Impress Me: How you can make your first job rely

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Thousands of students at school, polytechs, and universities are getting ready for exams. And after that many will face an even bigger challenge – finding a job.

We all understand the importance of your first real job – many have done the waitressing shifts and fruit picking and nannying – but now it’s time for the 40-hour (or more) week.

And what studies are showing is that the first job you take will have long-term economic impacts, throughout your career and into your retirement.

Auckland University’s Professor Elizabeth George has been crunching data from a French study which has been following 10,000 school leavers and university graduates for the last 20 years.

She’s found that your first job has an effect on a whole bunch of outcomes.

“You take on your first job when you’re really young and your brain is still growing,” she said.

“It’s a particularly vulnerable time and for many people the effects linger on for a long time.”

Possibly a lifetime.

One reason is what scientists call “path dependence”. Imagine you’re at a fork in the road. One path leads left, one path leads right. Whichever one you pick sets you on a track that takes you further and further away from that first decision.

Researchers in the US studied 4 million CVs and found graduates can get stuck on one path.

The Strada Institute for the Future of Work found that some three-quarters of graduates who took a job that didn’t demand a degree, when they left university, found themselves in the same spot 10 years later. And these graduates earn around $10,000 a year less than their counterparts who started early in jobs that required a college degree.

“You were stuck. And that’s scary.”

Prof George wanted to know what happens to a young person who takes a normal nine-to-five job, in an office or a factory. And also what happens to those who take something else. Like temp work. Or contracting.

“It’s sort of sad,” she said. “What we found was that if you started off in one of these relative non-standard type of work arrangements, like temporary or contracts, over the next two periods, four periods, 10 years, the likelihood of you changing that was low.

“You were stuck. And that’s really, really, a bit scary.”

So what’s going on here?

Prof George said part of the problem was that when a person was in a temporary job the organisation had very little incentive to invest in them.

“So you’re not going to get trained, you don’t get the opportunities,” she said.

“If I am manager and I know you’re going to be a long-term employee, I’m invested in making sure you learn, you do well, you grow, because it benefits me. One of the explanations why people get stuck in some places, is they don’t get new skills to take them into new places.”

She said there was also a lack of mentoring in temporary or contract jobs.

“So who’s going to present opportunities to you? You’re not going to get them.”

“People read a lot into CVs”

And then there’s your CV. Remember those 4 million CVs that were studied in the US? If your first job isn’t great, it’s much harder to get a break when you start looking for that second job.

“People read a lot into these CVs. To them [a contract or temp job]could signal a lack of commitment. This person’s not seriously looking for a job,” said Prof George.

“People look at a CV and decide, if you’re temporary, that means a whole lot about you that may not necessarily be true.”

But Prof George isn’t suggesting you should put your dreams of writing a screenplay or setting up a band to one side and take a dull office job.

“I don’t think it helps you or the world if you are dead, dying of boredom in an office job you aren’t interested in,” she said.

You’ve just got to keep the doors open.

“If you are going to set up your garage band, think of the marketing skills. Or your organisational skills. Or your supply chain skills. Something you can present and say ‘hey I did a band but it wasn’t just the music, it was also these other things’.”

Prof George has a 12-year-old son and would hate to see him or his friends bored and stuck in a stable job for life.

“But at the same time I wouldn’t want them living out of a car because of a choice they made when they were 18.”

Soul-destroying work

She also pointed out that the standard nine-to-five job might not be as soul-destroying as one might think.

“For a long time there has been this idea that non-standard work belongs to the rebels, the people who don’t like office politics. They are going out and making this great way,” she said.

But the French study showed young people actually want regular jobs. When the researchers crunched the numbers, they discovered what they call “a strong preference for standard employment over time”. People in a standard job were often more satisfied with their job status, pay, professional accomplishments and more optimistic about their professional future than people in non-standard employment.

“I think it gives you structure. It gives you meaning. It gives you a sense of who you are. It gives you security. Why do I want to belong to an organisation which drives me nuts? Well it’s because there are good things. I like my colleagues. I like my boss. I like the coffee in the coffee room,” Prof George said.

“Now that I’ve got a job, it’s much more relaxing.”

Graduating Auckland University mathematics student Louis has picked up his first job and is moving to Sydney.

He knows on one hand how important it will be to build his base of knowledge and experience.

“But on the other hand, I don’t know how important it is yet. It’s hard to know what other opportunities it might open up or what other places it might take me.”

Louis is less daunted about starting the job than he was about the prospect of getting it in the first place.

“Now that I’ve got a job, it’s much more relaxing.”

“I recognise the importance of having a job that’s respectable, standard or expected can show that you’re capable,” he said.

Hitting the Reset button

So, if you don’t choose your first job wisely you could end up much worse off financially when it comes to retiring but there is good news. Prof George said one could always hit the reset button and change career.

And she should know, because that’s what she did. After working a couple of standard jobs, she found herself totally bored.

“Well I quit all of that and went back and got a PhD because I felt I needed to do something different. If I can do it anyone can. You just have to hit the Reset button if life is not providing you things and engaging you the way you want to be engaged,” she said.

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