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Your Ultimate Guide to Getting a Job in a Federal Cabinet Minister's Office
Getting a job in a Cabinet Minister's office on Parliament Hill in the Nation's capital is not as easy as you might think. However, there are certain steps you can take to ensure that you have an increased chance of getting that job in a Minister's office.
This ultimate guide is based on facts, personal observation and experience from my own personal experience working for a political party, for a Member of Parliament and that of a Cabinet Minister in the government of Canada.
The suggestions listed in this guide are not 100% guaranteed to get you a job in a Minister's office, but will significantly increase your chances. It can be a difficult road, but if you love politics, you know that the rewards are well worth it.
I wish you success in your journey.
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The Different Paths to a job in a Minister's Office
If only it were as easy as simply responding to an ad on a job board for a position in a Minister's office, submitting your resume, nailing the interview and getting the job. But how much fun is that?
In some rare cases, it's almost as easy. There are job listings for a Minister's office sent via internal email to all the MP offices of a political party. If you are privy to such emails or have a friend or contact that can forward these little gems to you then you can simply submit your resume with cover letter and wait to see if you've been chosen for an interview. The problem you may encounter is the competition you will be up against for this job.
Let's face it, you're not the only one who is a political junkie and wouldn't kill for a position in a Minister's office. There will be younger, better educated, perhaps even more politically experienced competitors you have to beat out. And there is never just one interview. How would you measure up?
Let's start out by understanding the different paths that can lead to a job in a Minister's office first, aside from simply responding to an in-house email:
The Different Paths to a Minister's Office:
- Youth wings or University/College political clubs
- Campaign workers/ volunteers (not just a few hours a week, we're talking major time commitment during an election)
- Working in a political party main office
- Working in a regular MP's office
- Working for the provincial political party of the same stripe, ie., Conservative
- Working in a provincial MLA or MPP office
- Networking, aka: who you know
- Political party internships/Parliamentary internships
- Defeated federal election candidates
Generally speaking, these are the sources from which exempt staff in a Minister's office have been hired. There are always exceptions, but for the most part these will set you in the right direction.
What is it Like Working in a Minister's Office?
What exactly is it like being part of a Minister's exempt staff? Aside from politically, academically and personally rewarding (at least, that's been my experience), it can be:
- Exhausting- you can be looking at working long hours, as much as 12 hour days and possibly 7 days a week.
- Nerve-wracking- There is no such thing as job security, you do not belong to a union, in an election your Minister may lose his/her seat, Cabinet shuffles may change the funding available for that Ministers' staffing needs, and there is no appeals process if you get fired (some Ministers and MP's have fired staff over a bad day in Question Period, don't kid yourself).
- Adventuresome- High turnover rates and plenty of shuffling between offices.
- A Balancing Act- you are often required to juggle several projects at once and they all have to be completed as of yesterday. The ability to multi-task and prioritize is a must.
The Hill Times publication in its annual survey of top ministerial aids called "Terrific Twenty-five Staffers on the Hill" listed knowledge, influence, and discretion as the most valued attributes of exempt staff along with competence in "spin control" and access.
Now that the scary stuff is out of the way, its time to examine other aspects of working on Parliament Hill in a Minister's Office.
