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Getting to the SES

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A federal employee's ultimate pay raise comes with entrance to the Senior Executive Service, where salaries top out at about $170,000 a year.

But to snag one of the 6,000 or so spots in the SES, employees have to attain a very specific set of skills and knowledge. The Office of Personnel Management calls them Executive Core Qualifications. There's a myriad of them, and they can be hard to demonstrate. Employees looking to make the jump to the SES are advised to tailor their career moves with the qualifications in mind.

The criteria were developed from a 1991 OPM survey of 10,000 supervisors and managers in public and private sectors.

The five qualifications are broken down into a number of subsections. For the "Leading People" category, for example, employees must demonstrate that they can develop other employees, leverage diversity, build teams and manage conflicts. That's hard to prove. OPM suggests training as one way to get there.

As a result, such training has an audience. In late April, the African American Federal Executives Association announced a new training initiative for its members at its annual conference in Williamsburg, Va. It's a leadership development program that will pair current and retired SES members with up-and-coming federal employees to help them with resumes and interview techniques, and give them a chance to gain needed experience.

The program will start in September, and about 75 people immediately signed up.

"We're swamped, absolutely," said William Brown, the association's president and a former senior executive retired from the Army Corps of Engineers. "I was surprised at how quickly everyone jumped on it."

For employees who don't belong to the AAFEA, there are many similar organizations that offer training courses, though not all are as comprehensive. These include Federally Employed Women, the Society of American Indian Government Employees, and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Government group. The Chief Human Capital Officers Council houses the announcements for many of these training programs on its Web site.

OPM also offers workshops on obtaining the qualifications to reach the SES. Check with your human resources office to see if OPM is coming to your agency, or to request a workshop. In the meantime, the Commerce Department keeps a Webcast of a session from last year on its Web site.

OPM also suggests -- not surprisingly -- that wannabe SESers attend its overnight training programs at the Federal Executive Institute and Management Development Centers. They've even got a class called the Senior Executive Assessment Program in Colorado. For about $6,000 and one week of your time, you will "receive feedback from multiple sources, including superiors, peers, subordinates, [and] coaches, assess your potential for SES selection or rising to higher SES levels, receive personalized performance assessments on the ECQs necessary for the SES and develop an Individual Development Plan to improve your ECQs."

Perhaps the clearest road to the SES is the Senior Executive Service Federal Candidate Development Program, which after completion allows employees to be selected for SES jobs without normal competition. The program is tough to get into, though. In 2004, 50 were accepted out of 4,700 applicants. Brown's group and others are asking OPM to expand it.

 
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