Corps to Career: How I used noncompetitive eligibility to get a federal job

By Matthew Kennedy
Dec. 12, 2016

After my close of service conference concluded, I returned to site and started thinking about my career.

I was confident that with a strong description of service letter and previous experience, I would be considered gold when applying for jobs that would allow me to continue working abroad, especially in the foreign service. I had language skills, experience with the government, the educational background to meet the requirements and the passion to be a great candidate for these positions.   

Three months after returning to the United States, I was still searching for work. I began to wish I had started applying while still serving in the Peace Corps, as soon as I had received my description of service letter. I hadn’t realized that time is of the essence for Peace Corps noncompetitive eligibility (NCE), and that the federal hiring process can be lengthy, particularly for jobs requiring a security clearance. Trying to apply my NCE was turning out to be a little more difficult than I had imagined. My re-entry money was running out, and I didn’t want to settle for a job I wasn’t passionate about.  

A Peace Corps career conference came to Denver, and I decided to attend to see what I could improve upon. That conference changed everything. It provided sessions on résumé writing and interviewing, and at the end there was a career fair with government agencies interested in Peace Corps Volunteers. However, the most important aspect of that conference was a presentation about NCE that included a lot of information my close of service conference had only brushed over; including registering your application (including your NCE and description of service) with USAJOBS so federal employers can find you. It was here that I learned just how big a boost NCE can give to returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) looking for careers within the federal government. 

I had a strong desire to stay in the international field after experiencing life abroad in the Peace Corps and applied for jobs with the asylum office, immigration and the foreign service. At the career fair I learned that competition for international jobs/posts is extremely intense. However, I also learned that securing a job in the civil service at the Department of State offered an alternative pathway to entering these international positions.  

I began submitting applications to civil service positions and immediately got phone calls asking for interviews. One of those calls came from the Minneapolis Passport Agency. The hiring team said they were excited about hiring recently returned Peace Corps Volunteers; about 40 percent of the agency’s new hires were RPCVs with active NCE. 

“I feel very fortunate to have a strong Peace Corps presence in our agency," said Randall Merideth, director of the Minneapolis Passport Agency. "RPCVs offer a positive energy, a strong work ethic, foreign language skills, and cross-cultural sensitivity.”   

Personally, I was very candid about my career goals and to my surprise, Director Merideth told me, “I understand that you have a career goal in mind. These entry-level positions are just that, an entry into federal work. I like to get driven, young candidates in, give them strong training, get three to five good years with them and help them identify the right path to get them where they want to go in their careers.”

I took the position hoping I would get adequate training to prepare me for a federal career; however, what I received has far exceeded anything I imagined. Working for the Minneapolis Passport Agency has not only given me a great start to a career in the federal government, it has also provided me several other benefits. These include access to the federal student loan repayment program, free online courses for university credit, amazing health insurance and an individualized career development plan. I learned I can apply my time in the Peace Corps to my retirement and vacation accruement schedules. One of the most exciting benefits is the special option that allows civil service Department of State employees to apply for the foreign service in as little as three years through the Mustang Program.  

Currently, NCE for Peace Corps Volunteers isn’t as widely understood within the federal government as the Peace Corps and many hiring managers would like it to be. Unlike military veterans, who benefit from special hiring authorities for life, Volunteers are granted a single year of NCE, which under special circumstances can be extended to three years. In the past, many federal human resources departments have not been familiar with NCE policies for Volunteers, making it difficult at times for applicants to take advantage of the benefit.  However, more and more hiring managers are working to promote this program by educating colleagues about NCE policies.  

Arnold Chacon, director general of the Foreign Service, led the charge to have the State Department inducted as an Employer of National Service in December 2015: “Alumni from Peace Corps and VISTA have long held a strong presence in the Department. They bring unique experience to the workplace and are able to tackle problems by thinking outside the box. Their broad skill sets are invaluable in government agencies working to address international issues and interact with diverse cultures. This holds especially true when maneuvering sensitive intercultural situations that are occurring more often in our globalizing world. These qualities embody the core values Employers of National Service are looking for in their workforce.”   

Personally, I would like to give a few pieces of advice to current and returned Volunteers looking to establish a career in government: 

  • Educate yourself about NCE. Check the Peace Corps website for job postings and contact your Peace Corps country director while abroad. Call Peace Corps representatives when you return home. Go to Peace Corps-sponsored career fairs that feature employers looking for candidates with NCE and ask returned volunteers how to utilize your NCE.
  • Have a career goal in mind and keep an open mind on how to get there. Many positions have different pathways that feed into them. For example, I was surprised to discover that many passport specialists are able to transition into a wide range of other agencies because of the investigative, administrative and customer service skills they acquire on the job.
  • Remember to advocate for yourself and your dreams. One of the most valuable outcomes of Peace Corps service is discovering your strengths and weaknesses. Consider where you would feel satisfied using your skills and experiences, and work to clearly convey your career goals to hiring committees.  

Best of luck to all of the Peace Corps Volunteers still working in the field, and do consider exploring career options with the federal government as you finish your service!  

Matt served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Madagascar.

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