An Insider’s Guide to Getting a Government Job, with Kirsten Wyatt

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Find Your Dream Job, Episode 206:

An Insider’s Guide to Getting a Government Job, with Kirsten Wyatt

Airdate: August 28, 2019

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps people find fulfilling careers.

Every week, I interview a career expert about the tools you need to find the work you want.

Today I’m talking with Kirsten Wyatt. She’s going to share an insider’s perspective on how hiring in government works.

Kirsten is the co-founder and executive director of ELGL, the Engaging Local Government Leaders network. It’s a nonprofit that engages the brightest minds in local government.She joins us today in the Mac’s List studio.

Kirsten, let’s get started. What do you need to do differently when you look for a government job?

Kirsten Wyatt:

You need to be prepared for every experience to be very different. And by that, I mean agencies vary; there is so much variation in what you will find from city government to county government to town government because processes aren’t standardized. And that means that you might apply for one job and they require a paper printed application, and you might apply for another job and they have a completely online candidate management system. And so when you’re applying for these jobs, you’re going to approach each of those very differently. It may seem a little backward in this day and age to be printing out an application and having to mail it in but that’s the case in some agencies. And then in others you may be pleasantly surprised with how streamlined and high-tech it is to apply for a job. And so expecting that wide variation across government agencies is something to immediately prepare yourself for.

Mac Prichard:

Every system might have its own approach, what about finding government jobs? Is it just that you need to be prepared to submit your application perhaps using different techniques? How can people find these positions? How are they shared?

Kirsten Wyatt:

It is pretty fragmented, and I think honing in on your geographic area or your search area is important because often some of the very best local government job resources are found at the state level. So, for example, a state league of cities or county’s association might have a great job board for cities or counties in that state. On the flip side, you might also find some use out of these aggregator websites, for example, neogov, which is an online resume management system and applicant tracking system. They run a site called Government Jobs so they compile all of their clients’ jobs into that one site. But really, there isn’t one perfect location to look for that perfect government job. You really have to put your feelers out and bookmark a lot of sites.

I know that when some of our members have been looking for jobs, they will pick the three states that they’re most interested in working in, for example, and bookmark the state association of cities, or counties, maybe even of special districts, is another great resource for local government, and then check back on those sites frequently, in addition to some of the aggregator sites that are out there.

Mac Prichard:

You mention aggregator sites on associations…don’t public managers have to post every job, Kirsten? Can they actually fill these jobs through word of mouth and if they are required to post every position, wouldn’t they do that on their website as well?

Kirsten Wyatt:

Absolutely. So, local government websites are going to have a very specific job feature. I know that when I’ve worked for cities, often the jobs or the HR section of the website was one of the most popular sections of the city’s site. So, you can go to each individual local government, especially if you’re really focused on working for one particular agency. Often what you might find, like you said, governments will be expected to post every job, but if you notice that a job has a very short application window, for example, or that they’ve posted a job and they are only looking for internal candidates, that might be an indication that that job might be more of a reach because there’s, perhaps, someone internally who is a candidate for that job and so be prepared for that.

It could be discouraging when you see the perfect job title and the perfect job description but it is posted out of procedure because it is only available for internal candidates only.

Mac Prichard:

Many jobs get filled by word of mouth in the private sector and the nonprofit world. In other words, they’re never posted; there’s no announcement on a website no advertisement on a job board or even in an old-fashioned newspaper. Does that happen in government? Are public jobs part of the hidden job market? Are they never posted?

Kirsten Wyatt:

I don’t think it’s that they’re never posted but there definitely is the value and the benefit that you talk about on this podcast of that word-of-mouth job market and of building out your network because of that word of mouth effect. Because getting your name out there and getting to know people that work in the local government realm helps you be well informed when a job is coming opened or will be opened. And sometimes, we joke, it’s kind of like when there’s a coaching change in the NFL or in college football, where one coach leaves and then all of a sudden there’s a big shuffle and it ripples across multiple teams. The same thing happens in government. We will see a manager leave and all of a sudden you start to think, “Well, which assistant is going to take that job and then that assistant job opens.” And so having a network that gives you that inside scoop is helpful.

Yes, you’ll have to go to that website and go through the application, however, you will know to go to that website to start that application.

