Make the Most Out of Your First Job After College

grocery sample girl in green apron - take a job, any job, after collegeElizabeth Crowley recently graduated with a master's degree from Villanova University. Her dream job is to be a college teacher. But for the past two years, her job has been as a "crew member" at the supermarket chain Trader Joe's.

Crowley, 27, bags groceries and walks the aisles, asking customers if they need help. It's a far cry from her goal to work in academia, but Crowley is not alone in having a job that's not her desired career path.

In this tough economy, a lot of recent college grads have to settle for jobs they don't want -- if they can find them -- and lower-than-expected salaries. According to a survey last month by CareerBuilder.com., 36% of college graduates wish they had chosen a different college major, and 19% of college grads with jobs have one outside their chosen field.Still, there are steps that you can take in your first post-grad job to better position yourself for success down the road in your ideal career. Entry-level jobs can teach you the universal skills you'll need for any job during the rest of your working years.

Rosemary Haefner, vice-president of human resources at Career Builder.com, cites customer-service and sales jobs as a good example of building communication skills. "If you look at a lot of the decisions that managers make about promoting individuals, it comes down to the ability to communicate," she recently told MarketWatch.com.

Gain Confidence, Learn Responsibility
Crowley says she was shy before starting work at Trader Joe's, but talking to strangers every day gave her a lot of confidence. She's now getting her teaching credentials and training as a student teacher at a high school in the San Francisco Bay Area, and says the customer-service duties will help her with teenagers.

"It was hard at first to go up to people in the aisle, ask them if they need help, and make small talk. But that will really help me when I stand up in a classroom full of high schoolers. Also, dealing with unhappy customers and their complaints definitely helped me prepare to deal with teenagers, who tend to bore easily and get cranky."

Crowley says learning how to show up on time for an eight-hour-per-day job teaches new workers how to be reliable, responsible employees. "At Trader Joe's, I can't show up late, like I could for a college class. Bosses are not like professors who will give you an extension on your term paper. You get written up, denied raises, and even laid off. Your first job is a good way to learn responsibility."


Turn Entry-Level Duties Into Resume Assets
On your first job, look at your daily duties and see which ones can be "transferable skills" that you can list on resumes and in interviews for your dream jobs. Transferable skills are those that you've acquired during your lifetime -- classes, hobbies and, yes, non-career-related jobs -- that are applicable to what you want to do on your next job.

Cate Hansen, a recent graduate from California State University in Sacramento, is making do as a waitress while she looks for a job that relates to her degree in marketing. Meanwhile, she's reformatting her resume, turning the skills she's learning serving meals as skills that can easily be applied to any marketing job.

"I see myself as a 'sales representative' for the restaurant because I pitch desserts and drinks to customers, which makes me one of the top servers nearly every night," Hansen said. "I'm learning how to prioritize and juggle multiple tasks. And I've built a loyal clientele -- I've got customers who ask to sit in my section."

How Long to Stay, When to Quit?
How long should you keep that job you don't really want? It's not so much about the actual time spent, says Haefner. "It's how long do you have to be there in order to feel you have gained those skills that you can then transfer to the next job?" The most important thing to keep in mind is you should stay long enough in a job so that you don't burn bridges when you quit. Remember, your potential boss at that dream job may call your former boss at your first job to ask how you were as an employee.

Hansen says she will stay in her restaurant job while she's job-hunting, but she is focused on moving up into a managerial position or gaining extra duties while she's there. "If I can be promoted to shift manager or assistant manager, or if I can get the manager to let me help out with promotions and catering, those administrative skills would look great on my resume. I'm always looking for ways to move up, even if this is not the job I see myself in long term."

Any Job is a Good Job
One advantage of getting a job, any job, is that you realize what you do and don't want to do for a career. Crowley spent six months working in a human resources department, entering data into a computer and says it was the six most miserable months of her life. "I learned I never want to have an office job, and that teaching is what I love and want to do."

It's a tough economy, and employers know that. They won't hold it against you that you had to take a detour away from the industry you want to work in. "No one will look down at you for getting a job unrelated to your field, they'll respect you for getting a job," says Crowley. "Being the kid sitting on your parents' couch because you're waiting for the dream job is not admirable."

On the other hand, getting a job, showing a good work ethic and making yourself valuable to your company is admirable, and it will go a long way toward putting you on the path toward your dream career.

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