After taking five years to finish my Bachelor of Science degree in Art from Western Michigan University, it dawned on me that I would need a grown-up job. I decided that I would move to Boston – where corporate type jobs in finance, high tech, biotech, publishing and countless other industries – were aplenty. I made a plan to spend three months saying goodbye to Michigan friends and family and then move.
Looking through the want ads it became very clear that my education didn’t provide a single marketable skill, nor was I give any preparation for acquiring them or conducting a job search. Obviously, majoring in the arts was a mistake only a 17-year-old could make (which I was at the time of choosing), but it was a BS and most of my classes were general study (English, Science, History, etc.) So despite a bad choice, I’m sure I would’ve been equally unprepared had I studied literature, philosophy, history, economics, language, or any other subject that wasn’t doctoring or engineering. Even a business degree* would likely not cut it.
So what could I do? I only had three months to become employable.
It was 1993 at the time, so among common entry level corporate jobs were receptionist, word processor, data entry, mail room, and different types of assistants and coordinators. So I practiced typing. I’d sit for a few hours a day retyping pages from magazines getting my chops up.
Luckily, I had also worked in a copy shop to cover my expenses while being a student. So I also new how to work copy machines, short-run binding equipment, a laminating machine and other similar stuff. This became another marketable skill in my toolbox. Ironically, the job I had to pay for college prepared me more for work than the college it was funding.
I arrived in Boston and got my first job in the outbound mail room for a technology research company within days. I was never asked about my education, ever. It was my entry-level skills that got me the job.
After that it was only months before I was able to maneuver upward into the company, only 11 months until my resume could find me a better job, and not much more than a few years before I had massive advancement and control over a meaty career at premier companies with really difficult tasks, significant responsibility and an adult-sized paycheck.
Entry level jobs are entry level
No company hires a 22 or 23 year old out of college to do any complicated work. No new grad is hired to run a sophisticated marketing campaign, determine M&A strategy, devise a business case, manage a supply chain, complete a merchandising or inventory plan, create a social media strategy, attend sales meetings with executive clients, build a knowledge base, manage a workforce, or anything remotely critical or complex. All of these take years of on-the-job experience, mostly with little or no formal training.
What companies do need from young people are those who can take the basic tasks of enterprise business and do them competently. They need people to double-check data. They need people to proof-read proposals. They need calendars managed, meetings scheduled, notes taken, documents formatted, calls answered, travel booked, and other minutia of business life.
Now, they do want people who will be able to do the complex stuff at some point. They do want to make the investment in someone who will eventually, in years, contribute at a high level. A college degree may signal this. But today, they want somebody to get basic work done and do it well.
Typing and working copy machines are no longer marketable skills on their own. Still, there are many “three month” skills that can be obtained in a short period of relatively intense practice and self study, most being outside of what is being taught at a conventional college BS/BA program. Just off the top of my head, some of these three-month, very marketable skills might include:
– Proofreading (especially in the age of digital publishing, blogging, etc.)
– Being masterful at MS Office apps (like Word-merge/Excel macros good)
– Being good at Abobe apps, like InDesign and Photoshop
– Knowing HTML, preferably both in a development app like Dreamweaver AND knowing how to write it out longhand in a text file
– WordPress and the like
– Knowing how to enter content into a CMS
– Managing an online calendar
– Entering data
– Performing SQL type queries
– Knowing SEO techniques
– Being very knowledgeable at how AdWords on Google or Facebook advertising works
– Conducting secondary research (perhaps more difficult to quantify)
– Booking travel (I think this is what the Praxis staff does with half of their workday)
For sure, being able to write a competent, professional email and knowing how to talk on the phone are must-have skills, even to compete in and complete the interview process. Start with these if you are really far behind!
For me, in my experience and my business, I do want workers who will do great things in the years to come, but I really need them to be able to offer something on their first day.
* I have personally found them useless when I evaluate potential new hires myself.
Want a free PDF copy of “How to Get Any Job You Want?” You can download the full book here. The book includes…
1) Why You Should Work for Free
2) Advice to Ambitious Young People: Just Build Something
3) How to Go Level 5 In Your Job Search
4) Your Resume Sucks. Do These 5 Things Instead
5) Five College and Career Fallacies Young People Should Avoid
ABOUT THE EDITOR
Derek Magill dropped out of the University of Michigan as a sophomore. Since leaving school, he has worked with dozens of companies and now works as the Director of Marketing for Praxis.