8 tips for your first job. and your next one.

Students are graduating this weekend at the Christian university where I teach, and I’m impressed with the undergraduates completing their bachelors in our communication program.

Last Thursday we had the “senior dinner” for about 20 of them. For the conclusion of our annual senior tribute, in which our department faculty collaborates on statements of encouragement and blessing for each individual, I wrote:

Passion, and vision and creativity are the marks of the class of 2019, packed as it is with artist and activists, prayer warriors and problem solvers. As a faculty we commend you for your compassion, your diligence, and your faith. And we charge you to steward your many gifts. You have shown an uncommon ability to blend competence and kindness, and we send you out into the world “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6, NIV).”

This was a great group. And they are graduating into the best job market we’ve seen in years. A degree in communication will serve them well; as the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday, “Technical skills turn over fast, so employers are looking for fast learners who can evolve quickly and have exceptional soft skills—the ability to write, listen and communicate effectively.”

But the Journal also says they will be thrown into the deep end since the job market is so tight new graduates will be expected to do things immediately that they might have taken months or even years to learn before. Automation and outsourcing have taken many entry-level tasks off the table, and the Class of 2019 may be expected to make sales calls on the first day or prepare client presentations in the first week. It’s sink or swim.

Kayla Williamson, who graduated last May and now has a job at a theater arts promotion company in New York, dropped by my office this week and her update validates this expectation. She was has been learning fast and doing real work. She has also been failing often and has found a supportive team that comes alongside and helps her—but expects her to manage new responsibilities well and learn from her mistakes.

In this more stressful environment, confidence will go a long way but ability will go further, and she is an extremely capable young woman. Employers are struggling to find new ways to train new employees, who often have not been held to high standards in their educational journey.

Unfortunately, many new graduates lack the confidence one might expect from a college graduate, and in fact, this may be the most anxious generation yet. A 2018 survey by the American Psychological Association, also reported in the Journal this week, says 53% of workers under 23 report being anxious or nervous, compared to 40% of Millennials and 34% for the national average. Boomers clock in at a healthy, well-adjusted 27%.

Perhaps Boomers are merely lying. Generation Z, however, as new graduates are described, are used to talking about their fears and insecurities in ways older generations may not have been. And perhaps Z’s have also seen their Millennial siblings struggle, despite their relative overconfidence, and worry about seeing themselves end up as baristas is a coffee shop. That’s not likely to happen to them, but anxiety can be debilitating. And, on a first job, fatal.

This surprises me in some ways. I’ve found current undergraduates to be better students, motivated perhaps by the anxiety they feel. They seem more willing to read the textbook and more concerned about learning than grades. I have found them more willing to accept responsibility than students just a few years ago. But one of the challenges they face is that employers will treat them as Millennials, or at least like the stereotypes the media has created. Individuals are always more complex than our stereotypes, of course, but the stereotype is a real challenge for today’s graduates and they will have to overcome it.

So graduates face an environment with high demands complicated by low expectations, where they are needed but not necessarily trusted. How can you thrive in such an environment? Last week I wrote about your portfolio and getting the first job. But here are some tips for succeeding at it:

interview the job

The first thing you have to do is land in the right place. There are enough jobs available right now that you can be a little pickier than your older brother. Don’t be too picky, of course, but when you are interviewed take them time to ask about the company culture. How do they treat mistakes? What happens when you need time off for family emergencies? What training do they offer? Make it clear that you are just trying to understand the culture of the organization— that you are not making demands.

Then do check the answers. Go out for lunch with people who will be on your team and ask them the same questions. Find people who work there on LinkedIn and other social media channels and see what they say about work. Follow the boss on Twitter. It’s important that you understand what you are getting into. Don’t be suspicious or fearful. Just be thoughtful and wise.

work to learn

Your first job is not just about the money, although that’s important. Your first job is really about learning more than you could in an internship about the career path you anticipate. If you get two offers, which one will best prepare you for the next job you will want?

A good first job is one where you are being stretched, which is, fortunately, part of the current climate. Every time I talk to Leah Rose, who also graduated last year, she talks about how much she is learning in the fundraising office of a nearby college. I don’t expect she will be there all her life— I think she will want to ultimately serve people who are needier than upper-middle-class college students. But what she is learning about fundraising makes this the perfect job for learning how to serve people on the margins.

Think down the road a little—which job will best prepare you for where you hope to be? Be realistic about what you need to pay your school bills and rent (or share) an apartment. But be idealistic about where you want to go and what you need to know to get there.

move out

It may be tempted to continue living at home, and maybe even necessary. But as soon as you can, move out and grow up. Learn to manage your life and you will also be learning to manage your job. If your parents want to help, you are blessed. Respect their advice, even if you don’t always follow it. But the sooner you take on adult responsibilities, the sooner you become an adult.

As an aside, don’t call it “adulting.” It’s not a game. You are not trying out for a part. “Adulting” suggests you have options. You don’t. You are an adult. Don’t expect a pat on the back or Facebook “like” for it. You are an adult all the time, not just on Saturday morning when you do the laundry. Embrace it and do what you have to do.

keep up

It’s also important that you continue to learn outside the job. Stay fresh by following leaders in your industry, keeping in touch with your mentors, attending conferences, reading trade periodicals. You should have been doing this in college, but if you weren’t, it is time to start.

And take the on-the-job training that’s offered seriously. Even the training you think you don’t need. Have a teachable spirit. Laughing it off or complaining about it probably won’t help.

work hard

The best way to overcome the stereotypes you face is just to show up and work hard. Be on time. Don’t blame others. Tamp down your expectations. Be positive

And grateful.

be real

As the Journal suggested, you will be asked to do things you haven’t done before. And you will be asked to do them from the start.

So don’t pretend to know how to do something when you don’t. Ask for help. Be honest with yourself and with your team. Pay attention to their instruction and help others when you can.

You are entering a world where you can’t find all the answers on YouTube. The company has its own nuanced culture. Learning it will require humility and patience and even failure.

It’s a real job. Only real people will succeed.

get rest

As a student, you may have talked about how much time you will have after you graduate. You won’t. You will have less time in many ways. No more spring break or summers off. Even the gig economy turns out to be a fill time job. Treat it like one.

But to succeed you will need intentional restorative practices—like a nap on Sunday afternoon. You have your own pace and your own needs but some sabbatical principle will be important for your health and focus. Find a rhythm.

You won’t have more time after college, but you will have a more consistent schedule. Include rest in your plan.

trust God

And include God. Find a church. Read your Bible. Pray without ceasing.

But the answer for the anxiety you will certainly feel is not the routines of faith, which are helpful, but the focus of faith, a triune God who rules all, redeems His children and indwells them.

Please know that He does not promise you will not be challenged or disappointed or even fired.

He just promises to be with you.

You are going to need Him.


—-So, what are your tips? Or concerns?

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