Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Road Branches: OMS or Consular?

Today I was chatting (via e-mail) with my good OMS friend in a neighboring country when I realized that exactly one year ago this month, we were doing the very same thing. Now that may not sound very interesting until I tell you that at the time, I was in Washington state and she was in California and we were both obsessing over how our security clearances were going, and whether or not we were going to get an invitation to the next Specialist Orientation, and just in general imagining what our lives would be like as OMSes. We had met each other through the OMS Hopefuls Yahoo group during our application process and were fortunate enough to end up in the same orientation together last March.
So now it's one year later and we're still writing each other from work, but this time it's business-related: the VIP that our section is hosting is about to head to her embassy and section, and I was filling her in on how the visit was going from our end. From OMS Hopefuls, we've grown into colleagues in one short, but eventful year.

I can confidently say that we're both happy with our decisions to join the FS, our posts and our work. However, and you knew this was coming, we both acknowledge that perhaps OMS-hood is not a forever state of being for either of us, and perhaps for different reasons. For me, the State Department is going to be a "forever" thing, meaning until I hit the mandatory retirement age of 65. But I can't stop thinking about the other side of coin, and for me that would be my Consular Officer candidacy.

I'm writing this today because I'd like to share what seven months of experience has taught me about these two jobs. Seven months in one embassy is obviously a narrow window through which to view a behemoth organization like State, but it's all I know so far. And in truth, my opinions have been flavored by those of more senior coworkers on endless van rides to and from work, by overhearing conversations, reading cables, management notices and other blogs, and via lots of nosy questions to friends over cafeteria lunches.

To compare the two paths, I'll start today with what I know best, being an OMS.
This job offers lots of variety. In one tour I could work in the Economic or Political Section, and in the next the Regional Security Office and in the third, perhaps  in the Front Office for a DCM or Ambassador. The subject matter and office environments will vary greatly, and as an OMS, particularly in the Front Office, I'd be the hub of what's going on and privy to a lot of information.

Yes, Generalists can, and frequently do, take assignments "out of cone" (hence the title). Meaning, for example, a Political Officer doing an Economic tour, or a Public Diplomacy Officer working in Consular; however, once established, it seems that Generalists continue to progress within their cone. But an OMS can bop all over the place.
Nearly every post has an OMS, so I won't be limited to only being assigned to certain posts - which could be good or bad, actually. However, if I were an HR Specialist or Public Diplomacy Officer, I mightn't have the same options.

When the VIPs come to town, an OMS will certainly be in the thick of things in terms of logistics and planning, but without the joy of endless meetings, late-night airport pick-ups and early morning hotel check-outs that come along with the VIP treatment. (Unless it's a CODEL, in which case anyone with a pulse is called to active duty. POTUS coming? Your pets will be put to work, too!)

All those cables and demarche requests that come from DC? Sure, I have to log them and nag folks to see if they're making progress, but it's not me writing the required mile-long cable on the Child Labor Situation in XYZ country, thank you. It's not me trying to figure out the vague directions from the Ambassador when asked to "brief me on the situation of women in the workforce" and then writing a speech for him/her to deliver on the subject. Phew!
Being seen as "just the OMS" or having well-meaning folks try to compliment you by saying, "Wow, you're sharp! I bet you could even be a Generalist!" (read: "just like me!").
Mindless and repetitive tasks, like motor pool requests, and ordering supplies and filling the copy machines and printers with paper. But to be honest, these tasks really aren't mindless, as sending a van to pick someone up at the airport at 04:00 instead of 16:00 can have big consequences! But they're not, shall we say, enriching or stimulating. I'm not going to tell stories to friends about all the motor pool requests I do in a week, or start a conversation by saying, "Wow, you should have seen that vacation slip I copied today!
... oops, too late, sorry.

Finally, let's get down to brass tacks. There is a huge salary difference between being an OMS and being a FSO (I'm going to interchange these terms for the pure sake of variety: Foreign Service Officers ARE Generalists). An OMS will start his/her career as an FS-07. This refers to the pay scale.  After 18 months of service, we will receive an administrative raise to become FS-06. After that, any further promotions are based on merit, as judged by promotion panels who review employees' annual evaluations. During my recent training at FSI, many of us asked the class coordinator what the breakdown of OMSes was in terms of the pay scale, and this was the answer we received. There are currently:
FS-03- 40
FS-04 139
FS-05 253
FS-06 281
FS-07 125
As you can see, OMSes will top out at FS-03 and go no further, even if they personally reinvent the internet. And these FS-03s are nearly-mythical creatures, "Really? You actually MET an -03? Wow, tell me what she/he was like!"  In fact, the two 20-year veteran OMSes in our front office haven't reached that lofty plateau and one will retire soon without ever seeing it.
Meanwhile, my Economic Officer co-worker at the end of her second tour, and her tandem Consular Officer husband, were just promoted to FS-03. Granted, they're each very capable and qualified, but they're both just straddling 30 years old and in five years have accomplished what only 40 out of 838 OMSes worldwide have.
So does this mean that if I'm bothered by this fact that I'm just in it for the money? No, certainly not. Because I'm truly not. However, it is a bit disappointing to know from the start that my promotional horizon is so limited. Someone put it to me this way: if the highest we can go is to become the OMS to an Ambassador, it means that at that point our life will be completely at the whim of the schedule of another. Want to go home at 5? Nope, the Ambassador has decided to work until 7:30 and needs you to place calls, provide copies or materials, make reservations etc... Have vacation planned? Oops - so sorry, the Ambassador's spouse had his/her eye on the same date and you have to stay behind to mind the home fires.

