Civil Service: The Explainer

Dear reader, this post is meant for people seeking jobs in NYC government, and for new hiring managers who want to better understand the complicated world of civil service. It’s also a good primer for anyone interested in how an important part of your government, namely its workforce, is selected and hired.

New York City employs over 300,000 personnel in roles that range from sanitation worker and school crossing guard, to software engineer and actuarial accountant.  Overall, the pay is decent and in many roles you can still qualify for a pension plan (a benefit that is not to be underestimated).  But, there’s a hitch.  Some 80% of the jobs in New York City require that you take and pass a civil service exam.  If you dare to learn more, read on.

We’ve all taken exams, after all.  Like math and English lit and stuff. 

It sounds pretty harmless, right?  We’ve all taken exams, after all.  Like math and English lit and stuff.  But the civil service exam system isn’t quite like that.  There are hundreds of exams depending on the job title and role, and you have to know which exams to take to get the job you want. (And just to keep you on your toes, similar jobs may use different exams.  It all depends.)  The exam you might want to take may not come around very often (as in, not for years).  The “exam” does have some questions, but is largely a review of your resume and work history that you fill in, and how you do so could drastically affect your score.  And your score is everything, because that’s what gets you your spot “on the list.”  And, ah, the list.   

This is all before you get to the hiring pool.  

I wasn’t aware of the civil service process when I started working for city government over seven years ago, but as a hiring manager (with several hundred staff in a half dozen civil service titles) I’ve gotten a crash course.  It has been painful.  Time and again I’ve seen excellent candidates I cannot consider because they didn’t take the right exam at the right time.  If this series of posts can spare you some pain, dear reader, then I have performed a modest but noble function.  So here we go.  

This is a very long post, so to help you navigate it, you can click on the major sections below:

What the heck is civil service anyway? 

In theory, civil service is supposed to do a couple of things.  It’s supposed to ensure that people are pre-qualified for the jobs that are available by demonstrating they possess appropriate “merit and fitness” as defined by state law.  Civil Service is also meant to create a hiring mechanism that eliminates or at least reduces the risk of nepotism and similar challenges to employment integrity.    

In reality, civil service is largely impenetrable, poorly understood, incredibly confusing, and painful to navigate.  But if you want to get one of those city jobs with strong union protections and decent benefits, you have to participate in the civil service gauntlet.  Let me walk you through it, as gently as I can.  

What about those 20% of non civil service jobs? 

Just so you know, you might want to start by looking at “non-competitive” positions.  These are jobs in the public workforce that don’t require you to take an exam at all (yay!), but be forewarned that they are generally among the lower paid positions because they require little in the way of work experience.  For instance, a Family Worker in the NYC DOE only needs a high school diploma, and no work history is required.  If you were to be hired, you would work ten months out of the year (you’d be off for July and August – yay!), and you’d start by earning around $28,000 per year (or about $14 / hour).  Just so you know, our friends at CUNY won’t post these job opportunities for their students and graduates, because they do not consider the starting wage to be a sustainable, livable one.  So, there you are.  

As a point of comparison, another very common non-competitive title is Community Coordinator, which requires a college degree and two years of work experience, or a high school equivalency and six years of work experience.  Entry level compensation is in the low $60,000 per year range, and you would be enrolled in a union and have access to the city’s benefit and pension services.  We have used this title in our office and found it to be a very good way to attract capable early career candidates.

There are jobs that don’t require a civil service title. They are easier to get, but they tend to pay less and have much lower job security.

A word or warning: non-competitive positions present other challenges, including the fact that they have a salary ceiling you can never exceed, no job security (you won’t be a “permanent” employee), and you can’t take a Promotional Exam.  

Why are civil service jobs “better?”

If you want to aim higher, you’ll have to look at positions with exams that are “open competitive.”  This means that the exam can be taken by anybody so long as they meet the minimum qualifications, and that you will be scored on a competitive basis with your peers before being ranked and placed on the list of eligible candidates.  (Ultimately, you will probably want to become a “permanent” employee, which you can only do once you’ve taken an exam, made it onto a list, and been hired into a position that requires the title you qualified for.  The biggest benefit is that permanent employees are very difficult to terminate, providing enormous job security.  You can basically only get canned if you are really screwing up, and even then there are a lot of protections in place.)