Mac Prichard:

Well, let’s talk about networking. Sometimes, people tell me they have an experience where they reach out, particularly when a position is open, to a hiring manager and they say, “I’d like to meet with you.” And the manager will say, “I can’t. There’s a set of rules I need to follow.” And of course, every culture and sector has its rules, but in government, these processes, in order to be as fair as possible to all applicants, are often stricter.

How do you see people network effectively with hiring managers both when a job is open and before a position becomes available?

Kirsten Wyatt:

You’re absolutely right and that comes down to the equity factor, this idea that if the hiring manager is meeting with one candidate, they could potentially be getting some unfair information. And so often, they’ll just choose to not meet with anybody. And that’s why building your base network before that job even opens is so important, so when that hiring manager sees your name, they’re not having to have that pre-interview meeting with you because they already know you. They’ve met you at a conference or through your writing or through your information sharing and that’s why that network, before you even apply, is so critical.

Mac Prichard:

If a position is open and a hiring manager can’t see you because the rules don’t allow it, do you see candidates reach out to other people inside that agency successfully and have conversations that can be helpful?

Kirsten Wyatt:

Absolutely, and I feel like I spend a lot of time helping connect our members with other people in that agency to learn more about the culture. A great example, we had a member who was interested in working for city government and I knew that he couldn’t realistically reach out to the hiring…the boss, but there were at least five other members in our organization who had worked in that agency and those were great connections for him. And so helping make those connections and learning who had worked there previously and letting them get those perspectives, that’s incredibly valuable. And I think too, government hasn’t started yet consistently using sites like Glassdoor and so we really are relying on word of mouth and network to learn more about jobs.

Mac Prichard:

You mentioned going to conferences, building relationships with managers before positions open up. What are your other networking tips, Kirsten, for people who want to work in government or perhaps are already in the sector and want to move up?

Kirsten Wyatt:

A term that I use almost too much, I think that some of our members want me to stop saying it so often, is this concept of networking for ideas. That when we are trying to find new opportunities it can’t be all about me, me, me. It has to be about the knowledge that you’re putting out into the world and that you’re attracting others to you through that knowledge share. And one of the ways that we do that is through having people write for our organization about their experiences, about things they’re passionate about. So they are taking their knowledge and they’re sharing it with other people and what that does is it grows everyone’s knowledge and worldview about those local government topics. And to me, that’s most important because when you are only reaching out to people because you’re looking for your next step up, there’s an authenticity issue, I think, that comes into play. But when someone is familiar with you because you have freely shared your expertise and knowledge, there really is a trust and there is a confidence in that asking you to come in for that next stage of the interview process, in extending that job offer to you, because you have networked authentically and to create a real relationship and so that is really what I stress. This networking for ideas concept and that is what gets you ahead, I think, in government because it really is a network that’s built on freely sharing information.

Government is the original open source network, nothing we do is proprietary, we can share everything we know. So, if you’re doing that when you’re networking, you’re showing that you’re already going to be a great employee when you’re hired.

Mac Prichard:

What about lack of government experience? Especially for people who are mid-career. Is that a deal killer when you apply for a job with government and you’ve never worked in government before?

Kirsten Wyatt:

Progessive governments, or what I would term progressive governments, are starting to get rid of some of the minimums, experience minimums, with the understanding that experience and performance can come from all sectors. However, in many, many organizations there will be a minimum requirement. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t apply.

For example, I just heard about a city manager who was hired with no city management experience, despite the job application saying that they needed to have ten years. But I think in that setting, the person was able to convey very accurately that they had the skills in their private sector experience to lead a community. And so, I don’t think it should be a reason to not apply but in situations where you have a chance to explain yourself in your cover letter, in your supplemental questions, you need to use that time really efficiently, even more so than somebody who has those years of experience.

The other thing that I stress is, there are so many ways to get some government adjacent experience. So, for example, volunteer for your planning commission, serve on the budget committee, volunteer with your local library. Those are experiences that you can bring to bear in an interview and say, “You know, I have not worked for government but I have worked closely with government in this very important capacity.” And that just goes to show again, that commitment, and that willingness to knowledge share.

Mac Prichard:

I want to take a break. When we come back, I want to talk about applications because, as you mentioned at the start of our conversation, every government might have its own approach and for many people these applications are a puzzle. They feel there might be a secret code in how they should fill them out.

We’ll be back, and when we return, we’ll continue our conversation with Kirsten Wyatt.

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Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Kirsten Wyatt. She’s the executive director of Engaging Local Government Leaders, the acronym is ELGL.

