Six Steps to Kick-Start Your Career After College

photo of young adults waiting for a job interview

Making the leap from the safe and comfortable college life into the intimidating and unpredictable workforce is one of the biggest and most important transitions of our lives.

Making the leap from the safe and comfortable college life into the intimidating and unpredictable workforce is one of the biggest and most important transitions of our lives. Your first post-college job will ideally pave a pathway for a long-term, meaningful career. Through that transition and the many I’ve made in my career since, I have learned that the quickly changing global economy is impacting every industry and workforce around the world. Those who take these six thoughtful and intentional steps will have the greatest opportunity for success.

1. Begin with the end in mind.

The biggest mistake you can make in your job search is to enter a certain career field because of the promise of a high salary, the prestige a job might offer, or because you feel pressure from family. Many people give very little thought to how God has uniquely designed and gifted them. I have witnessed countless people spend decades of their lives searching for happiness and fulfillment only to find it later in life when they stopped to ask the question, “What is God’s plan for my life?” Proverbs 19:21 [ESV] says, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.”

I recommend everyone start by taking a Career Direct assessment to truly understand how God made you and gifted you with unique skills, passions, values, and talents. Once you understand your gifting and unique design, making good career decisions is much easier.

2. Be intentional.

The choices you make early in your career create momentum and develop a body of knowledge and expertise that can help you or hurt you in your future career transitions. Many young people want to extend the college experience and prioritize fun and leisure ahead of career development in their mid- to late-twenties. It is important to have work-life balance, but making career choices early in life based on leisure is a mistake.

When looking at job opportunities, consider which company “brand” will look good on your resume. General Electric is known for grooming young leaders, Goldman Sachs is know for only hiring the best, and Google is the hardest place to land a job (It is actually easier to get into Harvard than to get hired at Google!). If you have any one of those companies on your resume, you are setting yourself apart from the crowd as other companies actively seek to hire people who have this pedigree on their resume. Also, choose your boss wisely. Your first couple of bosses can really shape your career path. Ask yourself if you will enjoy working for them. Will you be able to learn from them? Do they show a desire to help you in your career? Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, had a great mentor at Harvard Business School in Larry Summers. She subsequently worked for him at the World Bank and then again when he worked in the Department of the Treasury for the Clinton administration. Good bosses can help you gain momentum in your career. Finally, be an intentional student of your industry. People who know the big picture and how everything connects will rise to leadership positions faster than people who just know how to do their job.

3. Learn to network.

All business is built on relationships, and therefore networking is a critical part of advancement. One prominent CEO of a placement firm recently said that 75 percent of the leadership jobs being filled in the United States are coming from personal referrals. It is never too early to start networking. In college, seek out internships at places you hope to work upon graduation and build relationships with people inside the company. Volunteer at local non-profits. If you have a target company you wish to work for, find ways to engage in community activities they support to build relationships with their leaders.

Networking is all about building a broad range of relationships inside and outside of your industry. One Harvard Business School professor once said, “There comes a time in your career when your greatest currency will be the relationships you have.” To build a rich and useful network of relationships, always remember to give before you ask. Don’t look at networking as a way to get something from others but rather seek ways to provide value to others and help them with their needs. When you do this, your network will grow quickly and will be very valuable to you when you need it.

4. Build the new resume.

The traditional resume from the past is becoming obsolete. Today it is critical to adapt to the changing world where 75 percent of searches for candidates by companies and search firms start on LinkedIn. One placement CEO recently told me, “If you are not on LinkedIn you don’t exist.” This is not just another social media platform but rather your career platform and online resume that needs to be developed and continually curated over time.

A recent survey of employers shows that “demonstrated skills in critical thinking, communication, and problem solving are more important that your undergraduate major.” Pathbrite.com is a new platform that allows users to build an online portfolio of displaying their work and results. This allows us to take our online resumes to a whole new level. As jobs become scarcer and the cost of hiring and training new employees continues to rise, businesses will be looking for more ways to see an applicant’s achievements and results. Leveraging both LinkedIn and Pathbrite.com gives the applicant a competitive advantage over those who do not use these platforms.

Finally, the paper resume is not going away. It will almost always be required upon final interviews. When crafting this, remember that this is not just a sheet of dates, achievements, and statistics about you. Craft a compelling narrative about your story, who you are, what you have learned, how you can provide value to an organization, how you can leverage experiences for an employer, what your competitive advantage over others is, and how you continue to develop and grow as a person. Remember, this is a marketing document for you. Take the time to develop it correctly. I personally have found value in seeking professional help to do this the right way. It is worth a little investment to get a great resume that markets you to your fullest potential.

5. Commit to continuing education.

Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen famously said, “Software is eating the world.”Marc Andreessen, “Why Software Is Eating the World,” The Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2011. The   rapid changes in technology are impacting every segment of the economy, so to advance in our careers it is important to continuously adapt to stay relevant. Proverbs 18:15 says “An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.” Fortunately, technological changes are revolutionizing education as well as allowing anyone in the world to receive a free Ivy League education or to learn how to program from their home.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are online courses from the top universities like Harvard, Stanford, Yale, MIT, University of Michigan, University of Virginia, and Vanderbilt. These courses include everything from finance, accounting, programming, business management, and marketing. They are taught by the same professors but are free to the public. Upon completion you can receive a certificate to show you completed the course. Many are now posting these on their resumes to show continued development post-college.

Using MOOCs to gain free education in our spare time instead of bingeing on a Netflix series is a perfect way to supercharge our careers past our competition. My Harvard Business School professor says that a college education has a shelf life of three years, and most of what we have learned will be obsolete unless we continue to plug in, update our education, and stay current in our field of endeavor. Erika Fry from Fortune magazine says, “Adapt to the future and invest in yourself . . . no matter how comfortable you are with your career.”

6. Understand your personal finances.

Unfortunately, the economy is not in a good state, and most Americans are struggling to make, save, or handle their money. The need for better financial education and understanding is so great that many states are now requiring financial training for high school students before they can graduate. There are two big issues I see for those early in their careers: not knowing how to manage a budget and not understanding how to deal with student loan debt. Over 70 percent of graduating students today have student loan debt, and the average is $33,000. By learning how to wisely manage our finances and debt, we set the foundation to have a better, stress-free career with more options available to us.

First, I highly recommend using Mint.com. It is the best personal finance software on the market. It is free, and with an iPhone or Android app it will allow you to manage and track all your accounts and personal finances on your phone as well as your computer. It is quick and easy to set up and soon you will have your financial picture all in one place to manage.

Second, for those with student loan debt, agencies around the country are helping students refinance their student loans for lower interest rates. I encourage you to read up on the process. Over 93 percent of all student loans are government issued and have interest rates ranging from 6–9 percent. Organizations like SoFi.com, Citizens and Common Bond can help those with a good credit rating and a job refinance their debt to a much lower rate. Use Credible.com to look for better interest rates, and to learn more about how some of your student loans may be forgiven based on your job or working through special federal programs, go to IBRinfo.org.

During a recent conversation about the economy and the challenges people face in their career, one person said, “Everyone needs to understand that no one is coming to rescue us. This isn’t a Disney movie.” It is so true. Being proactive to plan and prepare in this new economy is the best way to have success. We need to understand how God made us and what His plans are for us. Upon understanding this, we need to take action to leverage the skills and talents we were given. A year from now, what will you wish you had done today to get started on the journey?

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