The following is a guest post by FMF reader Mike Hunt. Mike has left several excellent comments on this blog and I asked him to give some career advice of his own in a post.
From observation, a number of people reading this blog are about to start their career or are in the early stages of their career. Many have received a good education from a reputable school in a field that can be applied in their first corporate job. In my career I have come across many highly impressive business leaders who did not go to college or even finish high school. A surprising number of these individuals possessed very strong leadership and analytical skills and have worked their way up through their career making it easy to connect with all levels of employees. The drawback is that they will have trouble changing jobs because some company cultures require higher education to be considered for a senior level position. So for that reason it’s worthwhile to get an undergrad degree as well as some higher level education. FMF has written so much about this and there is a strong correlation with an advanced degree earning more income over a career. I hold a BS & a Masters from two good engineering schools (Johns Hopkins and University of Virginia) and this has helped my in my career. That said, I’ve seen a lot of people with many degrees from top universities who are completely clueless about life, have no common sense, and / or have the socials skills of Mr. Bean. So it stands to say that intelligence, higher education and good skills on the job are slightly correlated at best.
The reason I start this post with education is that when starting a career, the school name, degree and reputation along with the GPA is the first thing an employer will screen for and if you can pass this test you will get an interview. As long as you come across well in the interview, you will likely get the job. In this market jobs are so tight there will be little room to negotiate unless special circumstances are present. So your best bet is to interview in many places and have several offers of which to make a choice.
One important thing you have to realize in starting your career is that when you start working for a company, particularly a big company, the company is losing money on you. You heard that right -- you are a negative generator of value. The reason being is that it takes time to train people to use the company systems (email, procurement, intranet or whatever) and for several months you are getting up to speed to learn the products and players in the organization. Unless you are in a very narrow specialist role this is usually the case and was with me when I started working.
For this reason you should do all you can to soak up knowledge like a sponge and do your best to come up to speed quickly. Also take advantage of this to learn additional knowledge so that you can pick up some transferable skills while being paid to learn this. Let me give one personal example- when I first started working as a Project Engineer, I had some down time and took out a library book to teach myself to touch type without looking at my hands. Before this I henpecked with two fingers from each hand. At first it was slow and awkward to learn touch typing but within 2 weeks I had it down and was flying through typing emails. To date, it was the single best return on investment for personal productivity.
The reason you should learn as much as you can is the reason the company is so generous to hire and train you is because while you are overpaid when you start working, after a few years you will be underpaid by the same employer. Unless, that is, you are able to make some quick career advancements (how to do this will be covered in another post.) So a second key to keep in mind early in your career is how can you learn more that you can make yourself valuable to another employer. Learning skills is one thing, but you also need to contribute to the company and make an achievement that is tangible and measurable and can be expressed in business terms. For example, you improved the procurement system by changing a paper system to electronic saving $43K per year. It’s important to measure your achievements this way as that is the key to find another job.
The last important thing to look at when starting your career is to plan your first job such that it will progress you to your second job. When I graduated school I got an offer from the Naval Surface Warfare center in NE Virginia to design the guidance system on a cruise missile. The drawback is it would take 18 months to get the top secret security clearance and during that time I’d be pushing paper. 18 months is an eternity for someone who just got out of school! I ended up working for AlliedSignal (now Honeywell) as a Project Engineer, a decision that turned out to be great in hindsight. The reason is that at AlliedSignal I got trained and certified in Six Sigma and picked up some great project management skills. Also they had very good training programs – this was under Larry Bossidy who was ex-GE. They were such a well respected company that working for them is still a great feather in the cap even though 10 years have passed since I left! If you can, pick a company like this as your first job. You won’t go wrong.
Two other pieces of advice -- all things being equal, take the job that pays the most money, even if the location is less desirable. It’s worth it to get the highest base salary early in your career that will only compound provided you manage your career well. And lastly, even if it pays well, don’t pursue a job that produces something against your values. For example, I could never work for the tobacco industry because I don’t feel good about getting people addicted to nicotine. Money is nice but there is more to life.