Before the break, we were talking about applications and at the start of our conversation you had said that every government might have its own approach to collecting online applications. There’s an art to filling these out when you apply for a government job, isn’t there, Kirsten?

Kirsten Wyatt:

Absolutely, and I think if you were applying for a job that’s using an online applicant tracking system, so if you’re filling out an online application, it is even more important for you to pay attention to the keywords, and the key skills, and knowledge, and ability that you need to have and include those keywords in your application. Because they, governments, are using some of those keyword searches to line up whether or not your application and your skills match up with what they’re looking for. And it doesn’t mean that if you don’t have those skills and abilities that you should lie about it but it does mean that you should be even more careful about making sure that you’re aligning your work with what the government is looking for. Again, it goes back to making sure that you’re not just using a standard resume and cover letter across every job you apply for. So again, that customization and that formatting to make sure that you are showing why you are the best fit for that job.

Mac Prichard:

Well, private employers use applicant tracking systems and they pay attention to keywords. Is there something different that government does that people should be aware of before they hit that send button?

Kirsten Wyatt:

I think for some positions, you are going to want to pay attention to minimums when it comes to years of experience, type of experience, education, because that could be, especially for larger agencies that are getting thousands of applications, that could be a minimum that they just use to cut off whether or not you can advance in the pool. In very, very large agencies, they’re going to use some type of testing and so getting used to that, becoming familiar with the fact that you might have to take some type of test to advance to the next stage. But ultimately, I think just showing how your experience is practical to that job, because the important thing to remember is that government can’t take the same types of risks when it comes to hiring that maybe a private sector could.

Everything that government does is up for public scrutiny, and if you are making a big hiring decision and going through that lengthy process which can be time consuming and expensive, they want to know that they’re hiring someone they can defend and justify. Whether it’s to a governing body, to the public at large, and so just making sure that you aren’t just, again, taking a standard resume and using that to apply.

Mac Prichard:

I’m glad you brought up the question of risk, it’s a factor that all employers consider but it is more important in the public sector. What are your tips for how someone can present themselves in a way that shows they are…if not the risk free candidate, the person who’s going to…who has the least amount of risk?

Kirsten Wyatt:

I think tying the resume, your skills and abilities and experiences back to the job at hand is key because I think that is what makes…it’s almost like creating a one to one ratio between what the government’s looking for and what you can bring. It’s unfortunate, but there sometimes isn’t that growth period or factor that you can put into a job saying, “Oh you can learn on the job and you can learn as you go.” And it’s especially relevant when we think about jobs that have certifications.

I mean, local government is responsible for public safety. You don’t want your water supervisor to be learning  on the job and so making sure that you have some of those credentials and you can align those well is going to be really important.

For management style jobs, I think, showing knowledge and expertise of what it means to work in a modern day workplace is really important. You know, what it means to be very transparent, very communicative, to be engaging, those are topics that local government leadership is looking for to make sure that they’re hiring people who can come in and adapt and recognize how the changing face of government out to the public, it needs to have somebody that has those skills.

Mac Prichard:

You mentioned supplementary materials, I think this might be unique to government. If you fill out an application often, you might be asked to provide answers to a set of essay questions, for example. Do those supplementary materials matter and how can people make the most of that opportunity?

Kirsten Wyatt:

So, I have heard from so many HR directors that a lot of people skip those questions and I think sometimes, they think that they might be optional or that they might be there on a whim but supplemental questions, in many cases, are helping decide between candidates that on paper, look very similar and so the amount of time and thoughtfulness you put into those answers really matters. It really is your first chance to show that you’ve done your homework, that you’ve learned about the community, that you know what issues they’re facing. You can often even look at the questions and discern, “Well, okay, what are some of their priorities?”

If they’re asking you questions about, for example, diversity, equity, and inclusion, it’s worth your time to go online and find out what is their plan, what has prompted this question? And so it really is your first chance to make a great impression.

Mac Prichard:

For people who might feel constrained by the lack of space, say, in an application form, it’s also an opportunity to address some of those points you were making earlier about your transferable skills and experiences and the perspective that you bring to the position, isn’t it?

Kirsten Wyatt:

Absolutely, and I think it’s also a chance, if you’re making some sort of geographic move, to explain that. To say, you know, you were explaining why you’re moving to Oregon and you were looking for a local government job from Texas, it’s a chance for you to explain…you know, Oregon land use law is very different than what I’ve experienced in Texas and this is a way that I’ve researched that and here’s how I’m answering that question based on that research.

