Top 10 Treacherous Traps to Federal Employment for Veterans and Spouses


Why is it so hard for veterans and military spouses to get a federal government job? It should be easy. USAJOBS has 17,000 open jobs right now. Another 900 jobs pop up every day. Special hiring authorities are even designed to hire more veterans.

Surely we ought to be able to fill out an application, upload it, toddle off to the interview and start working on Monday. Unless Monday is a federal holiday. Then we will start work on Tuesday.

Instead, the road to federal employment is full of treacherous traps for veterans. Here are the top 10 traps that might be knocking you off the employment path before you ever get to the federal job you want (plus the 10 ways you can escape).

Trap 1: The Backup Plan

Is government employment your secret backup plan during military transition? As the transition master coach for's Veteran Employment Project, so many veterans tell me federal employment is only their backup plan. This is a trap because it saps your will to do all the work it takes to secure government employment.

Escape! Remind yourself the government doesn't want to be anyone's backup plan. It wants to attract people who think their job in government is full of meaning and opportunity. Escape the trap by writing down why government work is attractive to you and posting it on your computer.

Trap 2: The Good Trait Discount

There are three particularly attractive personality traits for people working in government: They are prepared, persistent and meticulous in their work. Because you are surrounded by people with these traits in the military, you fall into the trap by discounting these traits as common.

Escape! Pass by this trap to federal employment by thinking through your own personality. How have you had to be meticulous, persistent or detail-oriented? Can you think of something that happened on the job that demonstrates how you can create order from chaos? Or how you had to prepare for an upcoming challenge? Jot those down to use on your resume and in your interviews.

Trap 3: Defense Goggle Blindness

So many vets get on the path to federal employment wearing their defense goggles. They can't see any jobs for themselves, except for those in the Department of Defense or Veterans Affairs.

Escape! Take off your defense goggles and look at agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, where veterans find success in areas like:

  • Food inspection and public health
  • Criminal justice
  • Soil conservation
  • Contracting and procurement
  • Information technology
  • Firefighting
  • Finance
  • Economics
  • Public affairs

Trap 4: The Icarus Curse

Another trap a lot of veterans and spouses get caught up in during their quest is the Icarus Curse. You remember the story of Icarus, that Greek guy who flew too close to the sun? Same thing happens with veteran hiring.

Veterans are more likely to aim too high in federal employment, because we think it shows confidence and adaptability. It seems like the natural step after all the responsibility of military service. Makes perfect sense.

The feds don't see it that way. Instead, when you apply for a job that the feds think you aren't qualified for, they kick you out of the process early.

Escape! To avoid this trap, adopt the magic words: Get in. Fit in. Expand.

Take one step back to get into the federal system. After you are hired, really work on figuring things out and fitting into their system. Then look for ways to expand up.

Trap 5: The 'Could Do' Detour

Closely related to the Icarus Curse is one of the worst traps of federal employment: the "could do" detour; as in, I could do that job.

Of course, you could. But spending time applying for jobs you could do is a monumental waste of time on your federal employment journey.

Escape! Stay on the path to federal employment by remembering the rule of thumb for government service. You should be looking for a job in which you have already done 80% of the things listed in the duties section -- or something like them.

Trap 6: The USAJOBS Maze

One of the constant complaints I hear from veterans and spouses is how they go through a huge maze of steps on USAJOBS, only to find out at the last moment that they are not qualified because they haven't pickled peppers or they don't have three years of experience with molten lava.

Escape! The secret here is to start at the center of the maze by finding the self-assessment questionnaire in the job listing. It is usually located in a live link in the "How You Will Be Evaluated" section. Take the assessment before you apply to find out whether you are a good fit for the job. This assessment is also a rich resource, because it is packed with the keywords the hiring manager is looking for.

Trap 7: The Mind Reader

In the federal government, your assessment will be judged by a computer, but your resume is judged by a real, live person: the human resources specialist. They are not a mind reader. They do not know your job in the military. They do not know much about the government job. They cannot be expected to see your resume and automatically know where you fit in.

Escape! Recognize that when you build your resume, you need to show exactly how the work you did is the same kind of work that is being requested in your target job. Use the keywords in the job listing to head your paragraphs and then use your STAR statements to illustrate your experience. More is always better.

Confused about federal resumes? Watch our FREE How To Write A Federal Resume Master Class.

Trap 8: The Career Obituary

Veterans and spouses think they are supposed to write a federal resume. You start at the top with your name and contact information, then write for hours until you finish at the bottom. This ends up reading like a professional obituary, not a carefully constructed argument that you are the most obvious hire ever.

Escape! Never write a resume again. Build it like a brick wall instead. First, use the resume builder on USAJOBS, because it makes you include all the information the government requires for each job. Next, insert the keywords and requirements from the federal listing like bricks. Use all caps so the HR specialist can find them. Then slather on your experiences like mortar to fill in the details.

Trap 9: Interview Wings

You are good at talking about yourself. You know your career by heart. It is natural to think you can wing it when it comes to an interview. This is a treacherous trap that leaves you out in the cold.

Escape! Here is where you can avoid that trap: Practice with a real, live person. Use the job listing as the interview tool. Ask your partner to ask you to tell them about your experience with each of the keywords. This method forces you to think of your answers ahead of time. Even more importantly, it helps you tell a concise, compelling story.

Trap 10: Ignoring Magical Veteran Powers!

Being a veteran really matters in the federal government. Veteran hiring policies are designed to find and hire you. Magical veteran powers do not work if you don't turn them.

Escape! Be sure to upload your resume on USAJOBS and include your veteran status. Then click the button to make it searchable so government recruiters can find you.

The road to a well-paying, secure, meaningful government job might be hazardous with hidden traps. The more you walk that road, the more clever you will be about avoiding these traps and walking straight into the federal job you want most.

Jacey Eckhart is's transition master coach. She is a certified professional career coach and military sociologist who helps military members get their first civilian job by offering career-level Master Classes through our Veteran Employment Project and on her website Reach her at

Learn More About the Veteran Employment Project

The Veteran Employment Project is's FREE collection of classes, videos and instructions helping veterans and spouses find their next high impact job. Questions for Jacey? Visit our Facebook page.

Story Continues