Networking Key to Getting Started on the Hill

Posted January 18, 2008 at 6:07pm

When Daniel Son, executive assistant for Rep. Bill Sali (R-Idaho), introduced his boss at an event, he stuttered, and stuttered and stuttered some more, and then mixed up the number of Sali’s children and grandchildren.

And when Justin Grabelle started his position as legislative assistant in the office of Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.), he accidentally called the Capitol Police after pressing a button that he thought unlocked a drawer.

But such embarrassing moments, shared with Roll Call for the “Hill Climbers” column, are not likely to hold young staffers back in their careers. According to staffers and career counselors, getting to know people is important for those just starting out on the Hill and those looking to get their foot in the door.

“The most important thing is making connections,” said Frank Benenati, communications director for Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.). This includes creating relationships that last, instead of simply pursuing an acquaintanceship, and “being personable,” Benenati said.

“There are so many people who are equally qualified and vying for those positions. Networking is very key,” said a source in the Senate Placement Office, which functions as a sort of clearinghouse for Senators seeking staffers and would-be-staffers seeking jobs.

For those who are not picky about where they want to work, but know they want to work in the Senate, the Placement Office is a good place to start.

“We have a very high utilization rate among most Senators, and all committees,” the official said. “We are an elective service, so they’re not under any requirement to use us, but they often elect to do so.”

The Placement Office receives applications from individuals at all career stages, and those applications are for a variety of positions.

On the House side, the process is not as smooth if you don’t already have a specific office picked out. The House of Representatives Office of Human Resources has a job line, but when Roll Call tried the number, there was simply a recording with information on where to send a résumé. The option of pressing zero to speak with a receptionist yielded another recording saying the extension was not valid.

It may be better to check in with one of the many job listings put out by outside organizations or to contact specific Members or committees.

The Senate Placement Office source said the busiest time for applications is in post-election years, and that the best advice is for candidates to be “flexible and patient.”

“Flexibility is key, because the first objective should be to get a foot in the door somewhere, and be willing to start wherever the office needs their help,” the official said.

Alan Goodman, director of career services at Catholic University of America, agreed.

“If they can volunteer, they should do it,” he said. Many students come to universities in the Washington, D.C., area simply so they can be in close proximity to jobs on Capitol Hill.

“I can say that there’s a lot of interest in that and that’s a big draw for CUA and for other schools in the area,” Goodman said.

Internships and volunteer experiences not only allow potential Hill staffers to get a foot in the door, but also allow them to understand just what they will be doing in their Congressional positions. And for some, said Goodman, that means a valuable experience in learning that the Congressional world doesn’t suit them.

“Some students who initially want to work on the Hill learn that it is just not for them after an internship or a volunteer experience,” he said.