Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=126287
Story Retrieval Date: 5/18/2013 1:50:57 PM CST
WASHINGTON – By some estimates, actor Kal Penn gave up about $50,000 an episode playing a doctor on the hit medical drama “House” to become a staffer in the White House.
The actor, famous for his role as an obnoxious stoner in the “Harold and Kumar” films, probably will be earning somewhere between $41,000 and $91,000 a year as associate director in the Office of Public Liaison.
“There's not a lot of financial reward in these jobs. But, obviously, the opportunity to serve in a capacity like this is an incredible honor,” he told Entertainment Weekly in an interview last week.
Penn isn’t the only one putting pride before profit. Former campaign workers and recent college graduates have flocked to D.C. to wait for their chance at a position in the new White House. These young and eager potential workers have residual campaign energy and a job in the administration is the ultimate status symbol.
So, why are young people practically beating down the White House door looking for jobs?
“It’s the promise of ‘You can do something bigger than yourself.’ The idea that you can be part of something that’s about change,” said Brendan Heyck, a 22-year-old who had worked for the Obama campaign in New Hampshire.
“I came down here three days before the inauguration just because I knew D.C. was where I wanted to be,” Heyck said.
The recent graduate of the University of Rhode Island is working as an advocate at the ALS Association, a group that champions finding a cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS.
But Heyck is still hoping he’ll score a spot in the administration – any spot. He’s not holding his breath, though; he also applied for jobs at the Capitol, and he plans on taking the foreign service exam in the next few months.
“I’m into doing whatever I can to get my foot in the door,” he said.
After the election, the Obama transition office received more than 200,000 applications for administration jobs. About 3,000 appointments still need to be made and hundreds of top-level jobs are still open, meaning the entry-level jobs under those won’t be filled for some time.
“Obama’s election signaled for [young people] a time to get involved,” said Tim McManus, the vice president of education and outreach for the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that encourages youth to serve by working for the federal government.
“So many of them were energized by the campaign, but it wasn’t simply about being enthused about what Obama brought to the table,” he said. “It was also the way government was pitched… as the way to make a difference.”
Hunter Gradie, a former deputy finance director for Rep. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, is out of work, but he’s hoping his experience and his passion will land him a cushy gig in the administration. But, his motivations for seeking a political job have nothing to do with Obama – he said he would have worked for Clinton or “even (John) McCain, if he didn't have Sarah Palin as his running mate.”
“I am just very concerned about the future of this country and would rather do something about it than complain,” said Gradie, 24, who is trying to get a position either in the White House as a staffer or in the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy as a policy analyst.
“I was in high school and wanted to help people. I thought about being a doctor, but then decided I could affect change the most by creating the laws and policy that affect everyone, both here in the U.S. and around the world,” he said.
What about the lower than average salary?
“For me, it doesn't matter how much they pay. I'd work for nothing,” said Gradie, who not only applied for a paying job but also an unpaid internship in the White House.
But as the Obama fervor dies down, Gradie hopes the pretenders will take themselves out of the running.
“I definitely believe people are wrapped up in this Obama thing, and I am glad for it but it makes it much harder for me to get a job,” he said. “As soon as some of these people see how little it pays, they’ll go back to what they were doing.”
As for Heyck, he isn’t putting money at the top of his priority list, even in a recession.
“It’s absolutely true that these jobs don’t pay very much, but the question for me is about whether you’d rather be powerful or rich,” Heyck said. “And there’s nothing bigger or more powerful than being part of Obama’s plan.”
What does the future look like for these zealous young workers?
With a huge chunk of federal employees coming up on retirement and the large number of jobs created by the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, McManus sees a new wave of Gen Ys getting their opportunity to make change.
“As we look at the reality of what federal agencies are facing, we have to be open and willing to have young people be a part of something new and innovative,” he said.
Obama has not released a timetable of when he expects to fill the thousands of vacant positions but has already outpaced both Bush and Clinton in appointments.