The place to start your search for what exam to take is on the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) website.  DCAS schedules and administers the testing process, and works with other city agencies to determine which exams need to be assigned to which jobs and titles.  And this is where the challenges begin.  There are many, many exams – each one specific to the kind of work you might do.  This year alone there are exams for Auto Mechanic, Bookbinder, Cashier, Economist, Exterminator, Fraud Investigator, Laboratory Microbiologist, Painter, and Senior Photographer.  

An image of Halley’s Comet from 1986. The window to register for an exam is three weeks long.  If you miss it, there are no exceptions and you’ll have to wait until the next time it comes around in several years.  

In spite of this, the exam you might need to take for a position may not happen this year.  Or next year.  Or the year after that.  In fact, exams for certain titles may only be offered every five years or so, which is one of the reasons why DCAS also shares their archived lists of recent exams, so that you have at least some idea of how long the wait might be until the next opportunity rolls around.  

By the way, the application window to register for an exam is usually three weeks long.  If you miss it, there are no exceptions and you’ll have to wait until the next time that particular exam comes around in several years (kind of like a passing comet).  

And taking the exam is only the first step.  Once you have completed the exam, each test response is scored and ranked – a process that can take a year or more.  The exam results are not released until this process has been completed for all test participants (which can be thousands of people).  The exam results, once published, will be in the form of a list with the highest ranking test takers scoring 100, then 90, then 80, and so forth. 

For very popular titles, like Administrative Staff Analyst, the exam results might show 153 people who scored 100, then 87 people who scored 90, and on down the line.  Of those 153 folks who scored 100, they will also be ranked from 1-153.  (Fun fact: that ranking is done based on the fifth digit of your social security number because, well, it’s random I guess?)  This is important because when hiring managers are looking for candidates, they have to start at the top of the list and work their way down.  If your score was 80 and you are ranked #433, that means there are 432 people ahead of you for consideration.  

Basically, take any test you qualify for when the opportunity arises, even ones below your current skill level. It gives you more options

For this reason, I would not recommend that you take the usual approach to job seeking of looking for a job you want, then hoping you can take an exam, getting your score and applying.  You’ll possibly be waiting for years, and the job opportunity you saw will likely be long gone.  I would recommend instead that you start by looking at the list of available tests for the year and for the month, finding ones that you think you might qualify for, and registering to take them when the application window opens up.  You can take as many tests as you want, including tests that are below your current experience or skill level. 

As a matter of fact, that’s an important civil service strategy because being qualified in multiple titles helps in several ways:

  • You always have a title that you can fall back to if your current position is restructured; 
  • You might be eligible for jobs with similar titles even though they aren’t exactly the same; and 
  • Because titles occur in sequences (kind of like going from apprentice to journeyman to master), you will be in a better position to take the test for the next level in the series when it becomes available – called a “Promotional Exam.”  Promotional Exams have their own lists that tend to be smaller, meaning that you have a better shot at ranking higher.  

Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3

So, let’s break this all down a bit more, starting with the exam process.  Start by creating an OASYS account, where you can get information about available exams, register and track your status (including your ranking).   

This is a picture of three very tasty looking ice creams cones. Civil services tests also come in three flavors, but they are not as tasty.

Each exam is published with a Notice of Examination (NOE), and these are super important, especially if they are for an Education and Experience exam as noted below.  They will tell you the qualifications you need, how to apply, what the exam dates are, what the fees are and how to pay, and offer information on expected job duties and compensation.  Decoding the NOE is probably the most important (and most difficult) part of the exam process.  Civil service “tests” come in three flavors: 

