Wednesday, April 29, 2009

#124: Working On It

One of the hardest ways to obtain a job with the Government is via an external agency. There’s several reasons for this and right here, right now, I’ll cover a few of them. Just for the sheer hell of it all.

The first thing an external agency will do is make you jump over more hurdles than a 100 metre track final. I kid you not. In a standard Government job the procedure goes something like this: you apply with a cover letter, address the J&P and include a resume. You’ll get a letter either saying your application will be considered or you’ve not made the first cut. If you make the second cut, and are shortlisted for an interview then you’ll get a letter stating so with the time of the interview. The interview will generally be a week after the letter has been sent, so you’ll get a few days to prepare, as is the wont. Do the interview and you’ll either be offered a position or not, and then offered feedback.

Feedback here is an important thing and if offered then you should take it, and it will be offered. However some feedback will be misleading – if the panel was stacked or clearly wanted an internal applicant then the feedback might not be what you’re expecting. It’ll be something along the lines of, “You did really well, however you weren’t successful.” Its then up to you to ask as to where you went wrong with your application or interview. The process can be appealed if you feel that you’ve been taken advantage of, but you cannot appeal the appointment, so be very careful as to what you do next. Immediately after the interview it’s always a good idea to make some notes about how you feel you went. You’ll soon know if you did well or not. Expect to score lower for simple things – I went from first to third in an interview simply because I failed to mention one key point. Seriously. One little point saw me ranked down the list and as such I was offered a pissy contract where I prayed for an extension. Still, that’s another story, but the point here is that if a department is doing its own selection then they’ll generally play fairly. No-one wants the union or anyone else for that matter poking about in their selection process. Too much paperwork and no-one needs that black mark against their name as they’re trying to climb the corporate ladder. Each interview will consist of the same questions and scenarios – there’ll be nothing different. You’ll only be asked questions that are appropriate for the job at hand and no-one is tripped up – it’s entirely fair and equal. Really, it is. Remember that, it’ll come in handy down the track.

An external agency doesn’t play fair, nor does it need to. It doesn’t hate you, it doesn’t care enough to hate you. In fact it just doesn’t ever recognise you, unless you win a position or you can benefit them – but more on the latter shortly. Remember how the process worked a few paragraphs ago? Here’s the same job, with the breakdowns, as done by an external agency:
Application – cover letter, short J&P and resume – all on-line. From there you'll either be...
Shortlisted or rejected via email.
If shortlisted then you’ll be sent a link to an ‘aptitude’ or ‘personality’ test to complete on-line where you’ll be complete a test somewhat akin to being hooked up to a monitor to see how high your midi-chlorian are. From there you'll either be...
Shortlisted or rejected via email.
If shortlisted then you’ll get a phone call to for a verbal interview. This will be conducted by someone reading a script somewhat
Point? They don’t have the time to waste and will rush you through each and every scripted question. These people are paid by the hour with attractive bonuses for each person they get out of the way during the day. Thus they don’t give a crap about your qualifications or questions and will simply ignore anything that isn’t part of the script. They’ll notate your responses and if you answer with the right buzz words then it’s onto the next stage, which is...
Shortlisted or rejected via email.
If shortlisted then you’ll be asked to come into the agency for an ‘assessment’ and interview. By now you’re thinking, “Hang on, I’ve done this already,” and if you are then you don’t know shit. You’ll be asked to put aside a few hours, no exceptions. I once tried to re-schedule one of these due to a combination of a family emergency and a persistent nosebleed that I’d carried throughout the day only to be told that if I didn’t attend then my application would be considered withdrawn. Again, the agency could care less for you.

Once at the agency you’ll be shunted into a room with other idiots, usually between seven to eleven. Nine is usually the number as a few people will invariably fail to attend. Someone will stand there and introduce the agency and patronise you, after which you’ll be given a group exercise to do. My favourite was a murder mystery which I solved within two minutes out of the fifteen minutes allocated only be shouted down by three know-it-all cretins whilst the other five people sat quietly and clearly waited for the agency people to walk back in. I gave up discussing the mystery as the people involved were clearly those ones who believe that the way to shine during such group exercises is to utterly dominate them to the point of violence. Oddly enough my guess of the killer was right, not that it helped. During this exercise you’ll be monitored from another room via camera, and generally laughed at, with the best bits making a blooper tape – even better if someone hauls off and belts the living suitcase out of another participant.

