Government v. Private Sector: Why the Same Resume Won't Work for Both
Applying outside of the government is different than when you apply to a government role. This is because the government hiring process is subject to more regulations, different technology, and processes than your typical private-sector employer. This is true at every level of the government - city, county, state, and federal. Here is how those differences translate to your resume when pursuing a government search.
Why the Big Divide?
It is important to first understand why the difference exists between the government and private sector before addressing those differences. Most private sector companies apply a number of factors for their hiring process. This includes qualification for the job, fit, industry knowledge, and relationships. Hiring for many companies can also account for who you know as much as what you know when they evaluate candidates. This is not the case for the government agency that is hiring.
Agencies and departments at every level of government will hire based strictly on qualification for the job. This means that the person screening the resumes will do so based on the explicit language of the resume content. They may also review the additional applications before reviewing the resume to determine whether the person meets the minimum qualifications as set forth on the job announcement. If your answers to the job application questions or your resume do not explicitly articulate the requirements for the position, then you will be rejected. There will be no inferences, no accounting for industry knowledge, or who you know.
On the federal side of the government search and in many states/counties, there can be preferences applied to your application if you meet certain criteria. Preferences in government hiring are provided to groups like veterans, disabled veterans, military spouses, and American Indians. These preferences are weighted differently and are based on complex regulatory requirements. But, they fundamentally serve to give people meeting the criteria a boost over other applicants.
So, how does this difference in screening translate to the resume difference between the government and private sector?
Private sector resumes are much, much shorter than government resumes. Resumes in the private sector are intended to market the candidate for the job that they are applying to. They aren't a historical report, but the private sector resume does have talking points about the candidate's experience in a way that is relevant to the job they are now pursuing. Most private-sector resumes are 2 pages. A few private sector resumes are 3 pages, but those are typically reserved for people in scientific, technical, or high-level executive positions.
Government resumes are much longer. Most federal resumes are at least 4 - 5 pages (if not much, much longer). The resumes for county and state positions can be shorter than the federal resumes. But, they are still typically 3 pages or at least longer than the typical private sector resume. This additional length is to cover the level of detail required to stand out as more qualified than the competition. Most government jobs are extremely competitive. And, many of those positions were put on hold in 2020. So, the competition has only increased. In fact, many government positions will have at least 500 applicants if not 1,000 - 2,000.
Private sector resumes are scanned by applicant tracking systems (ATS). These ATS are different than the systems used by government agencies. There are over 900 ATS that are commercially used currently and even more systems that were built specifically for the employer. Many of these ATS used by the private sector is built on the US Department of Labor's databases including ONET, but some of them have crowdsourced or customized content. Thus, the formatting and the ability of the ATS to scan (and what they are scanning for) can vary considerably.
Government resumes are all scanned by pretty much the same technology. All federal agencies post their positions on USAJOBS.gov. As a result, all federal agencies receive their applicants through the same channels. But, the people beyond that technology process may be screening them differently based on the agency's needs.
State and local governments can receive their resumes through different channels depending on where they are located. All will use their own channels including the state or local job boards that are often powered by the same technologies. These systems are different than USAJOBS.gov. But, they will function similarly and will use much more uniform screening tools than those that are used in the private sector.
The government systems are more uniform in what they are scanning for, but they also have a lot of the same limitations. Meaning that they are not capable of reading complex graphics, heavy formatting, or other visuals on your resume. All government resumes must have straightforward text that is easy to screen for the requirements in the job descriptions.
Private sector resumes are screened by the applicant tracking systems that can all vary in terms of what keywords they will look for. These ATS are also looking for different keywords depending on the systems used by the particular employer and how it has been customized. Thus, you will want to disperse keywords across your resume while also keeping the resume easy for people to find the details that they want to find. You may also need to edit your resume for different keywords for the same type of role at different private sector organizations (or even sometimes at the same company).
Government resumes are screened somewhat by its technology, but they are more heavily reviewed by the people in HR to validate qualifications for the role. This is in part because of the role that preferences play in the hiring process. So, you will want to make sure that all of the required keywords and explicit job requirements are clearly articulated right away on the resume. You will also need to repeat them across the resume in every applicable role. Make sure that you are also putting them at the front of the sections and making them stand out so that the PERSON skimming your resume can quickly spot the important details.
Private sector resumes do not require the same level of detail that is needed for the government sector. As noted above, the typical private sector resume is 2 pages. This is because the private sector resume needs to focus on demonstrating qualification and fit for the particular role/company. You do not need to articulate all of the times that you have done a particular skill in the same way that is required for the government resume. Instead, the private sector resume needs to focus its message more like a marketing piece that positions you as the best candidate for the particular job at the particular company.
Government resumes must contain a lot of detail. Because of the steep competition for these roles and the strict qualification screening process, you must include all of the achievements obtained in each role. You must also articulate all of the skills and experiences gained in the particular role. The additional details about your supervisor, whether it was full-time or part-time, and your level in the organization can also matter for federal applications. The types of details and level of information generally expected for federal roles are explained on USAJOBS.gov here.
Generally, this means that you will not be summarizing anything on the government resume. Every job will need a description with details and all information about the skills, results, and responsibilities must be included. Although the expectation for detail may be shorter at the local and state level, it does not mean that you should skimp on the information. The competition is still quite strong and the hiring process is driven by qualification. Thus, to stand out for the state and local roles, you should still include any detail that could be relevant to the person screening your applications.
Private sector resumes and cover letters can be submitted on a rolling basis. There isn't a hard and fast rule when the application must be submitted. The priority of the role in the organization and the overall demands of the operation may dictate how and when candidates are screened, interviewed, and subsequently hired.
Government applications must be submitted prior to the application deadline. These closing dates are strict and no applications will be reviewed after that closing date. So, it is particularly important to get your materials in before the closing timeframe.
The timing of the deadlines in government hiring is also important to understand in order to most effectively complete your resume. For example, there will be times when you see a quick (like a few days) closing dates. This is typically because the agency must post the role publicly, but they already have an internal candidate in mind for the role. In that case, you should still apply if you are qualified for the role, but getting an interview may be challenging.
In other cases, you will see a shorter timeframe, like a week, for the position. This is a signal that the role is in high demand or that the agency expects a high volume of applications. In that case, it is better to get your application in sooner rather than at the end. This is because the candidate pool may close at a number of applicants rather than just the time deadline.
Finally, there are also government positions that have rolling deadlines. In that case, the position is being hired on an ongoing basis and has less of a priority than other roles. This does not mean that there are fewer applicants. It simply means there is a need to bring qualified candidates in regularly for the role or the agency. This may also be because the position is being hired in multiple locations and all of them need to be filled. In that case, you may need to indicate on your resume and/or cover letter which locations that you are open to when applying.
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