How to Get Work in the Public Sector

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Some people would rather poke out their eyes than work for a government organization. But despite the dull, bureaucratic (not to mention those less savory descriptors that shall remain unsaid) reputation public sector work has gotten over the years, it has an appeal.

A person interested in working for some branch of the government or a utility (an agency such as the Chicago Transit Authority that doesn’t compete with the private sector) might be looking for job security, which is understandable. Technology is a rapidly changing industry and one that’s vulnerable to economic market fluctuations or downturns.

Whatever the motivation, getting a job in the public sector isn’t terribly different from getting a job in the private sector. However, there may be more stringent, upfront requirements, and once onboard, the environment and culture may take some getting used to.

To qualify for many jobs in the public sector, your employment and criminal records and, in some cases, your credit report, must be completely unblemished. Jobs may require clearance to access certain facilities or information, and, despite the best of intentions, a less than spotless record could prove difficult if not impossible to circumvent.

Because there is often a considerable amount of competition for public sector positions, it can prove extremely beneficial to have a friend or relative in good standing with the organization recommend you or vouch for you in some way.

You should be willing and able to pass a battery of tests, which shouldn’t be tough, since most techies live and breathe by one type of test or another, certification exams included. But public sector exams likely will test your psychological aptitude, in addition to skill and competency levels. They will almost certainly test whether or not you are drug free.

Be aware of the likely work environment in the public sector. It pays to have patience and to be flexible. Once hired, you may not be given free rein to hit the ground running. Instead, you may be required to take part in a lengthy onboarding process, which might include mandatory training before you can begin your actual job.

Patience is further useful in this arena because departments in a public sector gig may be slow to get funding or get started on key projects. Then, once a project is under way, it isn’t always as easy to make changes as it is in private sector positions. It may take a long time to get feedback, and key decision makers may not be as accessible. This can stall projects labeled urgent or top priority in the eleventh hour, only to have the powers that be suddenly emerge and require substantial revisions. Of course, these things also can happen in private sector jobs, but some might say the scenario is more common in the public sector.

Also, you may not have the same level of control or the same type of freedom to redirect work, and significant compromises may be required. If you take on public sector work, you should be in it for the long term. It’s not unusual for projects to last for years.

Public sector positions often come with a number of rules and restrictions, and decision making is usually a collective process. For instance, you may apply for one position and be offered another less desirable one. If you want a long career, you may have to work your way up through the ranks, fully assimilate yourself into the culture, and then prove your skills before you get where you want to be.

By far the easiest way to get a public sector position is to go to the appropriate Web site and apply. Be diligent. Follow up. Persistence pays. It’s not unheard of for a person to apply several times for the same position or to the same agency and hear nothing, and then on that self-professed last time, eureka!

Once you land the interview, be sure to emphasize anything in your work or volunteer history that involves public service. Cheers!

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Kellye Whitney


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