PolyWogg’s (Completely Informal and Totally Unofficial) Guide to Competing for Jobs in the Canadian Federal Government
Chapter 3 — Crafting your cover letter
You’ve seen an announcement of a “selection process”. You have the list of qualifications (“merit criteria”), and you’re ready to apply. First step: The Cover Letter.
You’ve heard of cover letters before, you have even probably written some. And you’ve vaguely heard those magical words of wisdom from 20 years ago that is all over the internet — “your cover letter should be no longer than a page”. If you listen to that advice, you will get screened out. You will fail the application process, and you won’t even get to actually show your skills. Why? Because the cover letter is the first step in a very bureaucratized process that is governed by legislation. If your Uncle Harry wants to hire someone to work his ice cream store, he can run a quick interview, ask you some basic questions, and as long as he doesn’t ask any illegal or discriminatory questions, he can basically run whatever type of interview he wants. Heck, he can just put a sign in the window that says “Help Wanted” and whoever shows up first, if he likes them, he can hire them. Not so with the public service.
The legislation says that every applicant must demonstrate their ability to meet the merit criteria for the job. And over the course of the process, you will have to demonstrate six things:
- Basic eligibility;
- Conditional eligibility;
- Personal Suitability; and,
- Language abilities.
The first three are demonstrated through your cover letter, and as you will see from below, you cannot possibly do it in a single page.
Your cover letter should start off with the basics — the competition number that you are applying for, the title of the position, the classification and level, and if you have one, your Personal Record Identifier (PRI) number (a number issued by the Government if you’ve worked for them as a formal employee — it’s your master ID number for employment with the government). These are basic tracking elements, and it helps the HR person properly file your application, which of course you want to be mistake-free. Here’s the standard format I use:
I am writing to you in order to apply for the (title) (xx-xx level) position in the (section, department) (competition xxxx-xxx-xx-xx-xxx). I am sending this letter, and the attached detailed resume, in order to demonstrate my eligibility (A) and qualifications (B-Essentials & C-Assets) against the Statement of Merit Criteria. My PRI number is xxx-xxx-xxx.
All of the information you need is on the notice of the competition — it’s all there. You’re just copying it over. Verbatim. No ad lib, no creativity, make it exact. So, what would this look like in practice? A lot like this:
I am writing to you in order to apply for the Sr. Policy Analyst (EC-05) position in the Corporate Planning Division, Policy Branch, Health Canada (competition xxxx-xxx-xx-xx-xxx). I am sending this letter, and the attached detailed resume, in order to demonstrate my eligibility (A) and qualifications (B-Essentials & C-Assets) against the Statement of Merit Criteria. My PRI number is xxx-xxx-xxx.
That’s it, that’s all. Your intro is written, with all the tracking info the HR person needs in order to file anything, and more importantly, if it gets lost somehow or mis-filed, where they should file it when they find it separated from the rest of the files.
II. BASIC ELIGIBILITY
For the second paragraph, or even merged with the first, you have to meet a very clear threshold for applying — you have to demonstrate you are within what is known as the “Area of Selection”. Some jobs are open to the public, anyone can apply; most are open only to employees, so you have to state that you are currently an employee and with which department. Yes, they will check. It’s a key role for the HR person, verifying you are eligible to even apply. If you work at Health, and the job is only open to people who work at ESDC, you’ll be screened out. If you have to be indeterminate, and you’re on term, you’re out. If it says you need a Class 2 license to haul freight, and you only have a Class 1 license, you’re out. If it says you have to be a Canadian Citizen (some jobs), and you are only here on a work visa, you’re out. If it is only open to employees working in Vancouver, and you work in the National Capital Region, you’re out. Usually the wording on the poster will say something like:
OPEN TO: Employees in the Department of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) occupying a position at the EC-07 level or equivalent in the National Capital Region (NCR).
Not surprisingly, if it says that, you have to be:
- an employee, not just on contract or casual;
- working for ESDC, not Health / Finance / Environment;
- an EC-07 or equivalent (this tells you this is a deployment, not a promotion for someone at the EC-06 level to apply); and,
- working in Ottawa/Gatineau, not elsewhere in the country — your actual office has to be in the NCR.