  1. Education and Experience examinations attempt to gauge if your work history is a good fit for the job.  The “exam” is really the application process itself, where you share your work history in excruciating detail.  It’s very important to use the language of the job posting and NOE as much as possible to frame your work experience, because the more closely your experience aligns with the expected role, the higher you will “score” on the ranked list.  Getting dinged just a single point can drop you hundreds of rungs lower on the list, which means you’ll have many more “qualified” candidates in front of you who need to be considered for jobs before it’s your turn.  The good news is that you don’t have to come into a testing center to “take” the exam, so you can do it in your pajamas.  
  2. Multiple Choice examinations are just what they sound like: you grab your No. 2 pencil, head to a testing center, and fill in the little hungry circular mouths of the Scantron with graphite.  For some multiple choice exams you’ll need to complete an Education and Experience exam first to ensure you’re qualified to even apply (if you do qualify you’ll get a letter instructing you about next steps in taking the multiple choice exam).  Once you complete the exam you’ll actually get your scantron results then and there, and you should review them before you leave.  If you want to challenge those results, you’ll need to immediately initiate protest procedures.  
  3. Practical/physical examinations are required for some roles, and for these you’ll need to show up and demonstrate you’re fit enough or skilled enough to do the job.  These exams are usually given alongside multiple choice exams (though usually scheduled at a different time).  

I should also note that taking an exam costs money, and the cost of the exam is related to the expected compensation level of the position you are applying for (ranging from $30 to $100 per exam).  You can request a waiver of the exam fee if you are a veteran or receiving certain public benefits (though you’ll have to dig down deep in the FAQ to find that information). 

To recap, let me just run you through the testing timeline here

  • The exam rolls around every few years, and is finally announced; 
  • The three week exam application window opens, and the Notice of Examination is shared for those who express interest in taking the exam; 
  • A month or two later the exam is actually given and closed; 
  • A few months after that, the exam “list” is “published” (you’ll get a notification of your score), and then the haggling over scoring starts; 
  • For the next 6-12 months, people can “appeal” their position on the list and seek to get moved into a higher rank; 
  • Once the dust settles, the list is “established” and agencies can begin interviewing people by going down the list, one rung at a time. 
  • The lifespan of a list is usually 4-5 years, meaning it takes that long to “exhaust” the candidate pool and announce that a new exam will be opened – starting the cycle all over again.

Scooooooooore!  What your exam results mean

After you’ve taken the exam it will take a few weeks to a few months before the list is published and you get your preliminary score.  Chances are good that you will not like it.  I’ve known incredibly skilled and experienced people who ranked very low based on their initial exam results.  In that case, you want to consider initiating an appeal to see if you can have your score improved.  Appeals must be made within 30 days of the closing of the exam period.    

Your exam score can have a big impact on your options. You probably will not like it.

Your score is essentially a proxy for how long you’ll have to wait before you can apply for new positions (or be made permanent in your current position).  You can check your score and rank several ways: (1) you can check the Civil Service List (Active) on NYC’s Open Data Portal and look yourself up, or (2) you can also dial an automated help line at 212-669-1357, enter the exam number, and the automated message will tell you what number on the list is “reachable.”

There are two issues here: (1) waiting means missing out on current opportunities, and (2) in theory someone else could come and take your current position if they are permanent and you are not.  I have not seen the second occur in practice, but some people are not nice people.  

To circle back on waiting: one of the complicating factors is what’s called the one-in-three rule.  When a hiring manager is interviewing, they have to go in list order.  So let’s say you’ve three candidates who all scored 100.  At least one of those three folks MUST be hired BEFORE anyone lower on the list can be hired. 

There are exceptions where all three candidates decline, or where other candidates with the exact same score can be considered, but by and large this can put the brakes on hiring for everyone on the list until the issue is resolved.  If I’m one of those three people, no one else below me can even be considered until I’ve made up my mind. 

As a hiring manager myself, I’ve often been interviewing “high score” candidates whose specific experience is less than someone who scored lower, but I can’t “skip” the higher ranked candidates in favor of someone who is arguably better qualified.  In short, do what you can to score well, or to appeal your score and get it up as high as you can.  

Diving into the (hiring) pool

Hiring in civil service, contrary to the rest of the process, is actually very streamlined and efficient.  


The hiring pool: not for the faint of heart.

The hiring process will wend its way down the list until it arrives at your name.  You have now become “reachable,” which means that you can finally be considered to apply for a job.  If you are already in a job in “provisional” or non-permanent status, then your current hiring manager does not need to interview you.  Instead, they can work with your HR team to move you into permanent status. 

