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Care and Feeding of a Young Career

May 24, 2017

It is spring time, which means that soon approximately two million new college graduates will be wading into the job market looking for “real jobs” – meaning hopefully they’ll be able to get paid doing something involving what they studied, or at least have some enjoyment of, or maybe that they’ll make enough money to pay the bills for a decent place to live and have some left over to vacation and to save.

Sadly, statistics say that about half of these new graduates will have to settle for employment which does not even require the college degree they worked so hard – and accumulated so much debt – to earn.

There are many reasons college grads get delayed in starting their career

For some of this “disappointed half” of the graduating class of 2017, this may be unsurprising – even the fulfillment of four years of prophecies or worries, given their poor choice of college major; others may have failed to write a resume which motivates employers to bring them in for an interview. For others, the blame may lie with their choice to skip (or inability to obtain) an internship which would have helped them gain some real work world experience.

There are many articles online to help graduates find their “real job”. I’m writing to the graduate who has already found it, and who is interested in nurturing it and building on this first “real job” to develop a meaningful, successful career.

Graduation is better seen as a starting block for life than as a finish line for learning

Some graduation celebrating is certainly in order, don’t get me wrong. A degree requires a lot of hard work over many years, and it is absolutely a milestone worth celebrating. But my suggestion to see it as a starting block is about having the right mindset…

It has become cliché that millennials (and “generation Z” behind them) have a sense of entitlement for many things in life, and expect their trophy at the end of every season. But a job is not an entitlement, and in the real world trophies are not handed out to all participants. The only systems that can possibly work like that are communist economies.

In a capitalist economy, job offers are made when organizations feel a job candidate is the best choice of available options, to fill a role performing work of greater economic value than the cost of their salary and benefits. Pure and simple.

If you are not considered the best available option for a given job, you should not expect to be offered it; a corollary is that the wise job seeker only spends his time on potential roles for which he has a good chance of being judged the best option. Other points spinning out from this maxim: compensation is directly related to the economic value of the work being performed and the availability/scarcity of people to perform it, AND if there is insufficient work of that type to be performed, there will be no job at all. It is naïve to think as a new college graduate that you could benefit any company you walked into, and that you deserve a salary at a certain level, no matter what you’re doing. A corollary to these insights is that the wise professional seeks to build skills which have high economic value AND high demand.

Capitalism is the most powerful job- and wealth-creation system the world has ever known, but it is not a table stacked with trophies all of the same size, in exactly the right quantity for everyone to receive one. Trust me – that is a good thing, because it lights the fire of achievers; it’s why Capitalism is the best economic system in history.

The right mindset is key to advancement above and beyond the first “real job”

Seek excellence in every job you have. Having the skills to perform work of greater economic value than the cost of your salary and benefits  is requirement #1.  When you’re starting out, most of your marketable skills were learned in college, but as you progress you’ll increasingly need to gain more advanced skills in the work world.

Treat every day as an interview for the rest of your life. Excellence is more than just technical ability; it requires great communication skills, professionalism, and possibly most importantly, being a great teammate – being pleasant and fun to be around, willing to help colleagues, willing to own up to mistakes (without throwing teammates “under the bus”) and willing to share credit with the team (not attempt to hog it, which fools no one anyway).

Just as getting a job offer is the result of being the best available option among job candidates, getting a promotion (in a fair, healthy organization) is the result of being the best available option to fill a new higher/larger role. Patience and humility are key to the right mindset here – being part of a strong team with very experienced colleagues may seem like a negative thing, until you realize that this is exactly the kind of team which can help you build your own expertise more quickly and deeply.

It’s also important to realize that most of the time, promotion can only happen when an opening of that type exists (value exceeding costs) – either resulting from the growth of the organization or from someone vacating a role above you… or a similar situation opening up in another company which would value the skills you’ve been building. Patience is just as important as keeping an awareness of where, when and how such an opening might occur.

Volunteer for special assignments, and make some friends.

Avoid the mindset of just doing the minimum required on the job. “Special assignments” come up from time to time, and if you show a willingness – even a hunger – for those opportunities, you may earn yourself a chance both to learn something new and to make new friend(s).

I’ve seen young professionals turn down optional work because they’re worried it will add too much to their workload, or they lack confidence in anything outside their normal sphere of responsibilities. Don’t make that mistake. Your next job opportunity may involve a skill you learned in a special assignment, or it may come from a contact you made while working on it. Why not have as many irons in the fire as you can possibly have?

In short, as with so many things in life, taking the long-term view pays dividends, even in seemingly small day-to-day decisions and interactions.

Armed with this knowledge and a great work ethic, young professionals can be poised to make the most of their young careers and to grow them into a satisfying lifelong pursuit. In addition to climbing the corporate ladder, early career success can also open the door to later entrepreneurship, yielding another avenue to harvest the expertise, contacts, and good reputation one has cared for and fed from the beginning…


From → Economics

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