Public sector engineering jobs can provide fulfilling careers. Public employment offers great benefits, competitive salaries, support of career development, and licensure, all while offering a wide range of technical, policy, and leadership opportunities. That said, sometimes it’s hard to know where to start or how to get your foot in the door.
I am a professional civil engineer with 30 years of experience in both the public and private sector. A lot has changed over my career but many of the principles are the same, and I want to share some tips to help you be successful in pursuing your career in public service.
First of all, public employers usually follow a “civil service” hiring process, which is a structured process for recruiting and selecting employees. The process can seem long and difficult, especially if most of your experience has been in the private sector. However, the process has its roots in fairness in public employment and is easy to navigate once you know the system. Jobs are first announced to the public through the agency’s website. Federal public sector jobs are posted on https://www.usajobs.gov/ and states also usually have centralized recruitment, so do a web search for your state’s job site.
We often think of the federal government or the state, but of course there are local public works departments, utilities such as water and wastewater agencies, and public sector gas or power companies that employ a civil engineer. Rather than starting on the big job websites, think about agencies that you’re interested in and go to their websites. Find out more about them and bookmark their job page.
Agencies usually post jobs weekly, often on a Monday. Make it a habit to go every week to see what’s available. Once you see a job that interests you, apply! Most agencies have an online application that requires entering information into their system and answering supplemental questions. Often résumés are not accepted, but of course your on-hand résumé provides most of the information you’ll need. To be successful, t’s important to keep a few things in mind. Applications are judged against criteria that have been established by the agency, and your goal is to make sure your application meets the qualifications and demonstrates the required experience. Take time to review the job description in detail and understand what duties and skills are required. Then think about your own experience, and, for the application, describe your experience using those terms. You do of course need to be truthful, but you want to be clearly understood and have your experience shine.
For example, the job announcement might indicate that, among other requirements, the ideal candidate has “Administered public bidding for major capital projects, prepared and supervised the preparation of contract documents, led pre-bid conferences to explain project objectives and reviewed bids.” Your public sector experience may not have given you that full range of experience, but make sure to emphasize any work that you have done with preparation of design plans and specifications. Also highlight any project informational meetings you have led.
If there are supplemental questions, read the questions carefully and formulate a response that exactly addresses each question. Be clear and concise and stick within the word or page limit. If the application asks for a résumé, take some time to customize your own standard résumé in the same way. Again, describe your experience factually and in terms that will be understood by the public agency reviewers.
The truth about the public sector hiring process is that it takes a long time. Sometimes you might have to wait several weeks or over a month to hear back. Be patient and you should be contacted for the next step.
The next step is often a panel interview. Whether in person or virtual, you will be asked a set of standard questions that are judged against a rubric. The questions tend to be similar to those in the original application and focus on asking about your experience with respect to the job qualifications. Prepare ahead. Think about possible questions and have answers ready that describe your experience in technical areas and project management. Be prepared also to demonstrate your leadership abilities as well as supervisory and management skills, as appropriate for the position. Be as specific as possible. It is important to make your role clear. Be truthful about what you did and avoid saying “we did ….” Or that “the team did ….” Instead say what you yourself did and what the outcome was. If you were in a team, talk about what you did and your collaboration with the group.
For example, instead of saying “I have experience in structural design for pumping plants as part of a team, ” you might say “I was the lead civil engineer for the $3.5 million North Pumping Plant Rehab project. I reviewed and approved calculations completed by an assistant engineer and prepared site, basin, and equipment layouts. I led weekly project meetings to coordinate the structural, civil, mechanical, and electrical designs. Ultimately the project was bid one month ahead of schedule and the design was completed within the allotted budget.”
Once you’re past this step, you will be ranked and hopefully be invited to a hiring interview. The hiring interview is similar to and prepared for the same way as the panel or any other interview.
Depending on the market, competition for jobs can be tight. If you are very interested in the public sector, apply for all the jobs you can. The experience will help develop your skills, and as with any job search, eventually you will find the job where you are the best fit. Best wishes on your application process. If you have specific questions, please feel free to reach out.
Elizabeth Bialek, PE., M. ASCE, is an engineering manager at the East Bay Municipal Utility District, a water and wastewater agency that serves 1.4 million customers in the East Bay Area of Northern California. She oversees engineering services – including civil, mechanical, and architectural engineering – as well as basic electrical engineer, geotechnical engineering, materials testing, specifications, cost estimating, CADD systems, mapping, and geospatial data management. Elizabeth also serves as chair of the ASCE Committee on Developing Leaders and is a member of the Region 9 Water and Environment Committee.
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