One the group fun is over the group will be divided into two and you’ll generally be shown into another room where you’ll either wait to be called for another interview or subject to either an aptitude or a skills test, or both and possibly a role play. The one-on-one interview is always fun as it’ll involve one of the agency people and hopefully someone from the department who’ll be hopefully hiring you. After three hours have passed you’ll be at the end of it all and you’ll either be...
Shortlisted or rejected via email.
If shortlisted then you’ll be asked to attend another interview, this time with the department you’re applying for. This will be the standard interview and you’ll either be...
Hired or rejected via email.
As easy as that really. Selection via attrition.

Having said all of that here’s the stumbling blocks to watch out for. Agencies don’t need to be fair or equal. They have a rough idea as to who they want for the job and here’s one of the biggest secrets out there, one which, when I reveal it, I doubt I’ll ever land another job via an agency: they cheat for money.

I once applied for a job at a phone carrier in the dark ages when I really needed the cash. I went through the process and did the role play and was stunned. During the role play I was faced with an angry caller who refused to engage with me and basically told me to fuck off no matter what solution I suggested. There was nothing I could do to obtain a positive outcome, so I adopted the ‘angry caller’ syndrome and believing that this was a test of my ability to cope with a difficult customer, gave the three warnings and terminated the call. I then wandered back into the main room where five others waited. We discussed the calls and I learned that four out of the five had very easy calls, easily resolved, no abuse. Myself and one other had abusive, non-resolvable calls. I went home and waited for the inevitable rejection. I stated that I felt that I’d been harshly treated as the assessments were not fair and equal. I was given another chance, same result. It was then that a close friend who was working for an employment agency caught up with me for lunch. We discussed what had gone on and she told me, “Oh, you’d not get that job if you’re not signed to the employment agency.” I asked what she meant and she told me this secret:
Employment agencies exist with the assistance of federal Government funding via Centrelink and other little job network funding. They’re generally paid for each person that they can sign up and land a job for. Thus if you come into the agency for an assessment and are on their books and are successful then your employment can mean a few grand more in funding for the agency. If you come into the agency and land a job and are not signed to the agency then you’re worth bugger all in extra funds. As such they’ll push, and push hard, for the people on their books to gain any form of employment and an even harder push to ensure that those people not on the books to fail. Once the person has failed to gain employment the agency will often contact the person and attempt to sign them up.

Good rort isn’t it? You get your arse it is.

Feedback from external agencies is about as meaningful as hearing a $20 hooker saying that you’re the biggest boy she’s ever seen. They’ll call you and just say, “Sorry, you didn’t get the job,” and cut you off if you ask why. I remember once getting one of these calls and attempting to explain why I did poorly (loss of blood, emotionally charged week) only to have the agency person on the other end of the phone actually say, “Look, I don’t care. I have twenty more of these calls to make before I knock off. You didn’t get the job mate,” and with that he merely hung up. Great feedback. Very helpful. What it did do was ensure that I’ll not go anywhere near that agency again.

Agencies also couldn’t care less for any experience that you might have. Again, just for shits and giggles, in the mid 1990s I applied for my own job via an agency only to be told that I didn’t have any on-the-job experience, despite me having worked in the role for over two years. Go figure.

The lesson in all of this is as follows: if you apply for a position directly via the Government department in question then you have a better than good chance of landing the job. You’ll be treated as fairly as could be expected and despite some of the hurdles I’ve mentioned previously you’ll have a good shot at it, especially if you have the right buzz words as we’ve discussed previously. If nothing else then you’ll get some decent feedback, especially if you get someone who is willing to go through your entire application and offer suggestions as to how to improve your overall application – I once spent an entire hour with a senior manager on the phone as we pulled apart my application section by section. The end result was the next job I applied for, incorporating her suggestions, I landed. However if you go through an external agency then anything can happen. If nothing else you’ll be working hard before you ever get near the job. And that’s entertainment!

More to come.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

#122: Sixteen Tons (Slightly Altered - More Like 14 Tons)

One of the questions I’m asked during interviews these days that often catches me off guard is a simple one, “How do I get your job?” I used to wonder the same thing, but now I just answer with a wry smile, “Trust me, you don’t want it.” That generally shuts people up and returns the attention to where it should be – on the problem at hand. It has got me wondering though, just what have I learnt about getting a Government job?

