This is part of an ongoing series of articles about being employed or unemployed in today’s economy. We are sharing real stories of struggles and accomplishments, as well as advice on what others can do to make it out in the real world. Read more articles from our writers series on The Vine.
Before I begin this article, I want to offer some perspective. The other night I heard 5 gunshots and the desperate moaning of a man who had just been shot not 40 yards away from the bed I was sleeping in. From what I gathered talking to the police, he was shot in the leg, but I have yet to get an update on his condition.
Unemployment is certainly a serious issue facing lots of Americans, but I just want to encourage us to remember to count the blessings in our lives. Anyways, without anymore preface, the following are the thoughts I had on my experience in the employment market and finding work that you can value.
We were all lied to. We were told that if we worked hard, pursued opportunities, and got a degree that there would be a decent job waiting for us. When I graduated college back in March of 2010 we were still in the early days of the shitstorm that is the employment market. That is to say, there were very little options available to me, but by August I had found employment on Senator Murray’s reelection campaign in Tacoma. I thought I had finally broken through into the world of professional politics.
Campaigns end, though. And when ours did I was staring at the looming prospect of renewed unemployment. I decided that it would be best to take my experience and new connections to D.C. So I packed up a couple of bags, found housing via Craigslist, and embarked on a great journey to find my place on Capitol Hill.
What I found was that to actually enter the world of Capitol Hill requires a perverse amount of nepotism, a healthy dose of luck, and baring those two, it requires the classic internship. My connections were not deep enough to go the nepotic route nor am I inordinately lucky. So I applied and was accepted to be an intern.
The first part of my internship was fine; I learned the ropes and accepted my generally mindless tasks with stride. I was offered some amount of help finding permanent employment, but nothing ever fully panned out.
As the internship progressed, I started to realize that I was highly replaceable labor and that there was no real intention or incentive to help me out. Quite the opposite, there was high incentive to dodge the effects of the budget cuts by using interns for more and more tasks that were traditionally the domain of paid employees. By the end of my internship, I was essentially doing a large part of job where the paid employee was promoted and the position eliminated.
The other thing I noticed was that the egos and attitudes of staffers were overly inflated and fairly appalling. I had interned in college for the Scottish Parliament and came into this experience thinking that people would be grateful for your work, patient with your mistakes, and eager to help you learn. If you devoted the effort to be a good (unpaid) intern, then the staff would devote the energy to be good (paid) teachers. That is how I was able to go from knowing nothing about Scotland to writing a comprehensive review of the legal system’s response to knife crime and the legislative options for changing it.
Instead, I got continually shit on. There were the daily terse e-mails from staffers angry about honest mistakes. Nor was there any real input on how you are developing and what you could improve upon. Even worse, I once got a tongue-lashing for asking a senior staffer her career arc and background (whilst I was filing her papers and labeling her boxes for an office move). I get that people are busy and that the work is important, but when you are cycling through a Pandora station for music you can answer a question or two. I have never understood the culture of general dickishness towards your unpaid grunt force that seems to dominate lots of our culture, especially on the Hill. The great irony was that the Senator was an amazing human being who went above and beyond to make you feel welcome.
The sad thing is that these internships are seen as competitive resume builders. The idea is that you get shit on for 6 months so that you can build a career. However, in this economic climate, you get shit on and spat out, back to a job market where everyone else has impressive credentials and your internship no longer matters. When I was being interviewed for a job after my internship, I was told as much.
So, how did I find employment? The week after I left my internship I applied with a temp agency. Three weeks later I had a position that was only supposed to last a month. Now a few months later, I can finally start to think the burden on unemployment is off my back. Did my internship help improve my standing to get offered the position? Maybe it did. Though I know a lot of other hill interns who are still unemployed. I think I got this position because I have a very diverse background and skill set which was a good fit for the company.
That is not to say that I am in a position that I dreamed of. Far from it, I am doing work that I am good at, but I desperately miss the sense of meaning my jobs and internships once had. Doing work is something that one should always be proud of, but I got a degree in Political Science so that I could go out and do things I believed in. Right now I sit behind a desk and solve IT issues while answering phones. Hardly the life of public service I got my degree for.
Still, the most rewarding work I ever did and the experiences that I value most were the small campaigns and nonprofits I volunteered for. I loved being involved with small organizations and candidates who shared my values. The options for a career in that field are currently very limited, but they are always looking for people to help out. Honestly, it was the network and experience at the nonprofits where I got the most career help, training and satisfaction.
So, my advice to the potential Capitol Hill intern who wants to work on issues important to them is to pass. Go intern for a nonprofit, work for cheap (or free) for a campaign, or just volunteer somewhere that you feel makes the world better. Dabble in lots of fields and learn new skills. Go somewhere that will appreciate you. What is better than an internship on The Hill is an enthusiastic recommendation from someone who genuinely appreciated your work.