What kinds of jobs are found in a Minister's office? If you want to see some job titles and their current maximum salary according to the Treasury Board of Canada as of June, 2011 see the table below:
Jobs Found in a Minister's Office on Parliament Hill
Current Maximum Salary (as of 06/2011)
Minister's Office Positions
Chief of Staff
$133,400 to $171,300
Director (e.g. Director of Policy, Director of Communications)
Senior Special Assistant
Support Staff (e.g. Legislative Assistant)
Minister's Private Secretary
Position (Minister with regional representation budget)
Regional Affairs Director
Regional Communications Advisor
Regional Press Secretary
Position (Minister with a Parliamentary Secretary)
Parliamentary Secretary's Assistant
Position (Office of Minister of State)
Chief of Staff to the Minister of State
$119,00 to $133,400
Director (e.g. Director of Policy, Director of Communications)
Senior Special Assistant
Minister of State's Private Secretary
Up to $79,369
Info in the Table "Jobs Found in a Minister's Office" taken from Policies for Ministers' Offices - January 2011, Part 3 — Human Resources Management, 18.104.22.168 Position and salary maximums
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Sample Job Descriptions for Exempt Staff
While it is impossible to list all the duties for each position in a Minister's office, one such description for a Special Assistant and for that of Support Staff are as follows:
Special Assistant duties:
- provides general support to the minister and the director of parliamentary affairs;
- is responsible for briefing and preparing the minister for Question Period;
- assists the director of parliamentary affairs in implementing the government's Parliamentary Reform initiative;
- liases with the caucus and office of the minister's parliamentary secretary to discuss the department's legislative agenda;
- liases, in collaboration with the director of parliamentary affairs, with the other ministers' offices and caucus members to ensure co-ordination of government-wide legislative issues; and
- may report to the director of parliamentary affairs
Support Staff Duties:
- positions include individually or in combination such administrative functions as reception, scheduling, organizing meetings, record keeping, information management, and document processing and control- salaries should commensurate with complexity of functions and level of responsibility;
- positions should require a knowledge of departmental and governmental processes, procedures, systems, and policies; and
- positions could include chauffeuring responsibilities in combination with administrative functions
General skills valuable in any MP's office or Minister's office include:
having an interest and understanding of Canadian politics
managing time well
the ability to research, synthesize and analyze complex policy issues in a short period of time
an ability to multitask
excellent written and oral communication skills
the ability to work well with others and independently
answer phones, greet visitors
draft and submit 10%ers and householders
research, filing and handling of specific case files
being bilingual (depending on the MP)
The Five Key Components to Secure a Job in a Minister's Office
Generally speaking, there are five key components that most exempt staff possess in a Minister's office. Some more than others, but they are as follows: The ability to network (and have many connections), post-secondary education (Bachelor's Degree minimum), loyalty to a particular political party, experience and characteristics such as stamina, energy and focus to name a few.
If there is one thing to keep in mind when seeking a job in a minister's office, it is impress, impress, impress. The better the university or degree in a relevant field, the better. The greater your level of involvement within the political party, the better. The more impressive accomplishments you can beef up your resume with, the better. The more important people you know, the better, and so forth..
Regardless of the political party the MP or Minister is affiliated with, they all want the best exempt staff they can hire. After all, it isn't really about you, it's about them. The more you can do to impress them on your resume, the better your chances of being hired. The need to impress continues on with the interview process as well, but that will be discussed further on.
The Ability to Network and Who You Know:
This component will probably get you the furthest, I recommend that you network at any and all opportunities that come your way. The best place to start is within the political party you are affiliated with. If you don't have a membership to the party then you are missing out, and besides, you will need one if you wish to be part of a minister's exempt staff in Ottawa. Here is a brief listing to give you some ideas as to where and how you can build your network of acquaintances:
- Attend meetings of your local riding association
- Volunteer in both provincial and federal elections for the political parties of the same stripe (ie., Conservative, Liberal, etc.)
- Attend any fundraising events in your riding
- Attend any seminars in your field of interest, ie., foreign affairs, etc. Many MP's and Ministers attend these in Ottawa.
- Always keep in mind that networking is like a web, even if you meet just one new person, that person knows someone who knows someone, etc.
- If you are attending college or university, join the campus political club you affiliate with- Liberals or Conservatives, NDP, etc.
- Attend other political seminars and conferences, such as the Manning Centre's annual networking conference in Ottawa- it's an example of a great mix of politics (there are often Conservative politicians that attend, even the PM as well as Conservative leaning organizations and think tanks to get to know!)
- Get a paid position or volunteer at your political party's main office
Most exempt staff that work in a Minister's office have at least a Bachelor's degree in a relevant field, such as political science, economics, etc. The higher the position with regard to pay and responsibilities, the more educated and experienced the person usually is, but not always. Most people applying for a job in a Minister's office already have an educational background in politics to some degree. What can really set you apart is any additional education or training you have that will better qualify you for such a job. Training such as:
- Management or Leadership courses- there are courses available from institutes such as the Canadian Management Centre, (offers online courses)
Carleton University's Graduate program in Political Management,
University of Guelph's Certificate in Public Policy and Administration (can be obtained completely online).
- Any additional courses or training you have received that is relevant to the Minister's office you are applying to.
Check what your college or university has to offer for courses, or research which courses would help you get a leg up on your competition for a job in a Minister's office. The links I listed are just a small example of what is available out there.
Not all your experience has to be politically based. Experience managing employees is valuable, any office or computer experience. You get the idea. Volunteer experience is just as valuable. I say this because when you are young or inexperienced, it's a bit of a catch-22, you can't get a certain job because you don't have enough experience, but you can't get the experience you need because they won't hire you. Volunteering is a great way to get the experience you need if you can't get that experience from paid positions.
