Capitol Alert

How to get a state job: the exam process

A Department of Real Estate employee (right) talks to a job seeker during a job fair in Roseville.
A Department of Real Estate employee (right) talks to a job seeker during a job fair in Roseville. Sacramento Bee 2001 file

Someone calling up the state’s job-posting website might wonder why anyone would hire a consultant to navigate the application process. There seem to be so many positions available, free for the taking to anyone who applies.

But that’s not quite how it works.

The jobs that pop up when someone types a term into the search engine are not necessarily open to the public. People already in the state application system, who have taken an “exam” to qualify them for a class of positions, can send their resume for a listing that falls into that class. But newcomers have to wait for an exam offering specific to the type of job they want so they can get into the system.

There’s a reason for the state’s job gate-keeping: the exam system is part of a constitutionally required process designed to ensure that state hiring is based on merit.

There are two insider quirks involved in the exam process. The first is that the state’s idea of an exam often isn’t what people experienced in high school or college classrooms. “Exams,” in state parlace, can be multiple-choice resumes, where respondents list experience and skills. Other exams are a lot like interviews, with a panel of people evaluating job applicants’ answers to questions.

State job veterans offer various tips for acing different exams. Doing well matters: Applicants need to score above a certain percentage of competitors in order to be considered for jobs. A high score will shoot you to the top of an eligibility list, even for job-applicant newcomers.

Recounting his own state job application, Jim Zamora, deputy communications director for CalHR, said he counted experience putting together presentations for a volunteer position at his child’s school. That let him answer that he had experience with the presentation software PowerPoint and improved his score.

Things can get more challenging in the oral exams. Michelle Allen, a consultant who helps job-seekers navigate the state system, recalled that one client – an experienced dentist – flunked the dental exam. The failed question? He told examiners at the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation he would keep working even through a staff shortage, a violation of state safety procedures. Applicants are also penalized, she said, for saying they would work overtime or take work home to get a project done.

Allen says it pays for applicants to bone up on a department’s mission statement, protocol, and hierarchy. “Chain of command, chain of command, chain of command,” she said.

Another insider quirk is eligibility. Some exams apply to positions across the entire state, while others only count for a specific location. But CalHR’s Gina Forman says that it always pays to send in an application. In some cases, she said, eligibility from similar exams will transfer over.

Allen added that taking exams outside of the area where someone wants a job – even across the state – can help. Many exams are generic; a DMV exam in San Jose may open up a job in Los Angeles. CalHR recommends calling either their office, in the case of a state-wide classification, or a specific department, to find out the next time they’re planning to open an exam.

Andrew Holzman: 916-326-5545, @andrewlholzman

Related stories from Sacramento Bee