Civil Service Careers

You’ve probably heard: “If you can’t do anything else, you can get a job in civil service.” Or how about, “If you have a job in civil service you can’t get fired.” Or, well, you get the message.

Friends, like an old song said, “It ain’t necessarily so!”

That’s what I thought at one point in my life. I had tried several different professions ranging from interior design to furniture sales to fire insurance underwriting. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do any of those things, but they just didn’t satisfy me.

Then someone suggested I try for a job in California civil service. By that time I was so fed up with my other careers I was ready to try anything. I, too, had heard all those bad things, so I thought “What the heck, I can surely get a job in civil service!”

Boy, was I wrong! I applied to take a test for something called “Administrative Trainee,” which was open to college graduates. There was a written test, followed by a personal interview. Nothing to it, right?

Wrong! I had taken my share of hard tests in the past, but the civil service test I took was the toughest I’d ever faced! I sweated, guessed at some answers, and didn’t even finish before the time was up. (I found out later that this was normal and expected, but I didn’t know it at the time.)

Then came the personal interview. Ever heard of the “good cop, bad cop” routine? I didn’t know it then, but that’s what I got. One man looked at me like I was insulting his patience by even being in the room, the other one kept calming him down, suggesting we take a break for coffee, and trying to help me with the answers.

Here’s an example: First man (the “bad cop”): “About 10,000 recent college graduates apply for these positions every year. A thousand pass the test, and of those, we might interview 100. About 10 are hired. Now, Mr. Leatherwood, what makes you think you should be one of those 10?” Gulp. How does one answer a question like that?

However, I managed to say the right things at the right time. I got an interview with one of the state departments, and I was hired on the spot. I stayed with the State of California for thirty years, got a Master of Science degree in Public Administration along the way and made a career in personnel administration and employee/supervisor/manager training. I never regretted a minute of my service, and I feel good about how I spent my life.

I met many bright, hard working people who sincerely and passionately believed that citizens deserve the best government they can get. Of course, there were a few klinkers in the bunch, but then there were slackers and bums in every other field. In fact, compared with some I worked with, I wondered how I had ever been able to get in at all.

How do you do it?

First, understand that civil service is governed by a multitude of laws and rules, most originally designed to prevent politicians from giving cushy jobs to their relatives. You will be required to take a test to determine if the you have the knowledge the job requires, whether it is as a tree trimmer on a highway landscape maintenance crew, a bridge painter, a social worker, or a manager. Tests are designed to be “culture free” so that no one is denied the opportunity to show what they’re capable of regardless of their background.

Next, the civil service classification system is based on job duties. Jobs that have similar duties, responsibilities, educational and physical requirements, and other considerations are given a title, like “Tree Maintenance Worker,” “Staff Services Analyst,” or “Office Technician.” Salaries are based on similar jobs in private industry.

The tests are based on the requirements of the job, and if you pass the test your name is put on an “eligible list.” This means that you are “eligible” to be hired by one or more agencies. (Incidentally, local, state, and federal civil services operate under much the same rules. If you’re interested in one or the other, check out the one you’re interested in for the specifics that apply to that job.)

Naturally, the people with the highest test scores get to the next step �¾ a job interview �¾ first. Sometimes the rules say that only the top three scorers are eligible for hiring, but there are different ways this is done.

The job interview is next. A supervisor or manager has a vacant position he or she needs to fill. The supervisor or manager gets the list of eligible candidates and contacts applicants for interviews, and a decision is made about hiring. Often a number of people are interviewed, so some patience is needed to wait for the answer, which, incidentally, is often the hardest part!

This interview is much like any other job interview. The supervisor or manager asks about your background, education, and similar job experience, and makes a decision about which one of the people interviewed is most qualified to do the work and makes a job offer. If you’re the best one for the job, celebrateÃ?¾ and start your new career!

Where do you go from here?

But where do you go from here? You’ve gotten started, but is that all there is? No. One of the most attractive features of civil service is the opportunity for promotion or even work in other fields.

The common thread is the testing, eligible list, and job interview process. It is generally standard practice for job openings to be posted for everyone to see, and anyone who meets the minimum qualifications (often called “MQs” for short) may apply. The test can be written followed by an oral examination, written or oral only, a performance test to determine ability to do something, or even interview only, depending on the needs of the job. In this way, you can move ahead in a specific career path, or move to a different career path altogether.

But suppose you’re happy in the field you’re in? How do you get raises and promotions? Most civil services have a plan for pay raises based on length of service and satisfactory performance, but these don’t go on forever. These are usually called “step increases,” or “merit salary adjustments” and are usually granted once a year with good performance. No matter what you may have heard, they are not automatic, and if the person doesn’t do the job, he or she doesn’t get the salary increase. Usually after five years there are no more increases because the person has reached the top of the salary range for that particular job.

The next pay issue is what the elected officials at the city, county, state, or federal level vote on during the budget discussions. Overall pay raises for civil service employees may be included in the budget to allow for increases in the general cost of living. However, this is not guaranteed, and many fierce battles have been fought over pay raises for civil service employees. It is not unusual in tough economic times for employees to get a very small increase, or in the worst case, none at all.

The bright spots

After all that doom and gloom, what are some of the bright spots?

Well, for one thing, job security. Unless you are a real doofus or do something illegal, or prove to be otherwise unacceptable, or unless budget cuts require a reduction in the number of employees, your job is secure. Don’t get the wrong idea, though, because contrary to what you might have heard, civil service isnot immune from layoffs!

Bottom line: in the civil service, you’re about as assured of job security as you can get.

Next are benefits like health insurance, retirement, and unemployment. Most civil service jurisdictions have employee benefit plans that rival anything available in private industry, and are sometimes better. Health benefits may include medical treatment, vision and dental coverage, and others. These plans are usually negotiated by the government agencies and unions or other employee organizations and are reviewed frequently. Retirement benefits are usually managed by an independent agency. In California and many other states, for example, that agency is called the “Public Employee’s Retirement System” or “PERS” and is administered by investment and benefit professionals. The retirement benefit systems are not part of civil service or the political process.

Bottom line: Excellent benefits.

One more thing

There is something else Ã?¾ it’s called “job satisfaction.”

Simply, that means you like what you do for a living. You feel good about going to work every day. Many civil service jobs are challenging and demanding with something new every day. You like and admire people you work with (well, most of them anyway!) You believe you are doing something that benefits yourself, your family, your friends, and yes, even your country. You have the opportunity to make a difference. You have the opportunity not only to make a decent living, but also to advance as far as you’re capable of and have the desire to. Most civil services encourage employees to advance, get more education, and move up, and may even provide financial assistance for tuition and books. For example, I never worked for a supervisor who didn’t encourage me to take another test or apply for a better jobÃ?¾ not because he or she was trying to get rid of me, (at least I don’t think so!) but because it was the right thing to do. When I became a manager, I did the same.

I know you’ve heard a lot of horror stories about stupid supervisors, restrictive rules and regulations, poor working conditions, and the uncertainties of politics, but those exist no matter where you work.

Civil service is worthy of serious consideration as a career you will find challenging, rewarding, and satisfying. You may find it difficult to get into, but then anything worth having is worth working for.

As the saying goes, “Check it out!”

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