What I Learned In My 20s About…Job Hunting

A little later on this year, I’ll be turning 30 years old. In American society, this is for some reason a milestone birthday[1]. If nothing else, it’s the birthday that signals that “milestone” birthdays will stop coming at oddball intervals and instead begin showing up at the decade mark.

As I did in my previous post about finance, I wanted to try to impart some of my advice to those of you looking for some guidance when it comes to job hunting. I get that there’s thousands upon thousands of articles online about this very topic. If you’re here, you probably didn’t find this from a search — you likely know me or someone I know. That said, I still want to share my experience with the job search process.

Note that I’m really not going to go into interviewing too heavily in this post. While the interview is a critical part of actually getting a job, it’s not the job search itself. I may talk about interviewing in a later post.

1. Companies Are Going to Call Sales Jobs by Lots of Non-Sales Names

One of the various jobs I had in college had the title Marketing Advisor. Based on the title, you’d think I’d be doing something like social media campaigns, advertising, or even lead generation, right? Nope. I spent three weeks going door-to-door selling cable in rich suburbs of Columbus, Ohio[2]. This was my first lesson to not trust job titles. Over the years, I’ve applied for jobs with marketing, training, account development, account management, admissions advisor, and customer service in the name, only to find out during the interview that the job was actually a sales position — even though the job description online didn’t frame the position as one[3].

If you like sales and/or if you’re looking for a sales job, more power to you. It’s not my gig, but if you like it, go for it. If you’re not looking for a sales job, know that there’s a lot of companies that frame sales positions as non-sales jobs. If you find that out during the interview process, stay away from that company. It’s for the better.

2. In the Corporate World, Having A Degree Matters More Than What That Degree Is In

Note: The following section applies to non-specialized positions in the corporate world. If you’re a doctor/accountant/lawyer/engineer/meteorologist/etc, your specialized degree is immensely important to your career. This also largely doesn’t apply to teachers, unless your goal is to be a substitute teacher, in which case your rules are far more lax than I imagined.

I’ve worked at three relatively large companies[4] since graduating college. In every single one of them, I’ve met dozens of people working in positions that have nothing to do with their degree. I’ve met a social worker who managed a call center, a paralegal who spent all day making outbound calls, a broadcasting major who ran a rental car desk, a vocal performance major who worked as a receptionist…and so the list continues on. Finding a job in the field you go to college for is not easy. While in a utopian world we’d all be able to wait on the job that lets us do what we want in the field we want, reality doesn’t work that way. That’s part of why I was working in a call center three weeks after graduating rather than working in radio.

Companies know this and interview people with that in mind, particularly in a corporate setting. Your ability to finish a degree program (and ideally do well), along with the traits and skills you present in your interview are a big selling point. Business, communications, and English majors in particular seems to do well, regardless of industry. After all, if you can talk well and understand business, you’re a (comparatively) hot commodity, especially at entry-level positions.

Speaking of entry-level…

3. Temp Agencies Can Be Your Friend…But Only if You’re Looking For Entry Level Work

When I lost my job in 2011, I was fortunate that part of Ohio’s unemployment process was to pass your information along to temp agencies. Though I had been applying for hundreds of positions a week[5], I was getting very few calls from recruiters to set up interviews. A temp agency had managed to use my experience to help me get four interviews within the first two weeks of them helping.

The problem was that all of the interviews they could find for me were entry level positions. 24-year-old, unemployed me didn’t care about this all that much and happily took the interviews. But in the experiences that I had separate from that time and that others have shared with me as well, don’t expect a temp agency to find you anything beyond an entry-level position, even if your experience clearly has you at a middle management or higher level. If you’re a middle manager, you’re kind of stuck on your own when it comes to job searching.

4. Experience With a Formal Title Trumps All

Remember what I said about college degrees mattering less than you’d think (so long as you have one)? Part of the reason you’ll find that to be true is that it’s difficult to find entry-level positions in specialized areas. Couldn’t find a paid internship in college in the field you want to work in? Too bad. You’re probably only going to get interview opportunities for low-level positions (generally that have nothing to do with what you want to be doing). Trying to make a career path change to a different area of the corporate world? You’re likely even worse off. Companies aren’t going to take a chance on an unknown commodity, even if you’re the most skilled worker in the world. Doubly so if you don’t already work for the company.

I realize I’ve been a bit doom and gloom in this post, but it’s because one of the biggest things I learned about the business world in my twenties is that having an office job isn’t the idealized world that many of prior generations made it out to be. That rant in and of itself deserves its own post. If you do have a takeaway here, let it be that you’re going to need to work your ass off to get an interview for the job you want…and even then, don’t get your hopes up.

