Thursday, April 02, 2015

Foreign Service Construction Engineer FAQs

The US Department of State has released another Foreign Service Construction Engineer vacancy announcement, and it will stay open for applications through the end of April 2015. If you've ever dreamed of living overseas with your family while building landmark buildings in a career with great promotion potential that includes lots of great benefits from #34 on Forbes' list of America's Best Employers, this might be the job for you.

After I started blogging about being a Foreign Service Construction Engineer (FSCE) with the U.S. Department of State, I began receiving some frequently asked questions about what to expect while following the Foreign Service Specialist (FSS) career path. Finding first-person accounts about specific government jobs overseas can be difficult, if they exist at all. Since there's another FSCE hiring announcement out, I figured it would be a relatively good time to consolidate those questions and answers that have accumulated over several years and emails into one post (this one, in fact) that gets updated every once in a while. I've also noted whether the answer applies to all Foreign Service Specialists or whether they are FSCE-specific.
This link is to an article about FSCEs that was written by my peers and published in State Magazine.
Now, to be clear, I am not in Human Resources (HR) and my responses should not be taken as official by any interpretation. These answers are mine based on my experiences to date. Since I remember how hard it was to find any information online about the job before committing to join, I thought I'd pass these (slightly edited) questions & answers (with links as applicable) along for those that are looking for them. If you want the State Department's official HR-managed answers, visit the forums at careers.state.gov. You can tell the official answers on the forums because they have green check marks. I've linked to some of the more comprehensive answers from the forums on this page. Also, many of the FSS issues also apply to the Foreign Service Officers (FSO), just keep in mind that there are significant differences in the application process, training, and tenuring for FSOs


Differences between FSCE and other Foreign Service Specialities (and Generalist Cones)
For starters, you may hear the term "Foreign Service Officer" used to describe both types of Foreign Service professionals: Generalists and Specialists. While some folks will get themselves wrapped around the axle that Generalists are the only ones who should be called "officer" because they receive a commission from Congress while Specialists don't, it should be pointed out that the State Department refers to several specialist career fields with the term "officer": General Services Officer (GSO), Regional Security Officer (RSO), Regional Medical Officer (RMO); Financial Management Officer (FMO), Human Resources Officer (HRO), etc. To quickly summarize, Generalists (FSO) and Specialists (FSS) have different hiring processes, different tenuring requirements, and different career paths...most notably: Specialists aren't likely to rise through the ranks and become Ambassadors (but we can enter the Senior Foreign Service). But I digress...my point is that both Generalists and Specialist officers are important for the mission.

That said, if you're interested, here's my own Foreign Service Specialist (FSS) Oral Assessment (OA) experience. That post also contains a timeline for the hiring process to become a Foreign Service Construction Engineer (FSCE). For what it's worth, I also made it through to the OA stage of the Foreign Service Officer (FSO) selection process (not to be confused with the FSS selection process), but my OA experience was less positive. I've got another post from earlier that further explains the difference between Foreign Service Specialist and Generalist Officers, which I believe is most similar to the military analogy to Warrant Officers and Commissioned Officers (respectively).


Q: Are Foreign Service Specialists considered to be diplomats?
A: In true State Department fashion, my answer to that is "it depends," but I've provided as much information as I can in another post that hopefully answers the "Is a Foreign Service Specialist a Diplomat" question. (Spoiler: Yes...unless you're a quibbler). (FSCE & FSS)

As for the differences between the various employment categories within the State Department, AFSA has several pages of statistics to pull the information from:
  • Total Number of State Dept Employees (as of 30 June 2014): 71,000
  • Total Number of Foreign Service Employees: 13,908
    • 8,076 Generalists
    • 5,832 Specialists
  • Total Number of Foreign Service Construction Engineers: ~80
You can see from these numbers that we Construction Specialists make up roughly 0.1% of the Department of State and 1% of all the Specialists. You may also notice that we have ~10 Senior Foreign Service (SFS ranks of MC & OC): That's 12% (10/80) of the career FSCE field, and 5% (10/171) of all Specialist SFS when the total SFS to FSS ratio is only 2.9% (171/5,791). And to make us even more exceptional, our assignment process is based on projects, not pending vacancies. Hopefully this blog can bridge that information gap and clarify those areas where what you find online differs from what really happens for FSCEs.




