Monday, August 30, 2010

Two Weddings and a Baby

The bid list came out today and the smile simply means I don't really understand the process!

Bidding season is upon us.  It is the nature of the beast that every one, two or three years a Foreign Service Officer changes jobs and posts. Your first two assignments are 'directed', which means that you bid from a list of positions reserved for entry level officers. Your bids go to and are evaluated by a group of Career Development Officers who then assign you to one of the spots. Neither post nor the bureau really get too involved. Your first two jobs should set you up for tenure. By the end of your second tour you should be off language probation, have served as a Consular Officer for at least one year and have received at least two performance reviews or EERs. Then, with any luck at all, you are recommended for tenure and you bid mid-level positions for your third tour.

The 2010 Summer mid-level bid list came out on August 5th and there were 2,602 positions available to bid. Of these, 1,458 were overseas and the remainder were in Washington. Out of the 1,458 jobs overseas, 934 were at the 03 or 02 grades. Further narrowing down the list, there were 130 Management jobs among the 934 positions. Of these, only 30 were not language designated and 8 of those were 02s. You are required to enter at least six core bids. Your mandatory core bids must be "in cone/at grade". That means, in my case for example, that I have to enter at least six bids that are at the 03 grade and are in the Management cone. Out of 2,602 positions, 22 were potential core bids for me. The starting date for these core bids must be realistic with respect to the end of your current tour. If the position you are bidding requires a language course or any other training, you must factor that in. So, let's say your current job ends in August 2011 and you would like to bid on a job in Cambodia that begins in September 2011. If it's 'in cone/at grade' it would qualify as one of your six core bids. However, if it's language designated and you don't happen to speak fluent Cambodian and the full language course lasts for almost one year, then you can't realistically bid the job.

So, you sort and shuffle the bid list until you identify six positions that are 'in cone/at grade' and a) require a language in which you already have fluency, b) have a built in time frame for learning the new language or c) are not language designated. Fewer and fewer jobs are not language designated, but in the Management cone you can still find one or two. Once you've identified six core bids, you may select up to nine additional jobs to bid. These bids can be in cones other than your own and can be at a grade above yours, which is called a 'stretch'. If all this sounds confusing and time-consuming, it's only just begun.

I decided for many reasons, first among them being that I'm really really bad at it, to not learn another language. I'm fluent in Italian, unless someone who actually speaks Italian hears me, so I'm already off language probation and have checked that box. I've also decided, after a tour as a GSO, another as an Econ Officer and a third as a Consular Officer, that I want to return to the Management cone for my next assignment. It didn't take me very long to sort and shuffle the list to come up with my six core bids. Then I found nine other jobs that I am interested in. So, I now have fifteen positions on my bid list.

All fifteen are either GSO jobs at larger posts or Management Officer jobs at smaller posts. The locations range from 'right next door' Montenegro to 'other side of the world' Papua New Guinea. I've ranked the fifteen jobs in order of personal preference and, at the moment, Podgorica, Montenegro and Hanoi, Vietnam are tied for top choice. Ten of my fifteen are core bids and the other five are one-grade stretches. So, if I were bidding an entry level position, that would pretty much be it. I'd send my list in to my CDO with a well thought out justification for assigning me to my top choice and I'd sit back and wait a couple of weeks for the notification.

However, bidding mid-level is a pasta of a different flavor. The first difference is the timeframe. The bid list came out on August 5th but we don't have to submit our bids until October 12th. The posts we've bid will receive our formal bids on October 18th. No positions can be offered until November 1st. What, you are justified in asking, does one do between August 5th and October 12th? One lobbies. Lobbying is the major difference between entry and mid-level bidding.

You must do several things right away in order to be a viable candidate for any position you bid. Your resume and employee profile in Human Resources must be up to date. While you're doing that, you have to line up several potential references from people you've worked for, people you've worked with and people who have worked for you. Then you have to send 'Look at me, look at me' letters to the posts to let them know of your interest. On top of that, you have to send similar letters to the Bureaus at the State Dept. in Washington that are responsible for those posts. The posts and/or bureaus that are interested in your bid will then contact you and ask you to either give them the contact information for your references or to ask you to contact your references and have them send in their recommendations. This generates another round of emails between you and your references.

