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Finding (and loving) your first job

A lot of fellows nowadays have a B.A., M.D. or Ph.D. Unfortunately, they don't have a J.O.B.

-- "Fats" Domino

Looking for a job? Just remember, it's OK to take a chance, make mistakes, and even fail. Your first job won't be your last, it's part of the journey.

But you say you want a real job. One that's going to take you somewhere, be interesting, and pay a lot. Ha. Unless you're the next Tobey Maguire or Beyonce Knowles, you'll be lucky to get one of those three wants.

Show me the money
When beginning your job hunt, don't limit yourself by searching strictly for the big bucks, warns one financial expert. The only one who gains from taking that big-pay career job right out of college, says Paul Mauro, a financial adviser in Boston, is the firm.

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"We work with a lot of large firms that grind up people with energy," laments Mauro. "Young people with energy, devotion and creativity -- they'll go to work, wear a suit and do gazillions of hours.  They get taken advantage of and they don't really learn a lot. They get put in a cog and the creativity goes out the window."

Relish the experience
The key is to not think of your first job as your last.  It won't make or break your career, but it may damage your spirit, according to Mauro. He tells his 17-year-old daughter:

  • Take a chance.
  • Make mistakes.
  • It's OK to fail.

Taste-testing careers probably won't create a big cash flow, but it no longer causes the financial hardship of the past. Instead of forfeiting a pension today, resigning after six years on the job can leave you fully vested in your company 401(k). You take away your retirement riches and your new experience.

Another option for landing a job is to volunteer. Many a career has been launched by those offering to do the work gratis first, like a free Web site design. Obviously, you don't want to do this for six years -- six weeks is long enough to land the job, or hit the road.

So how do you find a good job?
Well, first you have to know what you like. No one can do that for you, and no job is going to keep you entertained 100 percent of the time. But just as you did with food and clothing, you have to develop your own style.

Try a little of this, a little of that. The easiest way? Sample careers through internships and school co-op programs.

When you've found a direction, you have to hone your skills for the hunt.

If you've already made contacts in your internships, use them. Otherwise, set out on a take-no-prisoners mission of resume building, job searching, company research, and interviewing. The hunt these days is global in scope, and as close as your PC.

Found the perfect job? How do you land it?

Build a strong case for why you fit, and then look the part. That requires knowing the company and the job -- in detail. So do the homework!

And finally, don't expect the first job out of college to last, like it or not. The average American worker of the future will change careers seven times. Use that information to your psychological advantage. We can probably think about job bites, five to six years at a pop. Just long enough to advance our knowledge, get fully vested in our 401(k)s and leave a good impression.

So let's get to work on finding work, and remember, good or bad the job may not last, but the search skills we develop right now will!

Still uncertain?
If you're feeling frustrated about your career direction, you're definitely in good company. Linda Haneborg of Express Personnel Services in Oklahoma City laments that she has no concrete advice for her 20-year-old daughter who is struggling to pick a college major.

"I keep telling her, don't worry about it," says Haneborg, "Because a lot of things you're going to be doing, we don't even know! Just get an education."

It's a completely new type of business world out there. So become an expert on yourself, ready to redefine and renew your accomplishments to meet the latest trends.

"Young people today will probably have as many as seven careers, and what they will be is semi-entrepreneurial," predicts Haneborg. "They will need to define their niches and strengths, and actually promote themselves. They'll be able to work in several different fields, but they need to continually hone their skills and continue their education."

While there is no career crystal ball, hot job growth and industry forecasts like those issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics are worth a look. You may at least zero in on a field you'd like to try.

Another very successful way for you to sample the smorgasbord of job opportunities out in that big world is through internships and co-ops.

Chris Gross, a 23-year-old engineering senior, went to Drexel University in Philadelphia because of the work experience their unique co-op program offered. Three 6-month rotations of school and work allow students to try a different job every other semester.

The process is simple and effective. You access the college database by company or major and pick a job. It's basically a classified listing of companies interested in hiring Drexel co-ops. If the company likes your credentials, you get the interview and, perhaps, the job. And, the students aren't the only winners.

Myra Cristobal also contributed to this story.

-- Updated: May 10, 2004

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See Also
Boost your career in 2003
Good deeds help pay down college debt
Graduating into hard times
Financial advice glossary
More advice stories

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