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How to Switch Careers: Uncle Sam's Appeal

What you need to know to break into a new industry, land a government job or join a nonprofit.

You can’t beat the job security of working for the federal government. A regular paycheck is partly what attracted Justin Harris, 34, to the government. Since last May, he’s been at the Environmental Protection Agency as a program specialist in the Office of International Affairs. Harris works on the China team to help advance EPA goals. What he lacks in environmental experience he makes up for in regional expertise. A native Californian, Harris speaks fluent Mandarin and had been living in Asia for years, working as a recruiter for law firms in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taipei and Beijing. "As the economy started to tank, so did the deals I was doing,” says Harris. “That’s when I thought it would be a good time to look for a government position.”

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Make that a great time. The federal government is expected to hire 273,000 workers over the next three years-and that’s a conservative estimate, says John Palguta, of Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that seeks to encourage public service and improve government recruiting.

The list of openings is impressive. It includes 54,000 in medicine and public health, 52,000 in security and protection, 11,000 in engineering, 12,000 in information technology, and 17,000 in accounting and budgeting. The Treasury Department is expected to hire 16,000; the Department of Justice, 19,000.

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Visit WheretheJobsAre.org to see hiring projections listed by professional field or by agency. Chances are, you won’t have to live in the nation’s capital; 85% of federal-government jobs are located outside of the Washington, D.C., area, and 44,000 of them are overseas. Visit BestPlacestoWork.org to see which agencies have the highest employee-satisfaction scores. (The top three are the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Government Accountability Office and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.)

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Most government-job searches begin at USAJobs.gov, which recently listed more than 31,000 jobs worldwide. The site lets you browse listings by agency, location or occupation, plus learn about special opportunities for veterans. You should also check the Web sites of agencies you’re targeting because not all agencies are required to list openings on USAJobs.gov. These include the Department of State, GAO and Federal Reserve. Job fairs are a good source of leads; scout fairs at www.govcentral.com/careers.

Corporate émigrés may find the federal hiring process arduous and baffling. Vacancies are described in government-ese. You may apply and hear nothing for months, then get an interview, then wait months more. Fortunately, efforts are under way at the Office of Personnel Management to revamp USAJobs.gov to emphasize plain English, provide timely notifications to applicants and fill positions within 80 days of the decision to hire.

Meanwhile, don’t abandon your corporate job-hunting skills, especially the art of making personal contacts. Use the Federal Yellow Book, published by Leadership Directories and available in most libraries, to find names, e-mail addresses and phone numbers for key personnel in every agency. Contact someone who can give you the skinny on working at the agency in the program area you’re interested in. “When I’m recruiting, I reach out to people who were referred to me or sent me a résumé, or whom I met at a conference,” says Kevin Mahoney, associate director of the Office of Personnel Management.

Don’t be too picky. Moving around within the government is easier than getting in. Vacancies that used to attract 10 to 20 applications get 100 or more these days, and agencies fill 90% of senior-executive positions from within. But experienced applicants might enter at a level with the potential to earn between $70,615 and $91,801, plus generous benefits.

Once hired, the challenge is adjusting to the culture. “It’s like going from New York to Tokyo,” says Michael Watkins, co-founder of Genesis Advisers, a leadership-development firm in Newton, Mass. You’ll have to contend with layers of bureaucracy, special interests and maybe the entire U.S. citizenry. But the heady sense of doing Uncle Sam’s work is invigorating. Says Harris: “Before, I’d work with a single attorney at a single law firm with a specific book of clients. Now I affect more important issues.”

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