You must walk a fine line between showing sincere interest in a post and becoming a stalker. Posts want to know that you're interested in the position, but they don't want to be harassed by overeager applicants writing and calling them every other day. I've decided to send an initial letter of introduction and wait to see what happens. I am, however, fully prepared to go to phone calls, candygrams, and wired money transfers if it will help get me the job I want. There is no guarantee that I'll land any of the fifteen jobs on my list. If all those jobs go to other people, I have to replace them with a new set of bids from a markedly shorter list of 'leftover' positions.  If I can't land a position through lobbying, I will be assigned to any job anywhere including back at the State Department in Washington.

Since August 16th, when I sent out my first letters, I've sent and received over 140 bid related emails and there are still six weeks left before the bids close. Many of the responses I've received are basically form letters telling me where to send my references and how many to send, but the most personal response was from a post that let me know right away that I wasn't qualified. That crushing disappointment aside (by the way, when they described the job to me I agreed with them) I should know some time after November 1st where my guest room will be located come August 2011. My understanding of the process is that the dance becomes more intense as we get closer to the bidding deadline. Reference checks and telephone interviews will help posts make their final selections and job offers are given shortly after November 1st. A job offer with an acceptance is known as a 'handshake' and that's the goal.

Typical mid-level bidder prior to getting a handshake.

I still volunteer at the animal shelter on Sundays. It's located 31 kilometers north of my apartment and this morning I got stopped at a random check point by the police. They were checking documents and the insurance card in my glove box had expired a week ago. I explained that I had the new card on my table at home but forgot to put it in the car. They explained that it was against the law not to put it in the car. I explained that I am a diplomat and carry a card from the MFA that says I am not subject to arrest. They explained that I was still subject to a very hefty fine. They, of course, were, unfortunately, correct. While two of them went off to huddle and determine exactly how hefty the fine would be, I chatted with the third officer and mentioned that I was on my way to the animal shelter just up the road to spend the day cleaning kennels and feeding the dogs. Turns out that they knew of the kennel and like what we do there. I received a very polite warning, a request to put the new card in the car, no fine and a wave good-bye. Who knew that scooping dog poop would trump diplomatic immunity?

Someone tied a puppy to the gate yesterday so we have a new little guy to take care of. He's about four months old and is black with a white stripe on his back between his shoulders. He's built low to the ground, like a dachshund. Naming the dogs is a serious business so I suggested we call him Puzzola which means skunk in Italian. That didn't fly with my Italian co-volunteers so we ended up calling him Skunk which I have insisted is a very common name for really cute puppies.

Skunk, or as I like to think of him..Puzzola!

At the embassy, one of the women in the NIV section is getting married next Friday, another one is getting married in two weeks, a third is having a baby and the fourth is in the process of re-evaluating her current boyfriend with an eye towards upgrading. As you might imagine, we don't talk about baseball very much at work.  We adjudicate visa applications between discussions of wedding dresses (my position, when asked, is an unwavering "that looks nice"), wedding flowers ("those look nice"), wedding reception table decorations ("I like those, they are very nice"), baby clothes ("that's cute), baby names ("You don't hear the name Griselda much anymore. Old family name is it?"), and "He is taking me for granted!" (Uhhhhhh, huh. Hey did you see that the Yanks won last night?). The two weddings will be over by the middle of September, the baby will be born by the end of the year and the boyfriend will be voted off the show the next time he is "stupid", so I give him a week. The World Series won't be a big topic of conversation this year, but I have high hopes for the Super Bowl. Surprisingly, none of the women has the least bit of interest or sympathy when I start to whine about the bidding.

My car needed to have an oil change and friends at the embassy told me to go down to the Navy base in Naples to have it done because it is very expensive, at least 80 euros, in Rome. There is also the hassle of having to provide your own filter because none of the auto shops in Rome stock filters for 1995 Mustangs. So, I drove down to Naples on a Saturday morning and got my oil changed. The base is like an enormous Wal-Mart (are there any tiny Wal-Marts?) complete with movie theater, grocery store, food court and auto repair shop. They had the filter for my car in stock and changed the oil in about 30 minutes. The oil, filter and labor came to about $40, or close to what I'd pay in the States. The tolls down and back were around 30 euros. The gas, even with my discount ran close to 50 euros. You just don't get real good mileage in a 1995 Mustang with an old very fuel in-efficient engine. Then, the four tires they sold me on the spot rounded the whole package up to around $700. But, hey, at least I didn't pay 80 euros for an oil change in Rome.

Although I have some favorites on my bid list, I'll probably come running to the first post that gives me a come-hither look. Port Moresby ("very nice"), Nairobi ("it looks nice") or Reykjavik ("a nice place") are all in the running. All in all, it should be a very interesting couple of months and I have the phone number for those singing gorilla telegrams taped above my desk, just in case.