W5+H and C.A.R. (Or My epiphany about the civil service)

When I moved to Ottawa, it was in the back of my mind to jump to the public service at the earliest possible opportunity. Good job, decent pay, excellent benefits (not to mention better hours than in the newsroom) — what’s not to love? And everyone I talked to told me journalists were in extremely high demand for our ability to speak and write clearly. I figured I’d be in like Flynn. History will show, however, that each and every time I start looking for federal government work, there are Conservatives in power who decide the federal government needs fewer workers. (Notice how my layoff coincided neatly with the federal layoffs? All part of the pattern.)

I also discovered a strange phenomenon when I moved here: civil servants were curiously unable to explain how they got their jobs, as if they might have been walking down the street, minding their own business, when they were Raptured by a benevolent public service commission promising steady work and a profitable retirement. Others put in their time as contract workers — Ottawa’s lousy with temp agencies who provide fodder for short-term employment contracts. If the contracting department likes the worker, it will move heaven and earth to hire that person full-time.

But there is a magic phrase that will open the federal government’s tightly clenched doors:  W5 + H and C.A.R. At least, that’s how the leader of a seminar on applying to the public service summed it up.

The trick to a federal job application — when applying online — is using the statement of merit, the “must-have” qualifications and “nice-to-have” qualifications, as invitation to go into excruciating detail about how you fulfil each one. Grade 12 is a requirement? Tell them that you have your diploma, what school you went to, when you graduated, where you placed in the class, what extra-curricular activities you were involved in, and any awards you may have received. Who, what, where, when, why and how. Sure, tell ’em you have a Master’s degree too, why not? But if the ad says Grade 12, that’s what they’re looking for.

If the job description requires you to have experience giving presentations, go all W5+H on that as well — what company, who you presented to, how many, how often. The seminar leader  says to think of the cover letter as a painfully detailed resume, and the resume as a backup that may be used to support it. And don’t worry about an actual letter, no one wants to read your elegantly constructed argument about why they should hire you. Just the facts, ma’am, no fudge. And repeat every key word in the qualifications, because computer scanners will screen you out if you don’t.

C.A.R. — or Challenge-Action-Result — comes into play if the job description requires experience, say, dealing with clients. Don’t just say you deal with clients, and don’t just W5+H your answer — CAR it. Name a challenge, the action you took, and what happened next.

The process has to be this rigorous because the feds  get a huge a volume of applications, my seminar leader says. I’m guessing that in an attempt to appear to be relentlessly fair, the bureaucracy has weighed down the application process to such an extent that it has become unworkable both for the people who need to work within it and for the people who want to join the federal civil service.

Also kind of explains the civil service, doesn’t it? No square pegs in round holes there, baby, they hire all the bests conformists. (Do I sound bitter?) Doesn’t mean they’re unqualified — but it also means that the best candidate could have been screened out for not naming his or her high school. Turns out the public service is full of people who may have made it to the interview process because they were really good at filling out forms. Which I guess really qualifies them for the bureaucracy, come to think about it…

Ground control to any employer…

One aspect of the job search that hasn’t changed since the first time I looked for work is that feeling that I’ve sent my letter out into the void. I imagine myself being in a sort of suspended animation.  (With apologies to David Bowie)  Major Kim sitting in her tin can, completely divorced now from the process. Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing that I can do.

That space between sending the letter out and the response is fraught with self-doubt and second-guessing in direct proportion to how much I want the job. Did I send it to the right address? Am I sure there were no typos in the letter? Did I remember to send my CV? Did I send enough clippings? Did I send the right clippings?

And then there’s the unknown at the other end: the letter could be lost in the mail, or be 101st in a pile where they’ve decided to only look at the first 100 letters. These days, depending on the employer, it could be discarded because it didn’t contain enough of the key words the computer is scanning for.

I’ve worked in a couple of HR departments and in both the secretaries set aside time each week to send out TBNT letters — Thanks, but no thanks. In one office I typed them individually, sometimes adding notes from the administrator asking for more information or referring the person to someone else; in the other I plugged their names and addresses into a computer program that sent out form letters to everyone. But at least those people got letters within a reasonable time span after making their applications. These days, you could wait  forever for an acknowledgment, although I’ve seen a couple of employers now have set up an automated response so at least you know your email has landed.

There are a couple of ways to deal with this. You could sit back and just wait for responses, which is frankly the old-school advice — don’t pester, don’t harass, when they’re ready to talk to you, they’ll call. The other, and you see this in the literature   more and more often is to follow up your application with a call, a few days later. The person at the other end of the phone may have no answers for you, but you’ll have introduced yourself and will have demonstrated your interest. Once you’ve made that call, however, you’ve shown your cards and you are once again left to wait until the hand plays out.

So make yourself comfy in your tin can, and keep looking. Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing else you can do.