All of those four things are in a central database and HR people will check to make sure it matches, using your PRI number to look you up. If any of the bits don’t match, they screen you out and the hiring manager will never see your application. You’re just done. Lots of people try to be creative to fake their way past eligibility, and a few years ago, it was occasionally possible. Except when they got all the way to the appointment phase, someone goes to do the paperwork, and HR would bounce it — kicking the person out of the competition at that point, because they were never eligible in the first place. There is no grey area on these points — in / out, yes / no. If you’re in a strange situation such as being on assignment with ESDC, ask HR if you are eligible or not — the rules will say yes or no, and you can then proceed or not. No sense wasting your time if you are not 100% eligible to even apply.
There are two other areas where it is not quite so black and white. First, under the educational requirements, it frequently asks you for a university degree. For example, it might say for the EC categories:
Graduation with a degree from a recognized university with acceptable specialization in Economics, Sociology or Statistics.
That seems like a simple yes/no, but there are variations on what constitutes “specialization” (often viewed by tribunals as at least 5 courses in undergrad and 3 in a graduate program, but managers can set whatever number they deem appropriate on a competition-by-competition basis). But more importantly, the advertisement will then say things like:
NOTE: Candidates must always have a university degree*. The courses for the specialization do not necessarily have to be part of a degree program in the required specialization. The specialization may also be obtained through an acceptable combination of education, training and/or experience.
* Degrees may include, but may not be limited to Political Science, History, Psychology, Geography, Criminology or other disciplines associated with social science.
Some people find that confusing, and rightfully so. The rest of the eligibility factors have no wiggle room, but this one is more about general skills than certification. So, for example, if you had a degree in Psychology or Criminology, but you could show that the courses were cross-listed with Sociology, the screening manager may decide that is sufficiently close to accept your application. Other times, someone may have done a degree in Urban Planning, but has a “minor” in economics with five courses in the field as “electives”. Or perhaps they did a degree in history, and then after they graduated, did some additional electives in Statistics. They would have a degree + courses outside their degree program that meet the specialization requirement. Others might accept that you’ve been working in a field for quite a while (usually more than four years, the same time to do an undergraduate degree) and if you have been doing a lot of economics or statistics in that time, the hiring manager may decide that is equivalent experience and accept you. However, let me perfectly clear — it is YOUR JOB AS APPLICANT to convince them you have the educational background needed. I’ll discuss this in more detail below, but the burden of proof is on you. If you have a degree in Economics / Sociology / Statistics for this example, your proof is easy. You say “I graduated from University of Manitoba in 1994 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics.” They may later ask you for a copy of your diploma to prove it, but for the cover letter, that is sufficient. However, if you have a different degree and are relying on extra courses that you took to prove the specialization, or relevant work experience, you should list the courses you took or the work you have been doing that is relevant. If you don’t explain, they don’t have to come back and ask for more details — they can just screen you out. Your job to prove — the burden of proof is on you.
The second area is your language profile. It will likely say something like “BBB/BBB” — this means that you have to have intermediate english and french (in brief, X means no ability, A is basic, B is intermediate, C is fluent, E is exempt equivalent to native speaker). As with the first elements, the HR person will go into the PSC database and check your current results (good for 5 years at a time). If you have a current profile that meets or exceeds the level required, they’ll note it. If your profile is out of date OR you have no profile OR even if you have a current profile that is LESS than needed, they’ll note that you do not meet BUT won’t screen you out — they’ll send you for a language test, likely at the end of the process i.e. the last step before they appoint people. Here’s the reason why — the legislation governing competitions says generally that you have to meet all the requirements at the time you apply (so just because you were planning to move to Vancouver, you couldn’t apply if you were still working in NCR). However, there is separate legislation regarding Official Languages and it says you have to meet the language profile of the position at the time of appointment. As a result, all of the other eligibility elements are tested at the beginning of the process, and language is almost always tested at the end so that your results are as close to the time of possible appointment as possible. But it is still a yes/no element later — if you fail, you’re out. (With a minor caveat…a competition will say “various language profiles” which might mean if you get BBB, you’re eligible for a BBB job but not one of the other ones that requires CCC — the equivalent of being “out” for the jobs with higher language requirements and “in” for the jobs with lower language requirements.)