It really is a way to showcase that you’ve done that extra lift that someone might need to know if they’re thinking, why might they apply for a job when they live so far away?

Mac Prichard:

You mentioned the cover letters as well, those matter in these application packets, don’t they?

Kirsten Wyatt:

They absolutely do and again, it is a chance to showcase that you’ve learned about the community that you’re interviewing in. So many times, we’ve heard from our members that they have interviewed people who know nothing about the organization that they’re applying with. They’ve just seen a job and they’ve put their application in. Often, it’s really easy to apply for jobs, especially when you’re using a system, and so using the cover letter to showcase why this particular city or county or district is most appealing to you over another one is a great thing to do in your cover letter. And it’s also just a way to show that you’ve put in a little extra time and effort to understand what that community is looking for.

Mac Prichard:

I want to get to interviews, particularly interview panels, but 2 quick questions about applications before we do that. What’s the most common mistake you see people make on government applications?

Kirsten Wyatt:

I think it’s not tailoring your experience to what the job is looking for. And so if we were just to use a basic example, let’s say you have a background in business or finance and you’re applying for a government budget or finance job. Just putting down the work that you’ve done in accounts payable, accounts receivable, is not going to fly when you have to apply that government position.

You’re going to want to go look at what they’re looking for and making sure that some of the experiences that you’ve had, albeit in the private sector, have some of the same language and terminology that they’re looking for in the public sector.

Mac Prichard:

You have to show, you can’t assume that they read or will interpret this for you.

Kirsten Wyatt:

Well, and let’s be frank, at times there have been people who think, “Oh, I’ve worked in the private sector so public sector is going to be easy.” People who have maybe looked down on public sector work because they’ve worked for a Fortune 500 company and, “Of course, they’re going to want my expertise and they’re going to want my experience.” But people who work for government want to see that you want to be there and that they’re not your second choice or they’re not some fall-back option and so don’t just fall back on an idea that maybe you’ve had some great experience in a different sector. Really take each job as it appears and put your heart into.

Put your all into it and don’t just assume that a different sector’s experience might benefit you if you’re making that jump.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, quickly, what’s your number one tip for filling out a government job application?

Kirsten Wyatt:

Pay attention to keywords and make sure that those keywords appear in your experience. So if you have a job that’s listed that the bullet points or supplemental information about that job includes the keywords that you found in that job application or in the job posting.

Mac Prichard:

Let’s move on to interview panels because that’s a common technique when governments hire people, isn’t it?

Kirsten Wyatt:

Oh, absolutely, it is not uncommon, especially for higher level management positions, for you to interview with up to 3 panels comprised of 4 to 5 people. And so you are expected to go to each panel and to answer their questions, they might be a little bit different in scope or in style and then maybe even end the day with the hiring manager, talking with them specifically about your potential fit in that role. So getting used to this idea of you sitting on this side of the table and 5 people sitting on the other is something to expect, especially if you’re looking at that management level.

Mac Prichard:

Quickly, these panels, they’re very structured often. There’s a set of questions every candidate is asked the same set of questions, often there isn’t a follow-up, so there isn’t an easy give and take.

Kirsten Wyatt:

That is absolutely right and again, what you’ll experience is you’re on one side of the table and person one asks question one and person two asks question two and you’re responding to those. Sometimes there’s a little bit more flexibility, I think government is trying to get better at making them be more conversational but often what’s happening is that there is a sheet for each interviewee and people are filling that out as they come in the room and government doesn’t want to not ask a question to one applicant and then ask it to another and then face the situation where, “Oh, we didn’t get this information from this person and so maybe they don’t rise to the top.”

There really is this need to cover all of that ground and so, again, it can seem exceptionally sterile especially when maybe you even know people in the room and you think, “Why are they going and they’re being so precise about asking me these questions?”

Mac Prichard:

How do you navigate that, Kirsten? Especially if you know people, can you ask questions of your own? Should you try to engage in chit chat before or after? What are your tips?

Kirsten Wyatt:

I think that recognizing that that’s the scenario as you walk into the room and then trying to follow up on things that maybe you said in response to question one when you’re answering question four, I think that’s always appropriate while making it as natural as you can. I think that not being surprised when someone asks you a question and you’ve already answered it in some format. It’s always important to not say, “Well, I already answered that for you.” Because maybe that person wasn’t listening and so using that time to just say, “And to reiterate, I have experience in this, that, and…” However you choose to answer that question.

