“Politics is all in the staff work,” said one Senate aide. Politicians are the visible faces of political life, the personalities who spark public debate, but the overwhelming bulk of the processes by which political decisions are made are handled by political staffers. Staffers prepare the reports, conduct the research, draft the legislation, and prepare the negotiation briefs that allow political life to go on. The pay is merely average and the hours are long, but many staffers report great satisfaction with work that allows them a central role in important public decision making.
Aides must be aware both of the political developments in their field and of the needs of the home district, and they must be aware of likely public reaction to the various positions in a political debate. An effective aide is a valued advisor and resource, and elected officials frequently develop a core senior staff which they take with them from office to office throughout their careers. There is significant turnover among more junior staffers, however, as they maneuver to work for candidates or officeholders whose careers are on the rise.
Attachment to a particular politician, who often serves as a mentor, is perhaps the most striking aspect of a career as a political aide. The development of long-term commitment and loyalty to a single party or candidate can be extremely rewarding, but an aide’s ambitions must be aligned with those of the boss. Moreover, political egos are such that staffers who seek the limelight frequently find themselves seeking alternative employment. In addition, the success of a staffer’s career is tied to that of the politician; if the politician changes jobs, so must the staffer, and if the politician loses a reelection bid the staffers are out of jobs. Despite these uncertainties, however, the life of a political aide can be extremely satisfying, and the dangers of getting turned out of office are offset by the wide range of experiences afforded a political aide.
A college degree is a necessity for staff work at any level-local, state, or federal-and many staffers have graduate and/or professional experience in their fields of specialization. Young labor attorneys will move into labor relations positions, say, while agricultural consultants may find jobs covering agricultural affairs, while journalism is a useful background for press aide positions. Competition for entry-level jobs can be intense; aspiring aides who have worked on major campaigns or interned in government offices have much stronger chances of being hired. Frequently, though not always, legislators hire aides from their home districts or states, as a means of maintaining contact between their constituents and Washington or the state capitol.
Often, political aides enter their areas of specialization when they leave the profession; others become lobbyists when they depart. A staffer who handled business issues for a state senator would be well placed lobbying for a state business development organization or working for a consulting firm with local clients. A former military affairs aide to a U.S. Senator would have contacts and knowledge that would be valuable to a military contractor. A significant percentage go on to corporate law, where legislative experience is rewarded.