5 Ways to Jumpstart Your So-Called Career

Ways to getting the career you want.When 28-year-old Chris graduated from Coastal Carolina University with a political science degree five years ago, he was sure he could land a job with the state or local government. Instead, he spent the next year and a half living on his parents’ dime at home while he dealt with a health issue and looked for a full-time job.

Chris routinely scoured online sites like CareerBuilder and USAJOBS, but there just weren’t many government or entry-level professional jobs in his South Carolina town. Chris’ brother-in-law’s best friend, who worked for an educational tech company in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, passed Chris’ resume along to his human resources department. Unfortunately, Chris didn’t have the technical skills the company was looking for. So Chris expanded his search to other tech companies and government offices in that area, but nothing panned out.

“Every job seemed to require something I didn’t have—a different college degree, more work experience, or a technical certification,” says Chris. “I never even got called for an interview. And my dad was on me about it practically every day.”

A Familiar Story

Unfortunately, Chris’ experience is all too familiar for many twentysomethings. A recent Harvard University study shows that six in 10 Millennials have a job, but half are only employed part time. And those numbers don’t reflect all the Millennials who have taken full-time retail, restaurant, or other low-wage jobs just to pay the bills.

Still unemployed and needing affordable health insurance, Chris went back to school full time, enrolling in an online graduate degree program in public administration at the University of Pennsylvania. Being in school gave Chris a break from job hunting and allowed him to stay on his parents’ insurance for another two years—but it also more than tripled his student loan debt to $80,000.

Hard Work Pays Off

In his final semester of graduate school, Chris landed an internship with his congressman and worked hard to make a good impression. When Chris graduated four months later, the congressman’s office didn’t have a job open for him, but they invited Chris to stay on as a paid intern. It didn’t pay a lot, but Chris recognized that he was gaining more responsibility in the congressman’s office, and suspected that he would be hired full time if he stayed. Unfortunately, the congressman announced the office would be moving several hours away the following year, making it cost prohibitive for Chris to continue working at an internship salary.

Chris knew he would have to line up another opportunity fast. Although he did not find a paid position, he started volunteering after work on a campaign for a newly created congressional seat. The candidate won in November, but Chris volunteered for two more months—wondering if his hard work would ever be rewarded—before the new congressman offered him a job in January.

Although Chris’ path eventually landed him a full-time job in his industry, it is not the only way. Here are five things to consider when moving toward a new or better career:

  1. Volunteer smart.
    Chris chose a volunteer opportunity that gave him a chance to prove himself to the right people. It didn’t matter that Chris was doing different things than what his ultimate job would entail, because it ultimately paid off. Often, when you are competent and reliable in completing various tasks as an intern or volunteer, it shows the employer that you likely are capable of applying that same work ethic to more complex responsibilities.

    Lindsey Pollak, a Gen-Y workplace expert and spokesperson for The Hartford’s My Tomorrow campaign, says she has seen several twentysomethings who volunteer for causes they care about land full-time jobs. Sometimes these jobs arise within the organization, and sometimes they come about through networking. “Because they were working hard and showing true passion and drive, other people noticed and opportunities happened,” says Pollak.

    Tip: Research local organizations working for causes you care about that may need volunteers. Can’t find a volunteer opportunity? Check sites such as VolunteerMatch.

  2. Start a business. Whether it’s selling jewelry, designing websites, or inventing a new product, you can make cash and add new skills to your resume by starting your own business. Test the entrepreneurial waters by checking out local meet ups and organizations such as Startup Weekend, which holds events in cities across the country for people to share ideas, form teams, build products, and launch startups.

    Tip: Find free or low-cost help at a local small business development center. Meetup often lists groups discussing topics such as real estate and Internet marketing; and sites like Kickstarter have made funding new products easier than ever.

  3. Hunt for hidden careers. Did you know there are music supervisors who choose the songs for your favorite TV shows and movies? That’s just one of thousands of jobs you’ve probably never heard of.

    If you can’t think of a career you’d even like to pursue, “Talk to anyone and everyone you know about what jobs they've had and what those positions were like,” says Pollak.

    Tip: Check websites such as InsideJobs, to trigger new job ideas.

  4. Discover who you are. “Do what you love and the money will follow” sounds great. The problem is that making a dozen yummy cupcakes for friends is fun, but getting up at 4 a.m. every day to make hundreds of cupcakes for customers quickly can become a chore.

    And sometimes, you’re just not cut out for the career you’re passionate about. Ashley Stahl had dreamed of rooting out terrorists as an international spy for the U.S. government. So, she spent several years and thousands of dollars getting a master’s degree and learning multiple languages to land her dream job with the Pentagon at age 23. But it all went up in smoke three months after Stahl was hired, when a military officer asked her to hold his gun and she was overcome with a horrible feeling that she was holding death. That’s why she recommends you do what you are, as opposed to what you love, as seen in this recent TED talk at the University of California-Berkeley.

    Tip: Hire a career coach or counselor to help identify who you are and what you could bring to a potential career. A coach is not going to magically tell you what to do, but he or she will use a variety of tools and approaches to help you figure it out.

  5. Think twice about grad school. Although grad school eventually helped Chris land a job, he wouldn’t recommend it to everyone and wishes he had waited until he could better afford it. “I was floored when I saw I had to pay more than $1,000 for the loans each month,” says Chris.

    And having a master’s degree with little relevant work experience can actually make it harder to land a job in an industry where master’s degrees aren’t standard. You could end up in a situation where HR managers won’t consider you for a midlevel job because you don’t have relevant work experience and won’t consider you for an entry-level job because you are overqualified.

    It sounds silly, but employers often think if you’re an overqualified applicant, you will want too much money; and even if you don’t, the employer will suspect that you will be unhappy and will quickly leave your entry-level job when you find something more appropriate.

    Tip: Bottom line, think of your career as a chess game. It’s nice to have an idea of what your winning move will be, but it probably will change along the way. Instead, just focus on your next move, and the one after that will unfold. It may feel like you made a mistake or that the odds are stacked against you sometimes, but the only setback you can’t recover from is giving up.

[Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process, or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation by the National Endowment for Financial Education.]