Your experience should highlight your crowning achievements. What do I mean by that? Did you have an article you wrote published? Did you win any awards? Were you the winner or a finalist in Canada's Next Prime Minister (as an example)? These are your bragging points and even if you feel these are no big deal, they can make a big difference with regard to setting you apart from your competition and give you an edge. Your achievements demonstrate that you are valuable, important and not just anyone.
As I mentioned earlier in the Hub, MP's and Ministers seem to pride themselves on finding the best staff possible. Why do you think there is such a high turnover? Aside from bad days in Question Period resulting from tempers, often the grass tends to look greener on the other side when it comes to potential staffers. They always know there might be someone better out there.
Important: The most valuable experience you can put on your resume for a job in a Minister's office comes from working for an MP or the political party itself. It doesn't matter if your MP was the lowest backbencher, or if you only have experience working in an MP's constituency office, it's all viewed as very valuable. The duties that you will perform in a Minister's office are often very different from that of a regular MP's office, but those same tasks still have to be done and if you already have experience on doing those tasks, so much the better. It demonstrates competence to your potential employer and shows them that you already have a good understanding of how the system works in Ottawa, whether you're on the Hill or not. In a way, it's like having a membership to a secret club. If you have that experience, you're in the club.
This quality is especially important for mature applicants seeking a position in a Minister's office, along with education and probably a few important names to drop.
The question here is, what have you done for the _______ party? While the saying goes, you don't hire your campaign manager, many MP's do. Why? Loyalty, not just to the political party but to them. Trust is very important when working in any MP's office, Minister or not. The more you give of your blood, sweat and tears to a political organization and any MP the more loyal you will appear, and the more valuable you will be. I know several Ministers whose exempt staff members' top quality was loyalty to that Minister. They were people he could count on, who he trusted to always have his back and make him look good to the Canadian public, the Department, Caucus and the Prime Minister. Those are the kind of staff that Ministers and MPs look for.
How can you demonstrate this kind of loyalty on your resume?
Give your time and energy not only to the political party, but also to certain individual(s). It doesn't have to be federal, it can be provincial as well. Many staff cross over from provincial to federal and vice versa. Elections are one of the best times to achieve this. Working at the political party's main office is another way.
Demonstrate that you are capable, dependable and indispensable. While working in an election or for the party, get to know as many people as you can. Network, network, network. Secure your ties.
Not everyone wants to work 12 hours days, 7 days a week. Not all exempt staff positions in a Minister's office require this. However, being focused, energetic and multi-tasking can only help you along the way. If you realistically know that you do not possess all of these qualities (not everyone does) focus on the characteristics that make you stand out. Are you loyal? Are you a whiz with computers? Are you great with people? These are fantastic skills to have as well. Focus on your strengths.
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Resumes, Interviews and the Importance of Impressing People
It would be a terrible shame if you have a great educational background, great contacts, loads of political experience to hand in a crappy resume and show up to an interview in the wrong clothes. It is very important to be able to impress people. This shows others that you are capable, professional and a valuable asset to any team. This concept applies to ANY job you are applying for, not just for a job in a Minister's office.
Here's how to impress:
- Be sure to have clean and conservatively styled hair.
- Always wear a suit. It doesn't have to be expensive, but it should fit properly. Men- always wear a tie! Women- if wearing a blouse, be sure it is not revealing, and your skirt should be no shorter than just above the knee.
- Watch your body language! Maintain good posture, keep your head up and always look people in the eye when speaking to them!
- Always give a firm handshake, not too limp and not bone crushing
- Speak confidently when answering questions
- Always have a few relevant questions prepared ahead of time to ask your interviewers.
- Take time to practice your interviewing skills. Understand what are the right answers to questions commonly asked, such as "what quality do you like least about yourself?" Wrong answer: "I'm lazy" or "I don't like working long hours," regardless if this is true. Right answer: "I tend to work too hard" or "I'm a perfectionist."
- Do background research on the Minister and his/her department
- Don't be afraid to let some of your personality shine through, it will help you stand out, but always maintain a professional attitude and demeanor throughout the interview.
- Speak clearly
- Have a properly formatted resume based on your experience- Chronological or Functional? If you can afford it, have your resume done professionally.
- Make sure your resume contains no spelling errors, is completely up to date and printed on good quality paper.
- Always Attach letters of recommendation or reference- be sure to ask for one from your previous employers