5 Ways to Jump-Start Your Career

Aug 21, 2017 |Alex Chediak
young man in suit, on skateboard and carrying briefcase

Market realities threaten to sabotage the job prospects and earning potential of recent graduates. Here's how to beat the odds.

Dan couldn't wait to finish his biology degree in May. He planned to move back home and find a full-time job related to his education. He'd worked a few summers at Best Buy, so he wasn't surprised when Kelly, his former manager, checked in to see what his plans were. When he told her he was graduating, she told him about some office support openings and made him an offer: $35,000 plus a full benefits package.

He thanked her, but said he was sure he'd land something lab- or clinic-related. By then Dan was sending out a few resumes a week, but since he had never interned, he wasn't getting many bites. When he graduated and moved home, he started sending out five to 10 resumes per week. Still nothing. After a few weeks, Dan reluctantly called Kelly and told her he could start the next Monday.

Growing Underemployment

Some data nerds at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York are out with a new data set: Turns out 44 percent of recent college grads are a lot like Dan. They're underemployed, which means they're doing jobs that don't require a college degree. Many of these are low-paying jobs in the service industry, such as servers, cashiers and baristas. Others are closer to Dan's gig — not terrible money, and the benefits package is nice, but not exactly what he saw himself doing.

Underemployed recent grads aren't new, but here's what is: The salaries of underemployed recent grads are going down. Fifteen years ago, half of underemployed recent grads were making north of $45,000 a year. Today, only about one in three make that much.

Why is the job market tougher for recent grads? One reason is that as more adults earn at least a bachelor's degree, there's less value in the degree itself. You have to do more than earn a B.A. or B.S. to stand out. Getting a job can become more about the people you know or the real-world experience you possess.

The good news is that if you're willing to start at the bottom and commit yourself to the process of building your skill set and reputation, there's a good chance you can move up the ranks. Here are five things that can boost your odds:

1. Be realistic.

Too many new grads have crazy-high expectations about how well they'll do in the job market. Like Tom, a mechanical engineering student I once met who told me he "planned" to work for Pixar when he graduated (he and 100,000 other hopeful graduates).

A March 2014 survey of over 2,000 students and recent grads found that while 84 percent of the class of 2014 expected to find work in their field of study, only 67 percent of the 2012 and 2013 grads were doing so one or two years later. And while 69 percent of the class of 2014 expected to find work within six months of graduation, only 42 percent of 2012 and 2013 graduates, in fact, did.David Smith, Katherine LaVelle, and Anthony Abbatiello, “Great Expectations: Insights from the Accenture 2014 College Graduate Employment Survey,” Accenture Strategy, March 2014.

It's fine to have a "dream job" in your head — just realize it will take time, effort, and some good breaks to get there. If — like Dan — you've never interned, realize you'll probably need to do that first, even after you graduate. And if your dream is narrow, consider how you might broaden it (for example, from wanting to work for Pixar to wanting to work in the animation industry).

2. Be faithful.

The number one complaint employers have about recent graduates entering the job force is a lack of professionalism. Horror stories abound of twenty-somethings coming late to work, or leaving unexpectedly during the day for personal matters. The basic pattern is that these folks assume their preferences come before their employer's needs, when it's the other way around. They pay you, so it's their preferences that matter.

If you don't give your employer at least as much value as you're paid, you're a liability, not an asset. Christians should be known as those who "work heartily as for the Lord" (Colossians 3:23-24). Don't think of your job as passively paying your dues for someone else; think of it as an active investment in leaving your employer in better shape than when you got there — which happens to be the best way to advance in your career.

Any job gives you the chance to develop a team-orientation, perseverance, resilience, adaptability and a consistent work ethic. Take initiative. Be resourceful. Be the one who can be trusted to see a job through to the end. Be the one who volunteers for things, especially chances to develop new skills or expand your network. In most cases it's safe to make your aspirations known to those around you — especially if you're wanting to get into a different field or move up in your current organization. They may surprise you in the ways they help you get there.

3. Build identity capital.

In her brilliant book "The Defining Decade," Meg Jay defines identity capital as "what we bring to the adult marketplace … the currency we use to metaphorically purchase jobs." The idea is that some jobs give you more identity capital than others. It depends not just on the role, but on the organization, and what opportunities may come your way as a result.

My friend Madison, a business major, had two offers when she graduated: an executive assistant position at a small business near her home and a mailroom position at the General Mills headquarters 45 minutes away. The small business offered her more money and was super convenient. But General Mills promised her an inside track on new openings expected within the year. She took the General Mills job. In less than a year she was given a more significant role and considerably more pay. Five years later she accepted a management position.

The job may have initially paid less, but it offered more of what mattered: identity capital and upward mobility. Large firms tend to be that way — more opportunities for lateral moves, and more chances to move up. And if Madison had wanted to look for opportunities outside of General Mills, think about the value in having a known name brand on her resume. Which is why it's weird that, according to a 2016 survey, only 1 in 7 graduates wants to work for a large company.

Sometimes the smaller company will be the better opportunity, because you'll have the chance to wear multiple hats, and you'll be on the ground floor if things take off. With a small firm, look hard at the culture, the industry, and what you're selling (or planning to sell). Be ready to move on if it doesn't work out. The questions you want to ask yourself are: How does my taking this job make sense given where I want to be in a few years? What does it say about me? What opportunities might it lead to?

Getting back to our friend Dan at Best Buy, he should keep looking for science-related jobs. And if he finds one, he should probably take it — even if it initially pays less (which it might — given the median early career salary for graduates with biology degrees). The long-term potential is more important.

4. Relocate.

I'm not one to say, "Move to wherever the best job is … period." You have to consider personal and spiritual factors too. That said, we're in the midst of a migration away from smaller towns and toward larger cities. We're also seeing specific cities establishing themselves as hubs within particular industries: Think technology and Silicon Valley in California, or music and the greater Nashville area, or fashion and publishing and New York City. If you're able to move, focusing on opportunity-rich geographic regions with affordable living is a good strategy.

On a related note, if you want to move into management, don't assume that getting an MBA is the only way to do it. That can be helpful if you get into a top program or if you want to get into management consulting. But if you're simply wanting to move up the chain of command within your industry, and it's not happening at your current firm, look elsewhere.

Internal promotions are nice when they come, but statistically the best way to get a promotion (or a sizeable raise) is to take a new position at another firm. Look for openings at other firms in your industry that are one tier up from your current rank. Don't worry if you don't meet all their qualifications. As long as you somehow check most of the boxes, you have a decent chance — particularly if you're coming from a reputable employer. The cover letter and interview will be decisive.

5. Freelance.

The internet has leveled the playing field, allowing just about anyone to turn a hobby into side income. This is especially true in fields like music, photography and writing, where so much is done by independent contractors. Think broadly: If music is your thing, don't limit yourself to performance. There's also a huge market in giving private lessons.

If you're underemployed, freelancing is a great way to get some legitimate work experience that you can parlay into something more permanent down the road. Real-life experience in your field can give you an edge where a degree doesn't. It's also a great way to test-drive something you think you'd enjoy doing without going out on a limb and quitting your job — which, unless you have a better job, is usually not a good move.

*****

There's an old cliché that says the joy is in the journey, not the destination. I know: It doesn't always feel that way. But resist passivity — the only chains on your career are in your mind. Passion and perseverance over the long haul make a huge difference in where you end up. So come up with a realistic plan to develop identity capital. That's crucial. And then leverage that capital to earn your way into a better job.

Copyright 2017 Alex Chediak. All rights reserved. 

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