What I Learned In My 20s About…Finance

A little later on this year, I’ll be turning 30 years old. In American society, this is for some reason a milestone birthday[1]. If nothing else, it’s the birthday that signals that “milestone” birthdays will stop coming at oddball intervals and instead begin showing up at the decade mark.

I don’t see getting older as a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just reality. Everyone ages, regardless of if we want to or not. And while I feel like I’ve known a good bit for whatever age I’ve been at the time, I certainly found that I’ve accrued quite a bit more knowledge over the last decade. As time gets closer to my birthday later this year, I wanted to share some things I’ve learned in my 20s about various topics. I figured I’d start off with a topic that I learned a lot about as a teen then built on in my 20s — personal finance.

Take the things I talk about in my list below as items I gained from my own personal experience rather than hard gospel. While the things below worked (or didn’t, depending on the case) for me, your mileage may vary.

1. Emergency Funds Are Useful…But They Likely Won’t Feel Useful

As I was coming out of college in 2008, I had very little money and a whole hell of a lot of debt to my name. Any money I had made during college from jobs there went to car payments, car insurance, student loans, my cell phone, or gas. With my first job out of college, I got paid twice a month and I found that nearly all of one of those two checks went to student loans. That said, I was driving a car that was ten years old, trying to scrounge money together to apply for grad school, and still had other bills to handle. If it wouldn’t have been for the kindness my grandparents showed me by letting me live with them for a year and a half after graduating, I probably would have ended up in a significantly worse place than I was.

One of the things that I learned from a co-worker at that job was that an emergency fund would save my ass when I least expected it. Over the course of the first year I had that job, I set out to save enough from each paycheck to give me three months worth of paychecks in savings by end of year. I got to December of 2009 and had reached my goal a month early. It felt like a waste. That money was sitting in a savings account and gaining (very little) interest and could be used up at any time. What was the point?

Soon I realized that the fact that the money could be used at any time but wasn’t being used was the ideal situation. It was a safety net — something I wasn’t used to having in my life. The net below an acrobat seems awful useless until you fall. When my car broken down two days before moving from Arizona to Ohio, I was glad I had it.

2. Take Advantage of Income Based Student Loan Repayment

One of my biggest mistakes financially early in my twenties was choosing not to use income based repayment plans offered by the student loan companies I had my loans with. As I mentioned in the previous section, my student loans were taking up nearly 50% of my take home pay when repayment started. I was able to manage it for around six months, but eventually decided that the solution to not having to pay student loans was to go to grad school in order to get my loans back in deferment.

While graduate school ended up being a largely positive decision for me[2], I wish I would have given more of a thought to the repayment options that were available to me. I was far too stubborn in my early (and mid) twenties to be willing to consider lowering my payments. By the time I was willing to consider them, my loans were nearly paid off. Though I’m certainly not saying income-based repayment makes sense for everyone, if you’re having trouble with your student loans, I would encourage you to look into it.

3. Take Advantage of 401k Matching As Soon As You Can

There’s a lot of debate around whether or not Albert Einstein actually said that compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe, however one thing is for certain — interest and market growth are immensely powerful. I came into my twenties knowing next to nothing about retirement plans, the stock market, or investing in general. On top of that, it turns out that the things I was taught about those items were very, very wrong[3].

In the USA, if you’re at least 21 years old and have been with a company for at least one year, if your employer offers a 401k plan, you are eligible by law to be able to contribute to it. Furthermore, if your employers offers something known as employer match, the money you put towards your retirement can be matched in some capacity (usually dollar for dollar up to a certain percentage and/or amount).

While retirement investing is a bit complicated and I am not a financial advisor in any way shape or form, I will say that there is one thing that I’ve found is unequivocally true. Free money to help out your future is almost always a good thing. If you’re not putting away whatever amount of money towards your 401k that your company will match, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

4. Stop Lending Money to Friends and Family

Of the four items on this list, this was probably the hardest for me to get good with. After all, friends and family are people you are close to. You care about them and want them to be successful. And yes, if someone needs a little money here or there in an emergency, there’s nothing wrong with helping them out. But when that request becomes routine — $20 one week, $40 the next, $10 the week after that — it’s a sign there are bigger problems in play.

Instead of lending the money, or perhaps in addition to doing that if you must, offer to help the person needing the money with their budget and finances. It wasn’t until I sat down and figured out a budget in my first few months out of college that I really was able to understand where my money was going. While I’ve slipped in budget management from time to time[4], I’ve always found myself coming back to math and spreadsheets to help set my finances straight. If someone is serious about making their financial situation better, they’ll work to do so. If not, they’ll just keep asking for money. Those are the very people who you shouldn’t lend money to.