Trading Spaces: What the Elections Mean for Washington-Area Employment

By: Katie Bascuas

A post-election employment flux is coming soon to greater Washington. Find out how area associations can leverage the city's revolving door of talent. (Titled "Trading Spaces" in the print edition.)

As the country gears up for another election this fall, greater Washington is preparing for a change in the job market. Staff turnover in DC is common every two years when members of Congress are up for reelection, and it is especially widespread every four years during and immediately after presidential contests.

Depending on electoral outcomes, congressional staffers and government agency employees may find themselves suddenly unemployed, while many people working for private businesses or organizations in the DC area may be recruited to work on the Hill or in the new or returning administration.

This revolving door of talent creates a flow of skills, know-how, and relationships that benefits both private- and public-sector employers, including Washington-area associations.

A Natural Next Step

Stripped down to their most basic elements, association and government jobs are similar. Each serves the needs of a large group (members or constituents) and supports that group's well-being, so it's no wonder that many former government staffers consider entering the association world.

"It is a natural career progression," says Ned Monroe, CAE, senior vice president for external relations at the National Association of Manufacturers, "particularly in DC, where individuals in the administration and on Capitol Hill clearly understand the influence of associations and the logical progression that a career in associations might bring to them."

For example, "if somebody is committed to a policy position or has a particular expertise, they have an opportunity to find in associations a similar career path, a similar block of issues," says Monroe, who entered the association world after 15 years spent working in politics.

"My first job in associations was an opportunity for me to continue to do the exact same thing I was doing in political campaigns, which was advancing policies that I believed in personally," he says. "I really enjoyed the opportunity to have career advancements doing the same thing but in a long-time, stable environment with people who agreed with me on the issues and the policies that I have always liked."

What Associations Offer

Stability is one of the most immediate benefits that associations offer former Hill and federal agency staffers, who deal with the threat of unemployment every two or four years. Other benefits sometimes include more regular work hours, higher pay, and better benefits.

According to a Sunlight Foundation study, a legislative director in the House made $85,912 on average in 2009. The average base salary for a government/lobbying chief at a greater Washington-area association that year was $145,831, according to ASAE's Greater Washington Compensation & Benefits Study. That's almost a $60,000 gap.

Pay bump aside, one of the most attractive perks of working at an association is the opportunity for career advancement, say many former public-sector employees.

Associations offer a professional atmosphere, says Pam Whitted, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs for the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association, who spent five years on the Hill early in her career working as an office manager and legislative assistant for several members of Congress. "And that's not to say that Capitol Hill is not professional, but it's very young."

Jim Potter, vice president for advocacy and operations at the American Academy of Physician Assistants, who also worked for a member of Congress early in his career, agrees. "I hate to say this, but it's age-biased," he says. "The average age of a congressional staffer is mid-twenties, not too many years out of school, so it tends to be a much younger environment."

Associations, on the other hand, often provide better prospects for professional growth, Potter says. They tend to offer a greater variety of jobs in different departments, from government relations to membership services, and thus more opportunities for an employee to try different roles or gain new responsibilities.

Adjusting to the Association World

But those who've done it say transitioning from the Hill or a government office to an association can take a little getting used to.

"Associations can be quieter," Potter says. "They have their own processes that may not move as quickly. For some folks coming from the Hill, that might be seen as a good thing, while for others, they could grow frustrated."

A prime example is the culture of returning phone calls.

"When you're on the Hill, and you say, 'I'm calling from so-and-so's office,' depending on who that member or committee is, you get your calls returned pretty quickly," Whitted says. "All of a sudden you come out into the private sector and the association world and … you have to work a lot harder to get the responses you're looking for."

There's also bound to be a shift in office hierarchy.

"You go from having one member of Congress who is your boss to an association, where your multiple members are your bosses, and you're responsible to them," Whitted says. "That's a different dynamic."

Potter adds that it is a big change to be charged with representing the viewpoints, opinions, and needs of several thousand members rather than just those of an individual legislator.

Association staff members need to be able to synthesize diverse viewpoints from all of their members and frame them into a clear, cohesive message, he says, so an association considering whether or not to hire a former Hill staffer needs to evaluate whether the candidate has that ability.

An In-Depth Perspective

People who can successfully navigate the transition to the nonprofit world can contribute valuable knowledge and resources to the associations that hire them.

"They can often bring a level of sophistication or understanding about the Hill," Potter says. "They usually bring a greater perspective on the process and what might be influencing either the process or a particular member of Congress's perspective or attitude."

Along with a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics of Congress, former government staffers have likely spent years cultivating relationships with other Hill workers, lawmakers, and influential contacts in government offices—relationships that can be a boon to an association engaged in advocacy work.

"Very often advocacy is the chief goal of an association," Whitted says. "And [former government staffers] who come into an association are people who often have experience in your particular issue area, so they bring with them not only knowledge of that issue but also relationships they have developed on the Hill in dealing with it, and that's invaluable."

Finding Fulfillment

Regardless of the differences in job stability, workplace environments, and pace, associations offer a complementary career path for many people leaving government positions.

"There are probably more similarities than dissimilarities," Monroe says of association and public-sector jobs. "These are dedicated professionals who are working side by side on committed policy objectives and philosophies and trying to help people."

Both workplaces also offer a rewarding experience, which to many employees is an intangible and invaluable benefit.

"The thing that I liked about campaigns was … meeting people on the campaign trail and hearing their stories," says Monroe. "And the unique thing about associations is we get to do the same thing. I get to talk to manufacturers from coast to coast every day who are really trying to do the right thing in tough economic times, and it is really invigorating and enjoyable and something I look forward to every single day."

Katie Bascuas is associate editor for Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

How to Attract Top Talent

Three association executives share their tips for recruiting the best and brightest employees from Capitol Hill or executive branch offices.

Network, network, network. "Be up on the Hill—it's shoe leather. If you know someone personally through interactions with a member of Congress, you know much more about them than you might get in an interview for an hour or two." —Jim Potter, vice president for advocacy and operations, American Academy of Physician Assistants

Self-promote. "Promoting associations in the DC community to shine a spotlight on the great work that associations do in advancing policy and advancing the nation is something to get folks to pay attention to career opportunities [in associations]."—Ned Monroe, CAE, senior vice president for external relations, National Association of Manufacturers

Always be on the lookout. "Keep your eyes open in your everyday dealings on Capitol Hill and at receptions. Keep your eyes peeled for when you see talent and people who are knowledgeable… so that when the opportunity is right, these are people you might approach about the possibility of joining the association."—Pam Whitted, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs, National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association

Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is an associate editor at Associations Now in Washington, DC.