Nothing. Nothing at all. With that in mind I thought I’d share some thoughts for anyone who actually reads the positions vacant sections in the newspaper and are thinking, “Jeez, I might go for that job.” Here’s the first piece of advice: if it’s a position that involves service delivery then you don’t want the job. Trust me. You don’t need the aggravation.  Sure there’s a lot of people who’ll support you, and there are free headshrinkers on hand if you need them (for a limited time only) but, for the most part you’re screwed and on your own. Deal with it. You’ll soon work out who you can rely on and who just doesn’t care, and you’ll move yourself towards those who care accordingly. The biggest problem is when you work with senior management who fall into the just don't care category. Thus if you’re highly strung, then you don’t want the job. You’re better off cleaning toilets. Less stress and probably better cash. Work as a cleaner, after hours. More fun, and you can use the IPod freely.

Now, if you are silly enough to want to apply here’s the second piece of advice: don’t apply for anything you’re qualified for. If you have loads of experience then the odds are good that you won’t land the job. After all the department you’re applying for already has an entire section full of people who are better than you, and the last thing anyone wants is some smart arse waltzing in big noting about their experience. Get stuffed, no-one cares. They don’t. By all means have a basic understanding of the position – if it’s service delivery then have some background knowledge and experience in that area. However, and here’s the key, if the position is say in housing then a background in social work would be more advantageous than tenancy. If it’s social work then a background in housing or police would be brilliant. Applying for the police? Get a background in social services or, better yet, come straight from the dole office. All of that additional knowledge that you might think is useless is better for you than you think. I mean, Jesus, if you have a basic knowledge in an unrelated field to the job you’re applying for, even a mail-away TAFE degree, then you’ll be guaranteed a job interview. Most panel members are dazzled by certificates and degress. I kid you not. So don’t limit yourself to what you know.

By now you’ve probably picked a job you want to apply for. Now here’s the third piece of advice: go and find a book titled ‘How to Write and Talk to Selection Criteria’ by Dr Ann Villiers. There’s more useful information in that book than anyone can ever want or need. If you follow that book from start to finish then you’re guaranteed to win a position. It’s like the KLF book, ‘The Manual’, in that you cannot possibly fail to land a job, even if it is a short term contract, if you follow exactly what Dr Villiers says. If you do follow it and don’t gain a position then I’ll refund your money – if you can find the book. Here's one example: there’s a good clue in the book to writing selection criteria, it’s an old trick but one that not many people share so here it is. When writing selection criteria remember the following phrase: STAR.
stands for:
Situation: What was going on?
Task: What did you do?
Action: How did you do it?
Result: What was the outcome?
Sounds like wank? Don't you believe it pal. Follow STAR to the letter when you’re writing to a J&P and you won’t fail.

If you’re now sitting there asking just what a J&P is then you might as well leave and go find a porn site. You’ll have more fun.

The kicker is finding out if the job actually exists. Just because a position has been advertised doesn't necessarily mean that it actually exists. A lot of Government jobs are advertised out of procedure, not because a position is actually vacant. Sometimes a job will be advertised that already has someone acting in the position - in most cases the incumbent will be slotted in once the process is finished. Look at the J&P - if it's full of specific jargon then you can be fairly assured that it's not a job at all, it's just paperwork. Call the person listed and ask if anyone is acting in the position. If the answer is yes then you might as well move onto the next advertisement. Don't waste your time on applying for a job you're not going to get anywhere near.

Once you have the interview then the fun starts. Here’s the fourth piece of advice: no-one will tell you this but your chances of landing the job all hinge on your presentation. Seriously. You’ll be told that your application, interview, presentation and referees all count, but the ratio is clearly geared towards your interview. You can walk into an interview knowing absolutely bugger all and ace the job just by knowing exactly what verbs and nouns to say at the right time. A few years back I saw a guy land a job that knew nothing about the job at hand but said all the right things at the interview. He was an utter failure as a worker, but by gosh could he spit out buzz words like they were going out of style. He once sat and spent an entire day just reading emails, such was the level of his incompetence, but because he could say phrases that’d see him win Office Bingo easily in front of the boss he remained where he was. Last time I looked he was still there. Knowledge of the workplace is important, but not as vital as being able to use the right verbs. Dr Villiers book has 180 verbs that you can use in place of words that you normally use. Instead of writing, “I saw a problem and asked a co-worker to fix it,” you’ll soon be writing, “I uncovered a potential situation, and after analysing the error, I advised a co-worker with my recommendations and achieved a suitable outcome.” That works for everyone. The more words the better. Dazzle the panel with paperwork and verbs.