Obviously, this is a good outcome, but there are fewer and fewer city employees in provisional roles and it’s now nearly impossible to get hired provisionally (unless you work on the payroll for City Hall, or in a few select positions scattered across various agencies).  Just a word of caution here: if you are invited to go to a hiring pool, but want to stay in your current position, consult with your HR team to figure out a strategy.  If you don’t join the pool and don’t have an exception process in place, you can lose your place on the list altogether.  It’s a pain to get back on. 

I myself have been in hiring pools where representatives from up to ten DOE offices all sit together in a room for about six hours, with candidates from the pool coming in one at a time.

- Your Man About Town

No, instead you will likely be joining the hiring pool.  In this process, you’ll get a “call letter,” indicating that you are one of a number of candidates who all scored in the same band, and your band has been reached.  You are now available to be interviewed as a group of candidates.  Sometimes individual agencies bring together all the hiring managers who have vacancies in the title to conduct interviews, and sometimes multiple agencies bring together managers from multiple agencies.  You won’t really know what you’re going to get until the team managing the hiring pool sends you the job postings that each hiring manager has created.  You should review these, and if you have a preference it’s certainly acceptable to express that in the interview process. 

Bear in mind, however, that just because you have a preference for one job out of a dozen does not mean you are interviewing for just that one job.  In the hiring pool, you are effectively interviewing for every job that’s posted, because from a civil service perspective you are now “qualified” to take that job – even if you lack subject matter expertise or practical experience in that role.  

I myself have been in hiring pools where representatives from up to ten DOE offices all sit together in a room for about six hours, with candidates from the pool coming in one at a time.  You read that correctly: a single candidate is interviewed by ten people at once, while the other candidates wait their turn.  Each hiring manager is allowed to ask up to two questions, and each one ranks the candidates according to an established rubric.  At the end of the day, the hiring managers say which candidates they want to make offers to.  

This can lead to circumstances where some candidates in a pool get multiple offers, while others get none.  You may get multiple offers from managers for jobs you don’t want to do or don’t feel qualified to do, and none from the hiring manager with the perfect job for you.  You’ll need to come in with an open mind about what your new job might be, and abandoned preconceived notions at the door.  

As long as the one-in-three rule is met, the job offers can go forward.  In these cases, candidates could be asked to make a decision about which job to accept that day, although in my experience the hiring manager can request one additional individual interview and check references, giving candidates a bit more time to consider the offer.  I should note that hiring managers can also ask you to take skills tests for things like Excel chops or to measure your written communication, but very few do so.  

Congrats on your new civil service job! Now what?

Once a decision has been made to hire you and move you into permanent status, you still have a number of steps to go through.  These can vary by agency, so speak with your hiring manager about each of the steps below to understand their process.

Things you've taken for granted get taken.

- Anonymous
  • If you are a provisional employee, you’ll get an offer letter and be put on a year-long probationary status.  Hang in there, do good work, and in a year you’ll be granted permanent status.  Hurray!
  • If you are a new hire to the agency, you’ll probably start at the bottom of the pay scale, and have to go through a complete on-boarding, possibly including a background check, submitting a variety of forms, and being “intended” onto the office’s payroll.  This can take several weeks to several months, so be patient and stay in close contact with your hiring manager.  I’ve seen many hires get derailed at the last minute during this part of the process, so don’t take anything for granted until you’ve received and signed the hiring letter, and you have a start date and salary in writing.  
  • Once you’re on board, carefully review all your benefit options including health care, retirement and pension benefits, and your vacation and leave days.  Unsurprisingly, enrolling in these can be cumbersome and confusing, but do not put it off.  I’ve seen folks go without benefits for a year or more because of a paperwork problem.  

My explainer needs an explainer

In this article I’ve attempted to lay out some of the most important aspects of the civil service process.  It’s unbelievably complicated, and I know that this explainer leaves a lot of things out.  I’d put in more, but it’s already so complicated that I feel like I need an explainer for my explainer.  

I hope that this will generate questions and discussion.  Civil service, for better or worse, is not going anywhere.  For folks who want to navigate this process and get a job, I hope this explainer provides some valuable insights.  For folks who want to find ways to improve this process, I hope this provides enough context to inform your thinking and advocacy.  NYC is an incredible city, and it deserves to have a process to find and engage a rich, diverse, and capable workforce.  

Until next time, stay strong, stay dapper.