I’ve only been in the DMV area for a little over two years (as of this writing) but am frequently asked for advice on how to secure one’s first job. While this piece is by no means a definitive guide, it includes a few shortcuts to bypass learning curves I endured along the way.
I came to DC from Indiana with nearly 10 years of political, policy, and private sector experience. After an internship, I was unemployed for two months in 2017. With the cost of living nearly 3x that of my home state, the pressure was on. Fortunately, I eventually landed a Director title and had a great work experience in my first role in the liberty movement.
Success in landing a first gig often comes down to three things: timing, timing and….timing. Each election cycle is creative destruction followed by spontaneous order, evolution at its best. Being in the right place at the right time means more than just about anything else – even more than your school name, degree type, or GPA.
Know the Direction You Want to Take
If you know this, it will streamline everything else. One challenge for young professionals is that opportunities can be so vast and wide, it’s easy to get paralyzed by near unlimited options. Whether you are a policy wonk, communications expert, fundraiser extraordinaire, or just an outright political hack, there’s an opportunity for you somewhere. The challenge is finding that needle in the haystack.
Establish a Process
I’m an operations person at heart, so streamlining procedures and processes are essential to me. Many job ecosystems, especially in major cities like DC, don’t have much of a human resources department so a bulk of positions are backfilled by word of mouth. Odds are, if a job is posted online — especially something on the Hill — it’s probably already filled. You should apply anyways. Here’s why:
There is something in mathematics called ‘The Law of Large Numbers’. In short, the more times an experiment is done, the closer one gets to the expected value. For you, this is a job! During my time in the insurance world, we used the ‘One Card System’ which is basically the science of quantifying activities to ensure success. This system was ‘proven’ through 25 years of activity tracked (by hand) by a salesperson and his staff in Chicago.
Forty calls to possible clients led to 25 answers, which led to 15 scheduled meetings, which led to 10 kept meetings (prospects). Of those, three are true prospects but only one becomes a client. They call this 10-3-1. The kicker is of that one future client, 60% take action the first year, 30% the second and 10% in the third year. As a salesperson hones their soft skills, the ratio becomes 10-6-6, meaning they are better at pre-qualifying prospects and closing them 100% of the time.
The principle applies to your job hunt as well: the more applications you send out, the more likely you are to eventually land a job.
Finding a Job is a Full-Time Job
Apply this process similarly to the job search. Make dials from 9-10am when people are at their desk but haven’t been bogged down by emails, coworkers, and other tasks. As people respond, be mindful that they are in the driver’s seat so you’ll want to try and meet on their terms when it comes to time and location. Spend the rest of the day meeting people for coffee. Informational interviews should be treated like real interviews so have a plan of attack. Go in with the best possible understanding of that person’s background and be prepared to ask questions. Keep the conversation 2/3 about them or something objective. In sales, they call this the ‘spotlight’. Above all, you are seeking institutional wisdom as an outsider, and there is a lot to learn! Always ask for a business card as that will often give you someone’s complete information: email, phone and mailing address.
Be thoughtful and always follow up with a thank you note – email is recommended but a handwritten card is strongly preferred. Emily Post’s Etiquette book seems to be rejected by boomers and foreign to millennials but the principles are timeless and more effective than ever before in an age of transactional behavior. Beyond this, maintain the relationship and understand folks are very busy in this town. Every time you reach out to someone, it doesn’t always have to be about a job. Millennials have a tendency to depend on less formal means of communication, but a phone call is bar none the strongest way to connect with someone. If you receive no response from someone via email and don’t have their number, ‘drip’ on them in intervals of one, two then three weeks. After that, if there is no response, it is best to put them on a six-month rotation.
Don’t Neglect the Power of Networking
Happy hours and networking events are an essential part of the job search process because of the connections you can make that you otherwise would not have online. As an introvert, I still think that being ‘out and about’ is good exposure. After all, the job search is stressful and you deserve a free drink…even if it is Franzia box wine. Just be sure to moderate your drinking. When you leave the event, you’ll want to be remembered, but for all the right reasons.
Lastly, Stay Positive
In the end, give yourself points for sticking to the job search and going through the process. While there are many career opportunities out there, the competition can often be intense. There are honest, smart, and hardworking people that get shoved in a corner while other folks seem to fail their way up to the CEO’s office. Life is unfair, step one is getting over it. Find a confidante you can talk with when things aren’t going well. There will be many calls, emails, and applications that never get responded to. All you can do is keep moving forward. Success is found through failure.