The State Worker

The State Worker: Finding a state job best left to insiders

Jon Ortiz
Jon Ortiz

If you want to apply online to work at a DMV service counter, you’ll find everything you need to know on

Just look under “M.” As in, “Motor Vehicle Field Representative.“

Want to be a state lawyer? Make sure you search for “attorney.” Even better, “counsel.” The state has about four dozen types: Tax “counsels.” Civil rights “counsels.” Corporations “counsels.” No “lawyers,” though.

Interested in state engineering? There are 238 jobs with “engineer” in the title. Good luck picking through that haystack.

The state is spending about $10 million to fix the search engine and other user-unfriendly features on the jobs website, but that’s just a shallow manifestation of deeper cultural dysfunction. State jobs are shrouded with obscure titles. The hiring process is needlessly complex. Applying for state work means entering a world with its own lingo and code of conduct.

There are many reasons for this, but perhaps none is more vexing than the unwieldy system that has produced about 4,500 state job classifications.

The State Personnel Board used to create and name job classes. But about 35 years ago it downsized and handed that work to departments that used the freedom to draw up tailor-made classes. Many were so similar that “the minute distinctions ... often border on the ridiculous,” the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said in 1995. The proof? More than 750 of the classifications at that time had one employee.

The legacy lives on.

“The state's civil service classification process is antiquated, complex and not terribly efficient,” said Nick Schroeder, the analyst’s state employee expert.

Each classification, no matter how much it overlaps others, has its own examination. That means more tests to fill positions and more costs for the state to process them. Narrowly drawn classifications also inhibit employee mobility and foster organizational tunnel vision about who is qualified for jobs.

But simplifying the system isn’t simple. Which classifications should go away? What do you call those that remain? If you merge them, how do you set qualifications and pay rates for the consolidated class?

Chris Voight, executive director of California Association of Professional Scientists, said recently that years of the union’s class consolidation talks with the state are nearing fruition. The association, which represents about 3,000 employees, wants to abolish 181 outdated scientific classes and boil another 264 classes into half as many.

“It wasn’t easy. There were a fair number of disagreements,” Voight said. “We’re far from done.”

It’s important work because the state, in theory anyway, hires based on merit. But the system is stacked against outsiders. It’s impossible to apply for a state job if you can’t figure out what it’s called or how to qualify.

If you don’t know the secret state civil-service knock, you can’t get in.