In Defense of the Staff Assistant

If you’ve been reading Hill Navigator long enough, you may find some overarching themes. One of them is a fervent defense of the staff assistant position. Hill Navigator was once a staff assistant — answering phones, ordering sandwiches from the Rayburn Special Orders deli (old timers may remember that one) and greeting every visitor with a big smile and an offer to make fresh coffee. Such skills may be deemed entry-level, but they have served me well in every job I’ve had since. By the time I’d become weary with the job, a promotion — to the coveted back office — was in the wings.

And so it goes, a tale common for many Hill staffers. The lesson? Don’t overlook what the staff assistant does. It’s important. It’s necessary. It keeps the offices functioning and smiling. And — I’ll put this in bold — it’s a great job to have. Just not for too long a stretch of time.

Q. I will [soon be a] graduate of a small liberal arts college (in May), and I will be working as the campaign manager for a congressman during the 2014 cycle. I do not have any direct Hill experience, but I will have three election cycles under my belt (including the 2014 cycle). I do not want to be stuck as the campaign junkie and my short term goal is to work on the Hill. When is a good time to start looking for jobs on the Hill? What level of positions should I be looking to apply for? Am I stuck at the staff assistant level because of the lack of experience?

It sounds like you are a promising, eager college-graduate-to-be who wants to work on Capitol Hill. And you’ve got campaign experience, so you’re likely someone who knows how to work hard for little pay. The one hitch in your question? The idea that you’d be “stuck at the staff assistant level.”

The staff assistant job is not quicksand. It is a launching pad. A caterpillar. Insert any metaphor for things that start small before getting big.

Staff assistant is the common point of entry for Capitol Hill jobs for recent graduates. According to the 2010 House Compensation Study, the D.C. staff assistant position has an average tenure of less than two years. Less than two years. And where do these staff assistants go? They get promoted. Or they get a better job. And wherever they go, they take that Hill experience with them.

So I’ll take the liberty of reframing your question: When is a good time to start looking for a job and what level should you seek out?

If you know you want to work on the Hill, start now. You don’t have to be a college grad to go on informational interviews. Start with your local and state delegations and any offices that are closely connected to the campaign you are working on. Meet with them in earnest. Say that you’re hoping you can join a congressional office once the campaign ends. Be willing to take any position, though given your lack of Hill experience and your recent college degree, you’d be wise to look for entry-level spots and then work your way up. Your campaign experience isn’t all for naught. The same work ethic and political smarts that serve you well on the campaign trail will translate to a congressional office. Even at the staff assistant level.

Have a question? Let us know. Hill Navigator wants to hear from you.