Application through Orientation
Q: Is there a standard timeline for getting hired as a Foreign Service Construction Engineer?
A: No, there are too many variables to consider. But here's how my hiring timeline worked out. (FSCE timeline, but FSS follow the same process)

Q: I read on another blog that for one orientation class only 66% of the people on the FSCE register were given an invite. If the register is not being cleared, why are there so many FSCE vacancy announcements? Are they anticipating a large amount of hiring later next year?
A: There are a number of factors that go into the hiring process. Full disclosure, I can only speak from the perspective of someone who has gone through the process of being selected and not as part of the hiring selection process. I've heard that each Specialist class only has a certain number of seats available based on the needs of the Department that changes all the time. It basically works out that each specialty gets a percentage of seats each class in order to balance the annual recruitment goals. When I went through orientation, we had 7 FSCEs and 0 Diplomatic Security agents, but over a dozen OMSs. Our instructor noted that this ratio was unusual. We FSCEs have lots of vacancy announcements because we have vacancies, but the register might not clear out because someone on the register defers or the next class doesn't have enough seats for everyone on the register this time around.

To put it another way using the military jargon of "Faces & Spaces" is that we have X authorized positions (spaces) budgeted for each year. If we don't have enough people (faces) to put someone in that position, the position is considered vacant. We put out vacancy announcements to fill the vacant positions. If we receive more qualified applicants (faces) than current vacancies (spaces), the applicants might sit on the register until the next vacancy is identified. (FSCE & FSS)

Training, Status and Per Diem
Q: So what's the deal with our initial Orientation Training, salary, per diem, etc? 
A: Before I answer this, I must point out that folks can be hired from either within the Washington D.C. area or from outside the Washington, D.C. area. Note: If you're currently residing within a 50-mile radius of Washington, D.C., you'll probably be considered a local hire (so no per diem because you aren't TDY) and there is some contention on whether this compensation is fair or not. Most new-hires are from outside of the Greater D.C. area. However, everyone hired will be on the overseas comparability pay scale while in training. (FSCE & FSS)
Newly-hired FSS while at FSI (whether or not they were hired from DC) do not receive "locality pay" because they are not assigned to DC while in training. Rather, new FSS at FSI receive overseas comparability pay" (Source)
Q: How long is training?
A: This is one of those "FSCEs are different" points. All Specialists spend 3 weeks of Foreign Service Orientation at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). This is very similar to--but shorter than--the A-100 class that the Generalists attend. When my Specialist classmates received their onward post assignment on Flag Day, we FSCEs already knew we'll be assigned to Washington D.C. After the three week course ends, we officially change status from "TDY Student" to "Permanently Assigned" in DC while our FSS Orientation classmates continue to take training at FSI before departing overseas for their permanent post. (FSCE)

Q: So, how does that affect what I get paid?
A: First, understand that your salary is based on a pay schedule characterized by Class & Step. Your base pay is just that, a reference point for your salary amount. During that initial training period prior to arriving at your first permanent duty station, everyone receives the Overseas Comparability Rate (Base Rate + 16%). Since most FSS go overseas on their first assignment, there's really no change. However, since FSCEs get assigned to Washington D.C. on their first assignment, our DC locality rate is not 16% but 24%. So we get paid ~8% more in DC but have to pay for our own housing out of that amount. If you didn't already know, housing is provided free overseas, but is rank-dependent regarding how much house you get. (FSCE & FSS)

Q: You mentioned Per Diem during training, can you elaborate?
A: Since you're in a Student/TDY status during your initial training, you get a per diem for lodging and a per diem for meals incidental expenses (M&IE). The key distinction here is that you get to keep the M&IE per diem that you don't spend, but you are only reimbursed up to the lodging per diem rate. Before you start looking for hotel reservations on your own, know that the State Dept has a special program with certain long-term residence locations where new hires basically waive their lodging per diem back to the State Dept. I think the program's default reservation is for six months for new hires in training.

