Paul Mincarelli has been trying for three years to get into international work for the federal government. He says he knows the odds are stacked against him.
Now the competition is likely to get more intense.
Some agencies have begun to limit the number of applications they accept per vacancy. Instead of setting a deadline for applications, some job announcements stay open only until the limit — in some cases as few as 25 resumes — is reached.
Mincarelli, 26, has a master's degree in international affairs. He says he has applied for dozens of jobs at several agencies to no avail. He has not yet come across such limits on postings, he said, but expressed concern that his chances could become even more limited under a system that he believes shuts out qualified candidates unfairly.
"I understand they have to deal with a high volume," he said. But "it makes it more frustrating."
The Office of Personnel Management says demand is high for federal jobs.
"Overall, agencies are experiencing a significant increase in the number of applications, which may not necessarily produce more qualified candidates," the agency said in a statement. It said some agencies are limiting the number of applications they will consider "depending on their need for qualified applicants and the number of job openings."
Kathryn Troutman, president of Catonsville-based The Resume Place Inc., said she began seeing applicant limits this year. Troutman, whose firm offers federal job coaching and resume-writing services, reviewed the federal government's online job portal and found applicant limits ranging from 15 to 300. Most fell in the 50-to-100 range.
Listings with limits instead of traditional closing dates appeared for jobs as varied as senior manager and student intern. They were posted by employers as diverse as the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art, the Department of Transportation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Treasury, the Department of Defense and the Social Security Administration.
Troutman says she has begun to see online postings disappear before the closing dates. She says one human resources department told her an ad was pulled after the agency received more than 1,700 applications.
"The [applicant] numbers are more and jobs are less, and HR has decided to put their foot down," Troutman said. "I think we're going to see it more and more."
She says veterans and students and others want to work for the federal government.
"They're just receiving too many resumes. They're not hiring as many people, and there are still a lot of applicants."
In June, the National Gallery of Art posted an opening for a staff assistant, set a limit of 100 applications and urged candidates to "apply as soon as possible." The museum in Washington capped the number of applicants for an air-conditioning mechanic at 25.
The Department of the Interior's Geological Survey in Baltimore cut off applications for a student trainee in information technology support at 25.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs said the Office of Personnel Management has encouraged federal agencies to set resume limits for positions that draw a large number of applicants.
In the current climate, Troutman says, applicants for federal jobs need to apply quickly and not wait for closing dates. That means preparing resumes and cover letters ahead of time.
"My advice is to apply as quickly as you see the job announced," she said, noting that she prepares the bulk of a client's resume ahead of time, then tailors it to a particular job once an announcement appears. She also tries to steer clients away from jobs for which they likely won't qualify.
"It's more competitive now than ever," she said. "The jobs are very technical, and requirements are specific and clear. It's really technical writing ... not like writing a resume."
Cortez Elliott, 31, who has a degree in business and is in a graduate public administration program at the University of Baltimore, says he has applied to about 50 federal postings over the past five years, mostly for entry-level administrative jobs.
Elliott, a Baltimore man who runs his own entertainment marketing and consulting firm, says he has never received any feedback. He says he has shifted his focus from federal to state government openings and has been called in for interviews.
Elliott says limiting applications by number is unfair to those who apply by the cutoff date.
"I think it would be unfair to someone who is potentially qualified for a position," he said. "They have a system in place that's cutting them off because of quotas."