That sounds a bit harsh, and I need to back-pedal a bit: an Ambassador's OMS is truly the eye of the storm, requiring professionalism to the highest degree, resourcefulness to be able to make things magically happen and intelligence and intuition to know where and to whom to turn to keep everything running (seemingly) effortlessly for the principal officer, the direct representation of the President in the host country. It's by no means a cake walk. 
Still, it can be a little disappointing to know that the best I can be is to be at someone else's beck-and-call.  And this is coming from someone with a deeply-ingrained motivation to serve, who truly just wants to make others happy and comfortable. Somewhere deep inside me is the urge to do a bit more.

Which brings up the next topic: chewing the fat about being a Consular Officer. I've gone on long enough today and will leave Part Two for the next entry.

Sorry there are no pictures in this entry, but a shot of me scratching my head or furrowing my brow in concentration just isn't an attention-grabber anyway.


  1. Has anyone said thank you before? If not, thank you. This blog is a beacon for me. Hope to join the corps of OMS soon. And this has been my reading material for the past 48 hours and I just can't put it down. I have questions, naturally, but those can wait. I have more reading to do.

    Thanks again.

  2. You are very kind Michael, and thank you for letting me know that this has been a help or source of motivation for you. There are a lot of benefits to being an OMS, namely the variety of positions we can take! If you still have questions, I'm happy to try to help. Best of luck on this exciting road,

  3. I agree with Michael's comment. thank you for this post. Extremely informative, and i enjoy reading it, despite the lack of pictures, which actually, helped me create 'my own images'. All that said, thank you for your side of the story. I was always like that, always considering the possibility of taking the generalist test and join my husband. I joke that I married to the FS and left my original carrier behind, like so many of us FS spouses. Currently, I decided to finally take a job as an EFM [always tried to work outside the Mission, for one reason or another, and due to my background, it always worked beautifully]. During our previous assignment, I'd qualified for an upcoming EPAP position, but once we arrived here, the position had been filled by the [extended] incumbent, who's spouse is also an OMS, and I'm glad he's got the job, but can't say I wasn't a bit disappointed with not being able to have it... :) That's life, and the qualification is good for 5 years, so, there's always the possbility to 'trasport it' to our next post [July 2014]. This time [current post assignment] there was a very suitable EFM position at our embassy, I commute back and forth with my husband, and my little kids [3: ages 7,5; 5,5 and 2] seem to have adjstude pretty well. Among the EFMs here, we decided to partake at this year's OMS application process [May/June], and we'll see what happens. I'm glad I found your post, and I'm looking forward to read your take on the consular track... :) Much success and greetings from La Paz, Bolivia.

  4. Sorry to jump on such an old post, but I've been reading (and loving!) your blog from the beginning. I'm currently sitting on the Management register for FSOs, and I'm curious about the differences in duties for OMS and Management FSOs?

    I super appreciate your description of your work so far - it's the clearest picture I've been able to form about the important work that OMSes do!

  5. Hello Mely and congratulations on making the FSO Management register; it's a long, hard road! To answer your question as succinctly as possible, there is a huge difference between OMS work and Management Officer work. OMSes are closest to executive assistants in the private sector. The run all administrative functionings of the particular section they work in: payroll, travel and vouchering, visitor or event arrangements, small purchasing, file management, tracking completion on tasks given out by the front office plus a million other things that could come up, and again completely varying depending on the section, the size of the post, the personal talents of the OMS, how much rein their given by their section heads and officers etc... There is a lot of variety in the actual work, and because OMSes work in many different sections (Front Office, RSO, Economic, Political and Management), there is good variety in the work environment. They frequently get less language training (in my only OMS posting I got a 2/2 in Spanish and the officers needed a 3/3), and sometimes no language training at all. However a Management-coned FSO will be a "generalist" which means that they are expected to do at least one tour as a Consular Officer, followed by work in their actual cone. They often start out in their cone as an Assistant General Services Officer (AGSO) doing procurement, overseeing shipping and receiving of goods and employee household effects, motorpool management, employee housing and VIP visitor support - just to name a few things. Management Officers are also frequently working in HR or in Financial Management of an embassy or consulate. When they finally become THE Management Officer at a post, they will oversee all the internal departments such as HR, GSO, Facilities Management and Financial Management (I may have missed one or two). It's quite a big task and if it's a big post - it requires a more senior FSO to be the Management Officer. In my A-100 class, nearly all of the Management-coned officers were slotted into AGSO spots for their first tours, and will do Consular for their second tours. The GSO training is extensive (10 weeks, I believe) and involves a lot of contracting and procurement training as the GSO will be spending USG funds. That's the nutshell of the differences, and they are quite different. I imagine you've already done this, but if not - read the various books on life inside the embassy, which gives good "day in the life of..." for all the different jobs. And the website had/has good video clips of what each cone does. Good luck!

    1. Thank you so much! I have read quite a bit about all the cones, but few books pay attention to the FSS corps outside of mentioning DS agents. And after reading your blog, I'm no longer anxious about spending my time "on the line" at the consular window. Seems like no matter what job you're working for, it's all fascinating and novel. All my best - Mely