AT WORK FOR THE FEDS
by Ken OíSullivan

While the most recent statistics on federal hiring of people with targeted disabilities are not altogether inspiring, they don't really tell the whole story. We are now in a period of abundant opportunity for anyone interested in a career in federal service. The fact is, for individuals with the right knowledge and some determination, there could hardly be a better time.

First, let's gather some perspective. Every year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) publishes an annual report on the state of federal employment. In fiscal year 2008, the latest year for which comprehensive figures are available, there were almost 2.7 million civilians employed by the United States government across the country and around the world. Over the last 10 years the percentage of individuals with targeted disabilities in federal service has been dropping steadily. According to the most recent statistics, the number stands at 0.88 percent of the total workforce. For most of the last 10 years, the Department of the Treasury has been at the top of the statistical heap. Treasury employs over 105,000 people. Of that total, 1.73 percent have a targeted disability, and 0.43 percent are blind. (For the record, the EEOC does not refine its statistics to include separate entries for blind and partially sighted individuals.) Rounding out the top five are the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Education, Labor, and Housing and Urban Development. The Department of State brings up the rear with blind folks making up only 0.05 percent of its total work force.

Leadership for the Employment of Americans with Disabilities (LEAD) is the EEOC's initiative to address the decline. The goal of the program is to significantly increase the number of individuals with severe disabilities employed by the federal government.

Basically, EEOC's efforts are aimed at educating both federal hiring officials and prospective applicants about how best to use special hiring authorities. The commission also supplies information and resources on recruitment, hiring, and providing reasonable accommodations.

For a better understanding of today's federal hiring, I turned to an expert, Julia Zanon, who is thoroughly familiar with the nuts and bolts of the matter. Zanon is a vocational rehabilitation counselor working for the state of Colorado. She holds a master's degree in the field, and has been in her current position for more than 20 years. "My job is to assist individuals with disabilities to become employed. I specialize in working with individuals who are either blind or visually impaired."

Zanon has noticed a change in the way things are done. "I'm seeing, just within the past year or so, a much bigger push, a much better effort to help hiring managers get on board and understand the process."

She speaks of the government's long-held but never attained goal of having people with targeted disabilities comprise fully 2 percent of its work force. "I think what I'm seeing now is that there is a recognition within the federal government that they haven't been doing a very good job of communicating with their hiring managers about this initiative and about the process of Schedule A certification, and how people with disabilities can go through a non-competitive process."

Schedule A authority is a powerful and important tool. Until fairly recently, it has been underutilized and poorly understood. So ... what exactly is Schedule A? In principle, it's a rather simple matter. Schedule A applies only to federal hiring, and not to the private sector. To be covered under Schedule A, job seekers must provide documentation that they have a severe disability, such as missing or deformed limbs, hearing loss, or, of course, visual impairment.

Zanon describes it this way. "Schedule A is a process whereby a person with a targeted disability has the opportunity to apply for and be considered for federal employment without having to go through the competitive process. So all they need to do is to find out about a job, if they see a job posting or even if they contact a hiring manager to find a job, they can apply for that job and not have to compete with people who donít have disabilities. It doesn't give them priority for hiring; it gives them the opportunity not to be screened out at the competitive level."

One exceedingly valuable resource in the job hunting arena is the USAJobs Web site. Administered by the Office of Personnel Management, the site bills itself as "your one-stop source for federal jobs and employment information." Job seekers can learn about trends in federal hiring, and search for jobs by agency, occupation, and location. The site also allows users to build and store up to five separate resumes. The site's home page has plenty of helpful links for getting up to speed.

Running a job search brings up a list of openings. The number of openings listed depends on the scope of the parameters used. Each individual listing includes the job title, description, location, and salary range. Clicking on the title of a given job takes the user to a dedicated page with all the necessary information from "overview" to "how to apply." Best of all, contact information is provided for a person who can help with special hiring authority issues and requests for reasonable accommodation.

Needless to say, teaming up with a vocational rehabilitation counselor is a definite plus. But the assistance of a hiring professional is not a requirement. Zanon advises those who go it alone that a close working knowledge of JAWS, or other adaptive software, is quite useful in navigating the USAJobs web site.

I asked Zanon about the quality of her experiences working with the federal government as a whole; she quickly set me straight. "To clump the federal government into one big group isn't fair to them, because the federal government is just like any other private agency or public agency. There are different units, and different hiring managers, and different agencies work differently. I may have a really great relationship with one agency, and maybe not as great a relationship with another agency or hiring manager. My experience has been that certain agencies have ben really promoting and sending us job openings and talking with us, and returning calls and accepting applications. So some of the agencies have been great. Other agencies have been harder to contact. I think it's really about people."

She cautions against looking for a quick or easy path to federal employment. "If there's something that you really want to do, there isn't any easy process. There's no quick and easy way to get anything, including a job with the feds. Most of the responsibility is on the person to be willing to put in the work, to do the research so that they get the outcome they want. It's not to point the finger at the feds and say 'it's their fault.' Each one of us has the responsibility."

Job seekers or anyone interested in the issues raised here can access a wealth of information via the Internet. The www.usajobs.gov site maintains a broad listing of available jobs across the federal government. The Office of Personnel Management has abundant resources at www.opm.gov/disability. EEOC's web site (www.eeoc.gov) is packed with news, special reports, information and guidance. It covers both public and private sectors.

Good luck Ö and happy job hunting.


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