This is a good deal while you're in training since the contracted housing allows you to stay at a better place than a hotel room without any personal cost. However, the per diem and the housing program only lasts for the duration of training. While FSCEs only spend three weeks in orientation, some other specialists spend several more weeks or months in TDY status. You could stay there for the entirety of your 6 month reservation, but it would end up costing you more personally than renting once the per diem goes away. (FSCE & FSS)

Q: And what happens when Orientation ends?
A: When orientation ends, most other specialists will still be in TDY status getting their additional training at FSI. As an FSCE, you will become permanently assigned to DC, your per diem will stop and your locality pay will adjust from OS to Washington,DC. Hopefully you started looking for a place in the D.C. area during orientation. Fortunately, you are authorized up to 10 additional days of transitional lodging per diem after orientation to find a house as part of your permanent assignment. (FSCE)




Payroll, Admin, and Overtime
Q: Can you explain the whole base pay, locality pay, hazard pay, etc? How do I figure out what I'll actually be making?
A: This is probably most easily summarized in a list(FSCE & FSS)
  • Base Pay: The basic salary based on Class & Step that is used to calculate other pay.
  • "Locality" Pay: It's called Overseas Comparability pay for non-US postings, and adds ~16% of your base pay. In D.C., the locality pay adds ~24% of your base pay.
  • Cost of Living Allowance (COLA): Based on your post, ranges from 0% to 50% (Shanghai) of your base pay.
  • Hardship Allowance: Additional incentive pay. Paris is 0%, Chad is around 30%. 
  • Danger Pay Allowance: This can go up to 35%, but is usually reserved for the places where you see more people with guns just walking about casually.
Data date: 5 Apr 2015
Example: How it would work out for an FS-3/Step 10 in Chad? Somewhere around $169K (plus free housing).
  • Base Pay: $86,202
  • Overseas comparability pay (Base Pay + 16.52%) = $100,443
  • COLA: +30% of FS-3/Step 10 Base Pay = +$25,860
  • Hardship: +35% of FS-3/Step 10 Base Pay = +$30,170
  • Danger pay: +15% of FS-3/Step 10 Base Pay = +$12,930
  • Total: $169,403 (A little more than that published Base Pay, isn't it?)
An example of how much location differentials affect your pay.
I'm working on a post that explains this example.


Q: What's the difference between an FS-3 and an FP-3?
A: As far as I can tell, "FS" simply designates tenured FSOs (Generalists), while "FP" is used for Foreign Service Specialists and un-tenured Generalists. Even so, most folks just say "FS" even if it's technically "FP".

Q: How does the Foreign Service Rank compare to military and GS?
A: Senior Foreign Service ~ Generals ~ Senior Executive Service (Civil Service). Below them is FS-1 ~ O-6 (Colonel) ~ GS-15. New Foreign Service folks might come in as high as FS-4 ~ O-3 ~ GS-12.

Q: Can you earn overtime?
A: Ah, yes, overtime. First off, this answer is different if you're a Foreign Service Officer or a Foreign Service Specialist. And it's so complicated, overtime gets its own chart. Since FSCEs are specialists, we continue to get paid overtime even after we hit tenure but the generalists don't. I've only worked overtime once in the field so far, and  the practice in DC is to keep to 40 hour workweeks so it's a non-issue. From what I can tell, in practice FSCEs are often authorized up to 20 hours each two-week pay period in the field to account for the 6-days-a-week construction schedules. Your overtime rate is the greater of one and a half times the hourly rate of a GS-10/1, or your own hourly rate. The important thing is to get the overtime authorization prior to the start of the pay period.

In my current situation in Saudi Arabia, I've got authorization to work up to 10 hours OT per pay period (basically, half-days on Saturday) if I want to. I might do it as one Saturday every other week, or half-days every Saturday, or maybe some other combination. It really depends on how I want to maintain my work-life balance.

As for all that time spent traveling for work, there's a thing called Comp Time for Travel (CT4T), and it's awesome. Basically, if you travel outside of work hours (say, 8-5 M-F) at your origin (Let's say DC going outbound, then post for your return trip), you get un-paid comp time for those hours of personal time you're losing but not really "working". This includes CT4T for Saturday travel and "after-hours" travel, so I'd easily pull in around a total of 24 hours of CT4T each round trip when I travel internationally (unless it's during DC work hours). That's like three 8-hour work days, y'all. Most off my leave/personal trips have been on accrued CT4T.

