The Hill Life: Finding a Job, Part II
Mar 9, 2011
Last week, we discussed where to find classified listings for Capitol Hill. After I posted, a reader contacted me asking me to make sense of what job she might qualify for with two years of off Hill experience. It was then that I realized that we, on Capitol Hill, speak our own language and we forget that most people don’t know the difference between LC, LA and LD. So, let’s clear up some of the confusion, shall we? Here’s how to decode a Capitol Hill classified ad.
Working for Free. One of my biggest sources of frustration when giving career advice is people who think that they are too smart/too well-educated/too qualified to intern. You will not last very long on Capitol Hill with that kind of attitude.
When I started my internship in 2005, I had just graduated from a top-100 university with three bachelor’s degrees, and I was working on my master’s degree at a top-50 university. But I realized, after talking with several mentors, that the day-to-day work on Capitol Hill cannot be taught in school. It must be learned on the job.
Out of the nine full-time employees in my office, all but one, started off his or her career as a Hill intern. The other started off as an intern on the campaign.
Internships are vital because they provide training, education and a vetting process for job applicants. And they allow the intern to decide whether the Hill Life is really the life they want to be living. I’ve known more than a few folks who interned and decided that neither the Hill nor D.C. was where they wanted to be, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Staff Assistant. If you’ve completed your internship or you have at least one year of other relevant job experience (slinging soft-serv at Dairy Queen is not “relevant”), you should be qualified for a Staff Assistant position.
Staff Assistant’s do all of the clerical jobs that a secretary would do, but they also supervise interns, give tours and handle other tasks as needed. SA’s also process most of the mail that Capitol offices receive, and we get a lot of mail.
Being a Staff Assistant, you get more access to the staff than an intern. This is your opportunity to learn legislative process, about the issues and study your Boss’ positions. And surviving the phones and the mail proves that you’re ready to talk to constituents on the Congressman’s behalf.
Legislative Correspondent (LC). The amount of experience needed for an LC job depends on the office and the chamber. In the House, most LC jobs are entry-level, but you need to have excellent writing skills to land this job fresh off an internship. In the Senate, however, you should probably have completed either a full-year internship or a year at Staff Asst. before you apply to be an LC.
LC’s are responsible for writing policy letters, composing remarks for the staffers and Congressman and writing press releases. If you don’t think your ready to be responsible for the hours of research and writing that go into this job, then you should start at Staff Asst.
Legislative Assistant (LA). If you’ve completed eighteen months on the Hill, and you have experience working in a policy arena, then you probably have the skills to apply for an LA position. But this is not an entry-level position, I know a lot of people on the Hill, and I only know one who started as an LA. Always err on the side of being the rule, not the exception when applying for work.
If you’ve worked off the Hill, either at an association, a lobbying shop or an NGO for more than a year, and you have significant experience in one area, then you are probably qualified for an LA position. So if Senator Smith is looking for a healthcare LA and you’ve spend the last year working for a hospital association, then you’re probably in good shape.
Legislative Director or Deputy Chief of Staff (LD or DCoS). These jobs require significant Hill experience. I would say that a good candidate for an LD or DCoS position has 3+ years of experience at the LA level and at least one year of experience at the LC or Staff Asst. level. I’ve met some young Deputies and LDs in my time, but they all had one thing in common, they started working on the Hill when they were 21 or 22 years old. So they have four or five years of experience before they become the 27-year-old wunderkind.
If you have less than two years of experience at the LA level, or you haven’t worked for a related off-Hill company for at least three years, you are not qualified for this job. A former professor of mine recently returned to the Hill to work for a House committee, he had a freshly minted Staff Asst. apply for an LD job and actually cite her experience in student government as a qualification. I understand that finding work can be a challenge, but if you’re not tailoring your resumes to work that you are actually qualified to do, then you’re wasting your time and someone else’s.
Now that we’ve discussed the hierarchy of the Hill, we should spend a moment discussing some of the buzzwords often featured in these ads and how political beliefs play into the process.
If you want to be happy working on Capitol Hill, you should try to find a Boss whose political beliefs closely mirror your own. I can’t tell you the number of times that young job seekers have told me that they could work for a Republican or a Democrat, it doesn’t matter to them. But I’m here to tell you that it should.
A person who has been a Young Democrat and interned with a Dem office is not going to be very competitive when applying for a job in a GOP office, and vice versa. While a moderate Dem or a centrist Republican can find work in the office of a like-minded moderate, these folks are the exception not the rule. And if you lean towards a certain persuasion (even if it is only a slight lean), you will enjoy your work more if you agree with your Boss on most things.
When reading the ads for these jobs, you’ll often see the political leanings of the Congressman or Senator described with inside baseball terms. So, let’s define them.
Progressive or Liberal: Very Democrat. Think Rep. Barney Frank or Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Blue Dog Democrat: Blue Dogs are typically socially liberal but fiscally conservative Members who still fall on the Democratic side. Think Minority Whip Steny Hoyer or Rep. Dan Boren.
Moderate Republican: Middle-of-the-path GOPers are often fiscally conservative but a little more lax on the social issues. They probably aren’t winning any accolades from the many conservative groups out there, but they are still Rs. Think Sen. Susan Collins or Sen. Mark Kirk. (There are more moderates in the Senate than in the House.)
Fiscal Conservative: Whenever I’ve seen a Representative or a Senator use this term it’s usually because while they vote pro-life, the social issues are not the cornerstone of their agenda. They will also probably be outspoken on deficit and spending issues. Rep. Ron Paul or Rep. Paul Ryan
Social Conservative: If you’re not prepared to tow the line on the pro-life position or the anti-gay marriage position, this is not the job for you. While most GOP Members vote the pro-life position, anyone who describes themself as a social conservative is defined by that position. Rep. Joe Pitts or Rep. Michelle Bachmann
Once you’ve decoded that job posting, you can start applying for the jobs that you find. If the ad doesn’t specify experience, go to Legistorm and look at who for the work history of the person holding the job now. How long have they worked there? Where did they start out? The best guess of what qualifications their looking for is who they’ve hired before. If you still don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid to call and ask.
If you have concerns about the Members political leanings, look at their vote history or their legislative history on Thomas. Read through their press releases and news articles about them. This will help you figure out their political philosophy and prepare you for your interview.
If you truly want to be competitive in this market, you need to apply for jobs that fit your qualifications and your political views. The closer in line you are to their needs, the more likely you are to get the job. Next week, we’ll talk about how to apply for the jobs that you find.