Hiring Window Is Open at the US Foreign Service
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Tue Dec 23 18:10:03 UTC 2008
December 21, 2008
Hiring Window Is Open at the Foreign Service
By EILENE ZIMMERMAN
A RARE bright spot has appeared in a job landscape dominated by
layoffs: the Foreign Service. For the last several years, hiring in
the United States Foreign Service was minimal because of a lack of
Congressional funding. In addition, war has created an urgent need for
diplomatic personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as officers have
moved to these countries their previous jobs have remained unfilled.
So, in the last several months — with a new president on the horizon
and new funding from Congress — both the State Department and the
United States Agency for International Development, or Usaid, are
ramping back up.
A supplemental war funding bill, which became law in June, has
provided money for Foreign Service hiring. And President-elect Barack
Obama "has talked explicitly about the need to increase the Foreign
Service and we hope he will make that a priority," said John Naland,
president of the American Foreign Service Association, the
professional association and labor union representing career
The State Department has asked for funding for 1,500 new positions for
the current fiscal year. Of these, roughly 800 are Foreign Service and
700 civil service, said Luis Arreaga, director of recruitment,
examination and employment at the department. Many of those positions
are being filled because of attrition but about 160 are new. "We
consider that a down payment," said Mr. Arreaga.
Felix Salazar, hired as a junior officer by the State Department in
September, said that during the interview process he felt "a sense of
urgency, that they were actively hiring and really valued my
experience." Mr. Salazar, who spent three years in the Peace Corps,
leaves in February for his first posting, in South Africa.
Not everyone is cut out for Foreign Service work, which can be
stressful and highly demanding. About two-thirds of a diplomat's
career is spent overseas; officers usually move every two to four
years and can be exposed to dangers like disease and war. The State
Department offers a suitability quiz for prospective applicants on its
Yet career diplomats like Ronald E. Neumann, a former ambassador to
Afghanistan who now heads the American Academy of Diplomacy, called it
the best job in the world. "I enjoy what I'm doing now but it's
nothing like working on foreign policy," he said. "In my 37 years of
service I may have gone home tired or frustrated with how a decision
came out, but I never went home and asked myself if what I was working
on was worthwhile."
Applying for a job with the State Department involves written and oral
examinations. Those who pass the oral exam become conditional officers
and receive a ranking score based on oral-exam performance and
language skills. The higher the rank, the sooner they will be
Of the 12,000 to 15,000 people who register annually for the written
exam, about 450 officers are hired, said Frank J. Coulter, management
officer with the Foreign Service and a member of the State
Department's board of examiners.
The first time he took the written exam, Mr. Salazar failed, after
running out of time during the essay portion. He was so determined to
pass that he spent the next year writing an essay in 30 minutes every
day. "When I took it the second time and got my results, it actually
sent chills down my spine," he said.
New Foreign Service officers at the State Department choose one of
five career tracks: consular affairs, economic affairs, management
affairs, political affairs or diplomacy. No matter the track, all
entry-level officers spend their first several years working in a
consulate, interviewing applicants for United States visas and working
with American citizens who need their help.
The State Department also hires Foreign Service specialists, who
provide technical, security and administrative support overseas or in
Washington. Specialists must pass an oral assessment but not a written
exam, and start in a specialty like medicine, information technology
or law enforcement, Mr. Coulter said. All newly hired officers and
specialists are trained at the Foreign Service Institute in
Each of the first two postings overseas last two years; after that, it
is generally a three-year posting in each country. One-year hardship
postings — in a region too dangerous to allow an officer's spouse and
children to accompany him or her — are required at least twice in the
course of a career. After two assignments, Foreign Service personnel
can bid on postings — requesting particular countries or Washington —
but everyone is expected to serve in a variety of assignments, Mr.
Usaid's entry-level Foreign Service officers must have a master's
degree in an appropriate technical area, like economics, agriculture,
public health or education. The average Usaid entry-level officer has
four years of relevant experience; many come from the Peace Corps, but
others have worked for nongovernmental organizations, in private
industry or the military.
Thousands apply to Usaid each year and about 1 in 20 will be called
for an interview, said Susan Riley, Usaid's chief of Foreign Service
Foreign Service officers with Usaid work on a range of projects, like
assisting farmers in developing countries or working in programs to
reduce the prevalence of diseases like AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
Last year, the agency kicked off its Development Leadership
Initiative, a recruitment effort to hire more than 1,000 Foreign
Service officers in the next two years. "This is the most that we've
planned to hire above attrition in 15 years," Ms. Riley said.
THE base salary for entry-level Foreign Service officers ranges from
about $40,000 to $72,000 annually, but compensation can increase
depending on the danger level of the posting and on a region's cost of
For Foreign Service specialists, the salary range is anywhere from
about $26,500 to more than $100,000; for civil service employees at
Usaid, the salary ranges from $16,500 to over $100,000. Overseas
benefits include housing and private school for dependent children.
Many of those choosing Foreign Service work do so out of a dedication
to public service and see it as not just a career, but also a way of
Salman Khalil, hired in May, took a 50 percent cut in take-home pay to
join the Foreign Service after a decade in the I.T. industry. Any day
now he will leave for his first assignment, in India. "In my I.T.
profession I was helping big companies make more money and it wasn't
satisfying for me," he said. "What I wanted to do was serve in a
capacity where I could directly help people."
>>From the NYTimes, December 23, 2008
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