To summarize:
In DC, expect 40 hour work weeks. with un-paid Comp Time for Travel, recognizing that paid comp time is highly discouraged in DC.
In the field: Expect your work week to be 6 x 10's, with paid overtime per the formulas found here.
(FSCE & FSS)

First Assignment: Construction Executive in D.C. 
Q: What type of work do you do in DC during your first assignment?
A: As a Construction Executive in DC, I focused mostly on ensuring the contract modifications made their way through the system, along with requests for funding and status updates to the front office. Basically, I was the domestic support / desk officer for the Project Director in the field. I most frequently traveled to attend pre-construction coordination meetings, and my travel schedule ranged from one week a month to once a quarter depending on the needs of the project. (FSCE) 

Q: As an FSCE, do you manage the contract administration or is there a separate support group of Contracting Officers which provide this function? 
A: A large part of my job is contract management, coordination contract modifications, funding requirements, etc. There are Contracting Officers that issue and modify contracts, but they rely on us to provide them everything that goes into the contract modification. It puts the onus of Federal Acquisition Regulation compliance on them, but the technical requirements on us. Some, but not all Project Directors have warrants. (FSCE)

Q: What about your second assignment?
A: While the second assignment in the Foreign Service is typically directed for everyone, the FSCE career field is so small and the assignment options so limited that our assignment board really works with you to get an assignment that works for you. For instance, I had 10 posts on my list, and I emphasized that I wanted somewhere that would be good for my family (as opposed to being high paying or a certain type of project). I was asked (not directed) if I would take an assignment at a post that was not on my list but regarded as being a good family post. So far, no regrets. (FSCE)

Promotion and Tenure
Q: How does the DOS tenure process work? 
A: Again, it's different for Generalists and Specialists, so I'm only answering the Specialist Tenuring process: After 2+ years, our annual performance reviews "EERs" are sent to a board that determines if we should be granted tenure. Coincidentally, I just got tenured this week. These boards occur roughly every quarter. and I met the tenure board back in Dec 14. What does tenuring do for you? Once tenured, you can leave the Foreign Service and come back (if there are open positions) without re-applying. We just had a tenured guy separate for family reasons who hopes to come back in a couple of years. (FSCE & FSS)

Q: What about promotions?
A: I could refer you to 3 FAM 2323.2 "Members of the Foreign Service Below Class FS-1" but it's boring. I think that the Promotion Statistics are much more interesting. I'm also working on a post to illustrate potential career earnings(FSCE & FSS)




Retirement and Military Buy-Back
Q: How does the Foreign Service Retirement System work? 
A: State has several retirement systems. The Foreign Service Pension System (FSPS) is the Foreign Service equivalent of the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), as described in 5 U.S.C. 84. In general, all participants hired after December 31, 1983, participate in the FSPS. Participants currently contribute 1.35 percent of basic salary to the FSPS. Participants who are at least age 50 with 20 years of service receive a basic annuity of 1.7 percent of high three basic salary for the first 20 years of service and 1 percent of high-three basic salary for service over 20 years.

In plain speak, you can retire from the Foreign Service after 20 years of federal service as long as you are at least 50 years old...but you can also work until age 65. There's a course at FSI that goes into more detail on retirement systems that I highly recommend taking.

Q: Do my years of military service count towards Foreign Service Retirement?
A: They can, if they are not currently being used to collect a pension from the military. If you're not collecting military retirement and you want to buy back your credible years of federal service, it will cost something like 3% of your total military pay to get credit for those years...for me, an O-3 with 10 years, it came to about $14K.

Foreign Service & Family Life
Q: Have you and your family felt safe, especially when travelling to remote places? 
A: Yes. Obviously, we avoid areas that would be prone to questionable activities just like in the States (unlit, dilapidated, lots of drunk college kids, etc). The hardest part is to establish a baseline for what is commonplace and what isn't. Dirty doesn't necessarily mean unsafe or dangerous, but life abroad does sometimes require rethinking your assumptions.

Q: Does your wife have access to facilities in the States and abroad, i.e. is she issued an ID?
A: Yes. dependents/"Eligible family members" (EFM) get diplomatic passports when you get orders to go overseas and also ID cards that allow access to Post/State facilities in DC. That said, if your first assignment is in DC, EFMs are in visitor status for FSI because they won't be issued Diplomatic Passports until you have orders to go overseas...but they can still take nearly any classes at FSI that they want too. My wife had no problem getting into the FSI classes that she was registered for. I did have to accompany her if she wanted to go there on days she didn't have a class, at least until she got her dip passport. There's also a Family Liaison Office focused on EFM support. EFMs can also enroll in certain training courses while in DC (I highly recommend this if your personal schedule allows) so that they can be employed at post.

Q: What has been your experience with medical care abroad and does DOS assist with the coordination of this?
A: I haven't had too much experience with it so far (knock on wood), but most posts have clinic level support facilities and coordinate with local hospitals and there is a medevac option in cases that warrant it. The most common medevac is for pregnancy because State wants its people to get US level of care or better.

