It might not seem like much of an opportunity. If you are looking for your first job, it could look like a whole lot of equally bad choices. After all, you have big plans and none of them includes stocking milk or selling cable over the phone.
However, not all entry level jobs are the same. And, how you approach your first job can make an impact on your career path.
Here’s how to choose the right first job, and make the most of it:
Identify Your Dream Job
Before you even start applying for an entry level position, take the time to really think about the kind of work you want to do for your career. If possible, identify a “dream job.” If you have too many interests for that, at least make a short list of careers that are a strong fit for your ambitions, desires, and aptitudes.
Then break your dream job(s) down into a list of required skills and qualifications. Do a little bit of research to fill out your list. One great place to look are the actual job advertisements for the types of jobs you see yourself doing when you are further along in your career. Career advisors at your high school or college are another great resource for learning more about the day to day requirements of a wide range of occupations.
Choose the Right Entry Level Position
If you already have a college degree, then you are probably ready to jump right into an entry level job in your field. However, if you can’t find the right job yet, this is where your skills and qualifications list can come into play. Try to identify entry level positions that will add to your skills and experiences in a way that will at least constitute progress towards your ultimate career ambitions. For example, if your dream job requires working with people, then an entry level position that includes customer service is a way to gain a great deal of exposure to people from different walks of life.
Get Good at the Job
One of the most important ways to make the best of your entry level job is to simply do your best to get good at the job. Learn the ins and outs, seek help when you are not sure what to do, and show up everyday ready to give it your best.
In addition to mastering the technical aspects of the job (learning to process a refund or acing the controls on the forklift), it is important to demonstrate the qualities of a great work ethic: punctual, enthusiastic, productive, honest, determined, cooperative, and disciplined. If you fall short, admit it and work on your weak areas.
It is also important to build solid working relationships with your coworkers and supervisors. At the end of the day, it is a strong positive reference from your employer that may do the most to make sure the next step in your career goes off without a hitch. Sure, you are picking up skills you can list on your resume, but ultimately it is a good word that can make you a shoe in for your next job, or perhaps a promotion.
Take Advantage of Growth Opportunities
Once you have mastered the responsibilities at your current job, it is time to start reaching for opportunities to grow professionally, particularly if they are in a direction that serves your ultimate career ambitions. If you can do so at your entry level job, all the better. This allows you to deepen your relationship with your coworkers and supervisors, while also showing dedication to your employer with a longer term of employment.
Many retailers and large corporate employers offer leadership training programs, for example. In other cases, an opportunity for growth may present itself by volunteering to help with a special project, such as organizing an event to raise funds for a local non-profit.
Get Promoted or Find Your Next Job
Ideally, your entry level job leads to a promotion within the same company. Perhaps you have gone from cashier to assistant manager. It still isn’t your dream job. However, now you have new skills to boast and proof positive that your employer approved of your work ethic, talent, and drive enough to give you a shot at more responsibility.
Once you have mastered your first entry level job, if a promotion within the company isn’t possible, then the next best option is to seek another job, higher up the ladder, somewhere else. Ideally you are able to stay at your old job until you land the new one to prevent any unwanted gaps in your work history. Plus, it can make you more attractive to a new employer if you are gainfully employed and looking towards the next stage of your career. Yes, it’s ethical. Just be sure to give your current employer fair notice, generally 2 weeks for most entry level jobs.
Finally, offered as a cautionary tale, there is a third way that entry level jobs can go -- You get so comfortable that you get stuck. Before you know it, 10 years have gone by and you’re trying to raise a family on entry level wages. And, because you have squandered the time at your job, it can be hard to convince a new employer that you have the drive to succeed in a more ambitious role. Just because you love your job at 20 doesn’t mean you are going to love it at 30!
Always Be Networking
When it is time to move from your entry level job to the next opportunity, a lot can depend on the people you know. Many entry level positions offer the potential to build your social and professional network, which can lead to the next step in your career journey. If you are making a positive impression at your place of employment, people will be glad to help you achieve your dreams.
Don’t be afraid to share your ultimate ambitions with people you meet on the job when it is appropriate. People are attracted to the passion that comes from someone that has a clear sense of what they want to do with their lives. And, it’s memorable when you speak about the things that really drive you.
Consider this: Everyone you meet likely knows hundreds of people. One of those strangers may be in a position to facilitate a career opportunity for you down the road.
For example, one of your coworkers is married to a veterinarian, and she is the first to find out when his practice is hiring a vet assistant. What a coincidence, your dream job is to one day have a practice of your own!
An Entry Level Job Is What You Make It
While that first job may not challenge your intelligence, education, or skill set, it is still an important opportunity. Try to find a job that gives you work experiences that will one day become the foundational skills for your dream job. And, make the most of your time by bringing your best to the table, continually striving for more, and leveraging your growing network of contacts. Keep your dream job in mind, and you will be one step closer to it each time you punch that time card.