Use every question even if it is a repeat because again, they’re not doing it because they’re not listening, they’re doing it because they feel like they have to.

Mac Prichard:

But not only do they have to, they’re doing it in the interest of fairness to all candidates.

Kirsten Wyatt:

Yes.

Mac Prichard:

It’s a process they are following and they’re not making it up on the spot.

Kirsten Wyatt:

Absolutely.

Mac Prichard:

What is the best way to follow up on an interview like that?

Kirsten Wyatt:

I have experienced everything from the moment after the interview concludes, the person is in their car writing thank you notes and then they drop them off at the front desk and they’re distributed to the 15 people that served on the panel. I’ve also experienced that the applicant sends an email to say thank you to the HR director/Hiring Manager, and so then that’s shared with the pool.

I don’t think it’s a horrible thing to follow up with the folks that you connected with or that you even knew beforehand and just saying thanks for the opportunity, so it really varies. But as in all interview situations, I think a follow up, just saying, “Thank you for this opportunity”, is just the gracious and kind thing to do.

Mac Prichard:

Tell us what’s next for you, Kirsten?

Kirsten Wyatt:

I’m really excited because we are hosting our first hyper-local conference series this fall. We’re going to be in 25 cities across the country and also in London, England, hosting one hour learning sessions about local government topics. We’re calling it the ELGL road trip and it is scheduled for the week of September 23rd. So we’re probably coming to a city near a Find Your Dream Job podcast listener and so you can learn more about that on our website.

Then, we’re also looking forward to bringing our first ever annual conference now that we’ve become a national organization back to Portland and so we’ll be here in Portland, for ELGL 20 on May 13th – 15th 2020.

Mac Prichard:

You also host a podcast and I know people can learn more about that show and these events by visiting elgl.org.

Well, Kirsten, given all the useful tips you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want people to remember that insiders know about getting a government job.

Kirsten Wyatt:

Working in government is incredibly fulfilling and there is such a wide variety of jobs and opportunities that are out there, and just because you’ve never worked in government before, it should never limit your aspiration or dream of working in public service and so don’t let some of the old fashioned rules, whether it’s paper applications, whether it’s awkward interviews, hold you back from pursuing a career in public service because it’s incredibly rewarding. And so don’t let an old-fashioned applicant experience hold you back from finding that amazing career that allows you to serve others.

Mac Prichard:

Great, thanks for being on the show, Kirsten.

One of the most important points I think Kirsten made was about the importance of networking when looking for a government job. You might think because every position will be posted publicly and every application will be scored by a system that typically assigns some type of numerical score, that it’s all about numbers and process, but people still matter, too.

I think Kirsten did a good job of explaining not only the importance of connecting with people inside a government agency where you want to work, but she also gave advice about how to do it, not only in person but online.

If you’re looking for tips about how to do your networking better online, we’ve got a 3-part video course that can help. It’s called How to Wow and Woo Employers Online. You can get it today. It’s free. Go to macslist.org/wow.

Well, I hope you join us again next week. Our topic is a provocative one: Have you ever left a job interview feeling that you bombed?

But maybe the problem was the employer, not you.

Our guest Pharoah Bolding will explain why this might be so and what you can do about it.

Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

If you’re looking to enter a career where you can serve others and work in a variety of positions, consider working in government. Even if you’ve never held a government position, you can land a fulfilling job with a few strategies. As with most jobs, networking is crucial when trying to land a government job. Find Your Dream Job guest Kirsten Wyatt says that while the application system for government positions can be outdated, you need to shift your focus to what government hiring managers need and outline how you can meet those needs.

About Our Guest:

Kirsten Wyatt is the co-founder and executive director of the Engaging Local Government Leaders network (ELGL). It’s a nonprofit that engages the brightest minds in local government. She works on behalf of ELGL members to connect, communicate, and educate about local government public service, and is also co-host of the GovLove podcast, sharing informative and unique stories about the people, policies, and professions that make up local government.

Resources in This Episode:

  • Tune into GovLove, ELGL’s podcast that shares stories and information about local government work. Discussions range from policy issues that impact local governments, to interviews of the people doing the work and their career journeys, to the future of the government sector.
  • ELGL is hitting the road this fall for a series of hyper-local conferences. Find out more at elgl.org