Q: In your experience has school for your children been readily available and is the security adequate? 
A: Yes. The US government holds a lot of sway with the American schools, so much so that the schools usually hold a few places just for DOS kids...or they will make space. The security is coordinated with the post, and I'm pretty comfortable with the arrangement so far. In a related thought, part of the promotion track to senior foreign service is to serve in a hardship post. You can do this accompanied (like I am in Jeddah) or unaccompanied (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc) and they both count the same. Hardship posts usually are smaller and tighter-knit, many folks prefer them. Larger ("safer") posts can get political and less friendly because sometimes people feel they've paid their dues to get there and are entitled to more than they really are. 

International PCS Experience
Q: Does DOS provide good support when relocating, especially security, housing, supplies, ...?
A: Yes. I posted about our first week in Jeddah, including our arrival experience. Short answer: best PCS experience to date.

Q: Do you have any experience travelling abroad with a pet? Does DOS assist?
A: Yes. We brought our cat and dog into Saudi Arabia, probably one of the most administratively restrictive dog countries out there. DOS will assist as needed or able (the Special Issuance Office validates your vet/USDA docs if required), but it's on you to coordinate your flights and pet shipments. There are several classes at FSI about this exact issue and they are very informative. Even the official travel agent was able to adjust our flight info so that we could be on a Lufthansa flight from DC thru to Jeddah rather than interlining from a code-shared United to Lufthansa in Frankfurt...which is a long way of saying that State aims to take care of their families. There is also a travel allowance for misc. expenses, usually around $1,300 that covers things like vet visits, airline pet fees, etc. Many people bring their pets to post.

Excellent Benefits
Q: Does DOS provide R&R travel for families serving abroad? 
A: Yes. But, I should clarify that it depends on the post as to how many and to where, but in general, you'll get 1-3 R&R per tour. State pays the airfare for you and your family to the designated R&R point (London, Paris, etc or Stateside) and all other expenses (lodging, meals, etc) are on you, the employee. Many folks in hardship locations go back to the US on R&R for a few weeks of leave (you still burn annual leave on R&R) during the summer and the EFMs stay away longer.

However, you should also know that between tours, there is mandatory home leave in the US to "keep us connected to our home country." Home Leave accrues at the rate of 15 workdays per calendar year while on overseas assignment, and may be used at the end of a two or three-year assignment abroad, or at the midpoint of a three- or four-year tour. So in my case, at the end of my two-year tour in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, I will have earned 30 workdays (that's 6 full weeks!) of home leave. In addition to providing paid home leave, the U.S. government will also pay for you and your family to travel to your home leave address in the United States. You have to take home leave in the US, and I don't think you can split it up by taking annual leave overseas (ie, Canada) in the middle, but that's easy enough to get around by taking leave en route. You can take annual leave before or after home leave if you wanted to spend some time traveling after work but before returning to/after leaving from the US.

Q: In remote places how does your family acquire household goods (food, clothing, ...)? 
A: Most locations are in capital cities or areas of major economic activity, so you can usually find some version of what you're looking for on the local economy. Of course, there are some countries that it's very difficult to find certain things on the local market (almond milk, for instance), so there are several options available to you, depending on the post:
  • American goods are often available but can be much more expensive since they've been imported. In some countries, like here in Saudi Arabia, we have access to the military commissaries and Post Exchange (PX/BX) and can put in a weekly order for things like Cheerios at US prices. We can also get stuff delivered through the APO/DPO system. As long as I'm talking about military-related benefits, I've heard (unverified) rumors that we can even stay at the Armed Forces Edelweiss Lodge and Resort in Garmisch...I'll let you know if we end up staying there through our State Department credentials.
  • Some posts are identified as a Consumables Post because it might be hard to obtain certain things locally, so an assignment there means you get to ship up to the weight allowance for shipment of consumables that has been established at 2,500 net pounds for a two-year assignment and 3,750 net pounds for a three-year assignment.



The Ultimate Question:
Q: Would you recommend a career in the Department of State?
A: Yes. As far as I can tell, I've pretty much found my dream job. The State Department frequently ranks near the top of the Best Large Federal Agencies to work for. The benefits are great, the opportunities are unmatched in the civilian sector, and life abroad is much more cushy than it was (for me) in the military. The only downside was living in DC during the first tour, but that's just part of the deal and proved to be an essential learning experience.
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