Say the words “government job” and tell me what pops into your head.

Seat of government in Canada

The government: Canada’s biggest employer

Most likely, it’s the image of a dark, dreary cubicle farm. Zoned-out people are hunched over their desks, head in hands, suffering through an excruciatingly boring purgatorial existence until they finally get their pensions.

But a career in public service can be a lot more fun.

How about a job diving under Arctic sea ice? Or, for something more relevant to our IT-oriented readers, what about developing new digital communications systems for first-responders and Canadian troops overseas?

Federal and provincial governments, the focus of this blog post, are like big companies in terms of their IT infrastructure. They use industry-standard software, have networks, servers, ERP systems and websites. And they need people, from software developers to network admins to database specialists. Just like everyone else.

There is, however, a significant difference in the corporate culture of the public and private sectors. Before getting to those, let’s look at some of the pros and cons of working for the government.

Pros:

  • Excellent benefits packages
  • Flexible working arrangements
  • Stable employment

(And unless you’re on the management side, of course, you’ll probably count having a very strong union as another benefit.)

Cons:

  • Generally speaking, lower pay compared to similar private sector positions
  • Slower career advancement
  • Bureaucratic processes that can interfere with your work

Plans and processes

The hoops that government employees have to jump through to get things done has often been the subject of mockery. And it’s not hard to see why. Before a simple message is released to the public, for example, it might have to be approved by a dozen people and undergo multiple revisions.

Changes to internal IT infrastructure, especially large-scale restructuring projects, are similarly approached with extreme caution and can take a long time to get done. This can feel very stifling to people with innovation in their blood.

But while we all like to beat up on the government for its “incompetence” and “foot-dragging,” there is a legitimate reason to do things this way. Just as our justice system has to operate strictly by the book to maintain the respect of Canadians, our government has a lot of rules to follow, and breaking them can have major consequences.

Foot in the door vs. note under the door

I think by now you can figure out whether a government job is for you. Are you generally risk-averse? Are you patient, and not easily frustrated? Is job stability more important to you than rapid career growth?

If you answered ‘yes’ to those, it could be that a job in public service is for you.

So, let’s begin with job applications. The single most important thing to understand about how governments hire people is that they do not take well to the aggressive push-your-way-in approach. This might earn you points with certain private firms that admire your persistence and audacity, but the government is notoriously sensitive and needs to be treated with kid gloves.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a lively and engaging resume. But avoid appearing overly-confident or boastful about your accomplishments. Government work is all about meeting specific goals in a certain way, so above all, your resume should be tailored to mirror expectations. Substance: that’s what will get their initial attention — not style.

Then we come to the job interview, which can be quite different from the kind you may be used to in the private sector. For instance, to get a job in the federal government, you’ll normally have to go through a formal competition process that evaluates your skills against other candidates. Officially, this is a mechanism to ensure fairness, a hiring process based on merit and not influenced by personal connections.

Of course, it doesn’t always end up that way, but the reasons for that are beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that if you want a permanent IT job in the federal or provincial governments, you’ll probably have to go through such a competition.

Like most interviews, you’ll be asked about your experience, strengths and weaknesses, and goals. But it’s essential that you meet their list of requirements, regardless of the impression you make in person. This may seem overly rigid or even silly, but again, government is all about processes.

Epilogue: Be patient

In contrast to some energetic private companies that will appreciate an e-mail or phone call post-interview to inquire about your application,  government can be a little touchy about the follow-up.  There’s nothing wrong with sending a ‘thank you’ note, but pestering them is a definite no-no and won’t help you one bit. So don’t bother.

Just to hammer the point in once last time: personality doesn’t cut corners when you’re dealing with the government.

Some helpful links

Here are government job sites that can get you started:

Canada: http://jobs-emplois.gc.ca/

Ontario: http://www.gojobs.gov.on.ca/Jobs.aspx

Alberta: http://alberta.ca/jobs.cfm

British Columbia: http://www.employment.gov.bc.ca/

Manitoba: http://www.gov.mb.ca/govjobs/

Saskatchewan: http://www.careers.gov.sk.ca/

New Brunswick: http://www2.gnb.ca/content/gnb/en/gateways/employment.html

Nova Scotia: http://www.careerbeacon.com/corpprof/govns/govns.html

Prince Edward Island: http://www.gov.pe.ca/psc/index.php?number=1032581

Quebec: http://emploiquebec.net/index.asp (French)

Newfoundland and Labrador: https://www.hiring.gov.nl.ca/Default.aspx

Yukon: http://employment.gov.yk.ca/

Northwest Territories: http://www.hr.gov.nt.ca/employment/

Nunavut: http://www.gov.nu.ca/hr/site/jobs/index.shtml

 

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