Do your research. Write down a pile of scenarios and rehearse them in front of people. Rehearse them in front of the mirror. I once read that Freddie Mercury would sing and prance about in a room of mirrors just to see himself in action, and look at what he achieved. Other than the fact that he’s now dead, he was, and still is, considered to be one of the greatest entertainers who ever lived. Big bands and artists like Kiss, Coldplay, Pink and U2 tape every show they perform and watch them back on the night of the concerts, just to see what worked and what didn't. You could stand next to Mick Jagger on stage and set yourself on fire and nobody would notice. You don’t think he built that charisma up without rehearsal now do you? Rehearse, rehearse and when you’re sick of it, take a break and rehearse some more. Print out your job application, resume and make copious notes and bring them into the interview. More likely than not you’ll be given the questions beforehand so you can refer to your notes and prepare yourself even more. Use the last two minutes before you walk into the actual interview to clear your head. Think of aphids. That always helps.

Once you’re in the interview room remember what Zaphod told Arthur Dent: Don’t Panic. The people in there are the same as you. They might have had a shitty day already. Get their attention and keep it – the last thing you want to see is someone on the panel looking out the window and wondering what they’re going to eat for lunch. And yes, I’ve had that happen. I once did an interview where I had two panel members in the palm of my hand but the third just couldn’t care. I could have explained the theory of evolution with an emphasis on where Darwin was wrong and proving the existence of Satan but not God and he’d still would have been staring out the window. He only perked up when I turned the interview away from the job and into a philosophical debate about the semantics of art appreciation, Monet vs Manet, Picasso and Daniel Thomas (not the kidnapped Queensland toddler, but the ex-director of the SA Art Gallery). For a split second I thought I’d snared the job, but nope. I couldn’t have done any worse if I’d violently passed wind and attempted to lay all of the blame on a non-existent canine. Keep the panel's attention by making eye contact with them all, read your notes but speak without reading from the page (this is where the rehearsal comes in handy) and if you need a break take one. Have a glass of water. Take a deep breath. Don’t swear; don’t even say ‘Damn’. Keep your language squeaky clean, even if the panel members swear. Don’t get sucked into any traps that a loaded panel will set.

Suck up to the panel but don’t crawl. Some places love hiring sycophants but the bulk of them can’t be bothered. What they want is someone who wants to work badly enough that they’ll overlook any disadvantage that the workplace might bring. Ask questions but, and this is a biggie, if it’s a government job DON’T ask how much you’ll be earning. Only an idiot would ask that. Look at the level of the job you’re applying for (ASO2, ASO3 etc etc) and work it out for yourself. Asking starting salaries shows that you’ve not done your homework. By all means ask when the position will be filled and if the starting date is set. That’s fair.

Always remember that no mater how good you are, no matter how good you present, there will be panels who know exactly who they want to hire. Even if that person isn't that good, but answers the questions with the right dot points then they'll be hired over you. The feedback will be something along the lines of, "You did really well, and we'd like to offer you a short term contract, but you were pipped at the post." This kind of a panel is referred to as being a 'loaded panel'. The loaded panel is set with co-workers and/or immediate line managers who want a contract worker win the position. If you get into the workplace you'll soon discover where you really came in the merit list just by talking to the winner. If they're a dud then don't be upset, that's life in the Government - things are rarely fair and equitable, and always remember, positions are filled by the panels recommendations and the managers discretion. Both of those bows bend a fairly long way and are broader in scope and definition than most highways.

Be careful what you wish for - you might just get it.

Now that your brain is overloaded I’ll leave it there and come back later with more insider tricks…wait for it.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

#121: Baby Got Back

Overheard on the radio the other day;
CENTRELINK DUDE: Feel free to phone in and ask me anything.
CALLER: Yeah, can you tell me how old a kid has to be before the parent moves from the pension to NewStart?
CD: That’d be…oh, between the ages of 5 and 7.
CALLER: So, 6 years old then.
CD: I’d have to check that, but I think you’ll find it isn’t 6 years old; it’s between the ages of 5 and 7.
CALLER TWO: This new stimulus baby payment - the one for the family tax benefit?
CD: Yep.
CT: How are you eligible?
CD: You have to have been in receipt of FTBA in the first week of February.
CT: My wife just dropped another kid two weeks ago. Can we get it?
CD: Well, probably not, as the child wasn't born in January.
CT: Why can't we get it retrospectively? It's not like we wanted it. Oh well, at least we get the baby bonus.
CD: I'm not sure how to answer that.
No wonder you can’t get a straight answer from them when you phone, if that’s the level of the senior public relations staff. Still, you do hear some amusing things while driving along on the way to be abused...