Here’s some sample text that shows how to meet the above requirements (if you’ve given your PRI previously, you don’t need to repeat it).
I am an indeterminate employee of HRSDC working in the National Capital Region as a substantive xx-xx, and my PRI number is xx-xxx-xxx. I have a Bachelor’s degree in xxxxxxxxxxxxx from xxxxxxxx (19xx) and a Master’s degree in xxxxxxxxxxxxx from Carleton University (20xx). I meet the official languages proficiency for the position, with a current profile of EBC.
A frequent question from people is what to do if you are taking language classes, know you’re close, want to apply, but don’t have a current profile. That’s simple:
I meet the official language proficiency for the position, but my profile is out of date and I need to be retested.
Let’s be clear though. If you are AAA, and the requirement is CCC, you’re not likely to make that level by the time you are tested in the process. Unless you’re close to the level, and expect that you’ll actually meet it at the time in the process for you to be tested, faking your way through the application is generally a waste of everyone’s time. It’s a yes/no criteria — you meet it or you don’t. Or if you’re hedging your bets on how effective your current progress is going, you will meet it or you won’t. The manager can’t get to the end of the process and say, “Oh, too bad, they’re a great candidate, I’ll drop the language requirement.”
III. CONDITIONAL ELIGIBILITY
I am slightly mis-using a term here, because it isn’t exactly what the Public Service Commission means when it says “Conditions of Employment”. I call them conditional eligibility because you can meet all the other elements, make the pool, and then when they go to offer you a position, be unable to take it. Let me explain, because it isn’t the same as you being “out”.
First, there is “reliability and security”. It isn’t always clear what this means on a poster, but it is your security clearance. There are proposals to change the way security clearances work, but there is generally “reliability” (looking a lot like a simple background check for criminal records”, “enhanced reliability”, “secret”, and “top secret”. These are all variations on a theme, with top secret asking for the most detail, going into a full background check for someone who is likely to have access to very sensitive high-level materials such as policy proposals, Cabinet decisions, or security issues. If you go through the whole process, make the pool, and they go to appoint you but you fail the Top Secret clearance, it means you don’t get that job, but it doesn’t exactly remove you from the pool. They may have other jobs that require lower clearances that they can appoint you to, although technically it is supposed to negate your candidacy like having too low of a language profile. But it’s handled more as a grey zone, than a black and white decision point. In addition though, you may have to wait for your clearance to come through before you can start. You have to have it to be appointed permanently. Foreign Affairs is well-known for this, with some people waiting up to a year to start their job once their top secret clearance is complete.
Second, there are “other conditions of employment”. Sometimes they are black and white (such as “a valid drivers license”), other times the employee wants to discuss what exactly the term means before accepting the position. For example, a common phrase is “willing and available to work occasional overtime”. Does that mean once a month or three times a week? Does it mean planned overtime or sudden overtime? This could have serious implications for someone who has to arrange childcare. Equally, there is often a requirement for “occasional travel, as needed.” Employees might be willing to travel, but there’s a huge difference between a short business trip to Toronto for 2 days and a 3 week trip to Bangladesh for a series of meetings. However, before the employee is appointed, they have to agree to the conditions and more and more, HR sections are asking for it in the cover letter when they apply or if not there, later when the appointment process comes along. Personally, I put it right up front in the cover letter so there is no doubt of my continued eligibility:
I am willing to work overtime as required, and travel within Canada and internationally as part of my duties. I have a Level II – Secret security clearance which was updated in 20xx.
Note that this last example is NOT required, but I still recommend it in the cover letter. Some HR people will tell you to completely take it out, waste of space, because THEIR department doesn’t work that way. Some departments do, and some HR people move from department to department and don’t always follow the new practices. I have been told too that some departments say not to mention the language part at all because they have to test that anyway; other departments have screened people OUT (even though they’re not supposed to) if it didn’t say it.
Here’s my bottom line — it costs me nothing to include it and if it avoids someone screening me out for no reason, and my having to “fight” to get back in, I’ll put it in my cover letter.
nEligibility (2): Security clearance, organizational needs (EE), operational requirements (relocation/travel/overtime hours), conditions of employment (travel/irregular hours/part-time)