical" jobs over the next three years, partly due to the large number of baby-boomer federal workers reaching retirement age.

Candidates with fresh skill sets

In these uncertain economic times, competition is high for a stable position within the federal government. But there are still many opportunities especially for candidates with fresh skill sets. Recent college graduates make ideal candidates for a number of reasons. Their skill sets are current, they tend to be motivated to work hard to get promoted, and they are usually innovative and open-minded. However, from my own experience, few federal job applicants are recent college graduates.

Part of the reason recent college graduates may be less inclined to apply for a federal job may be the intimidating and lengthy application and hiring processes. However, the Office of Personnel Management has been actively working to streamline the process and make navigating the system simpler. A recently redesigned federal job site, usajobs.com, centralizes the job postings across almost all federal agencies. Some agencies still require that you apply on their own sites, but many now allow you to apply directly through usajobs.com and create and save your resume to be used to apply to other agencies.

As part of the hiring process, many federal agencies will conduct a background investigation, sometimes resulting in candidates receiving a security clearance. The background investigation can take many months to complete, sometimes up to a year or longer at great time and expense to the government. However, the fewer places a candidate has previously lived, and the fewer jobs he or she has had is actually a plus in terms of the background process. And even though it can be discouraging that the investigation takes so long, possessing a security clearance is worth its weight in gold in the federal government, and costs the candidate nothing!

The benefits

Excluding the U.S. postal service, the federal government is the nation's largest employer. Therefore once you work for one agency, if you choose to take a job with another federal agency, it is much like moving within the same company. Your leave balances, length of service and other benefits all transfer from one agency to another. Other perks of working for the U.S. government include job security, top-notch health care benefits and a generous retirement plan.

The challenges

Students and graduates with a background in information technology, and many other academic disciplines, are in high demand by the federal government. There are a number of opportunities within Homeland Security in particular. Emerging fields such as cybersecurity have created a tremendous demand for candidates with current technological skill sets allowing them to tackle some of the country's most difficult technology problems. If you do not necessarily have all of the skills a job posting requests, do not give up. I have never worked at a place where opportunities for training have been more available than the federal government. Job skill training and technology update training are almost always available, and usually highly encouraged.

As the federal government constantly seeks to tackle difficult problems facing our country, it is going to rely more heavily than ever on a new generation of bright, hard-working, talented. The opportunities to make a difference (or Be the Change) and to be a part of something much larger than yourself are out there. Are you ready for the challenge?

About the Author
Jeremy J. Ray ('99) works in information systems for an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. For the past 11 years, he has worked in both the private and public sector, including Stanley Associates, AT&T, and the State of Florida. He is currently a senior software engineer and lead on a large-scale, enterprise-wide computer system. He earned an M.B.A. from the University of Tampa in 2003.