Perspectives from a Government Agency
By Owen Highfill
This article addresses what new federal employees—especially young college graduates—might expect when they land in Washington, D.C. Sharing this information with students (or anyone interested in federal employment) should be a goal of all career services professionals.
When I speak to students around the country about working for the federal government, I get a lot of tough questions. My goal when speaking at universities is not only to answer questions but also to explain why I do what I do. When I first graduated from school and entered the work force, my primary goal was to contribute to society in a meaningful way. I considered staying in academia or pursuing a career at a nonprofit, but ultimately, I’m thankful I decided to become a civil servant and work for our nation’s largest employer.
What is the work environment like?
Most of the questions I hear are about the atmosphere in Washington, D.C. But when I announce I work for the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), the regulator of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Home Loan banks, the questions get even tougher—everybody wonders about the future of the housing market and government-sponsored enterprises. So I approach both types of questions separately.
I tell the students it is a historically difficult time for our nation’s economy, but the atmosphere in Washington, D.C., is exciting. Although there are a tremendous number of changes and challenges ahead, it is also a time of incredible opportunities for federal employees. Within the past few years, new agencies have been created, including my agency, FHFA, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the new Office of Financial Research. New agencies not only mean new jobs, they mean more and new areas of opportunity for careers in the federal government.
Additionally, President Obama has announced a number of changes to the federal hiring process. These changes make the application process for federal jobs more accessible and easier to navigate. For example, the government is
eliminating the old requirement to list knowledge, skills, and abilities from the first step of the application process;
allowing applicants to apply with a resume and cover letter;
improving hiring speed
notifying applicants of their status throughout the hiring process.
In addition, the Pathways Programs are three excepted-service programs for students and recent graduates:
1. The proposed Internship Program is a paid federal government internship for current high school, college, and graduate students. It replaces the current Student Career Experience Program and Student Temporary Employment Program programs.
2. The proposed Recent Graduates Program is a two-year career development program in the federal government for people who graduated from college or graduate school in the past two years. It also covers military veterans who graduated in the past six years.
3. The proposed Presidential Management Fellows Program is a two-year program for people who have graduated from graduate school within the past two years. It’s designed to develop potential future federal government leaders.
The new programs are expected to be finalized this year, but until then, the current student programs will remain in place.
The Harder Questions
I really enjoy telling students about all the potential career options in the federal government, but I especially like answering those tough questions about the housing market and my agency.
I began working for the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO) in July 2008, just before former President Bush signed the Housing and Economic Recovery Act, which created FHFA by combining the staffs of OFHEO, the Federal Housing Finance Board, and a mission office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Just six weeks later, FHFA used its new authority and placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the Enterprises) into conservatorships.
The recent financial crisis has been an extremely challenging time for our economy and the housing market, and the future of the government-sponsored enterprises is uncertain. In February, my agency sent Congress a strategic plan for the conservatorship of the Enterprises outlining the steps FHFA has taken and will be taking to address the challenges of the conservatorships. It’s a groundbreaking document that proposes a roadmap for what promise to be historic changes in the housing finance market while leaving room for Congress and the Administration to decide the fate of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Making a Positive Difference
Students and other people considering employment in the federal government can benefit from knowing what they might experience. Seeing a federal agency created from the ground up and dealing with the challenges of conservatorships for the past three years has been a fascinating experience. I learn something new every day and get to be a part of history in the making. It is a privilege to work for an agency working on such important issues, and I am thankful to be a part of a tremendously dedicated group of federal employees. Even with the ever present changes and challenges in Washington, DC, in the federal government, and in my agency, I know I am making a positive difference in my country through a rewarding career in public service.
Owen Highfill, MA, holds a bachelor’s degree from James Madison University and a master’s degree from the University of Georgia, both in English literature. After graduate school, she was accepted into the Presidential Management Fellows Program and began working for the federal government in Washington, D.C. She currently works for the Federal Housing Finance Agency as a conservatorship operations specialist. She is also a part of the Partnership for Public Service’s Call to Serve Speakers Bureau. She can be reached at
Office of Conservatorship Operations
Federal Housing Finance Agency