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Practical Advice for the Career Challenged

Wednesday, I received the following comment from a reader:

… “i have made serious mistakes in my career choices and while there are a myriad of PF blogs and articles on how to fix the spending/saving/investing side of things there’s virtually no info on good career decisions and fixing a broken career. just wondering if you might do a blog post on anything you’d do differently with your career or advice for ppl stuck in low paying jobs. other than “ask for a raise” ;)

- Zud

Background Information

Photo by Beth Rankin

Photo by Beth Rankin

Unfortunately, Zud didn’t provide any details about why he or she is stuck in a low paying job.  And, I don’t want to make any generalizations about Zud’s background that may or may not be true.  So, I will highlight a general principle for each step in the career process and then provide an example from my own life, which illustrates how I learned these principles.

Special Shout Outs:  Many of the ideas for this article came from two conversations I had recently on the subject of careers.  The first was from my blogging buddy Len at LenPenzo.com.  Len told me about how much money the steel workers used to make and how they gloated about doing as little work as possible.  In case you don’t know, Kaiser Steel closed down and the California Speedway now sits in its place.  The second conversation was with a friend of mine from work.  He told me he wished someone had told him what his chosen field would pay before he invested years getting established.  Now, he is married with a new baby and he can’t afford to change careers.

Disclaimer: I’m not a career expert and I have done almost as many things wrong as right in my career.  But, I have climbed the corporate ladder and more than quadrupled my income in the last 20 years.  So, I offer 30 years worth of practical advice that has been proven to work (at least for me).  Although, I definitely wouldn’t recommend some of the things I have done in my career, I have become fairly successful.

Step 1 – Have a Career Goal

Experts call it career planning, but it’s basically just figuring out what you want to do with your life. If you can’t say in a single sentence where you are headed in your career, this may be a big part of the problem.  You can’t climb the corporate ladder to a career you don’t have.  It’s a huge mistake to let jobs choose you or to take jobs that are conveniently available.  And, if you hop around in unrelated fields, you will always start at the bottom of each new job and never gain any experience.  Then, you will have to compete with unskilled laborers for your job.  And, I guarantee it won’t pay very well.

I was very lucky that I fell in love with computers and programming way back in the ’80s.  And, I quit my union job to embark upon a career in the computer field.  People who loved me thought I had lost my mind to quit a good union job to enter the new and unproven computer industry.  And, I took a five-year pay cut to pursue my dream career.  But, it definitely paid off in the long run.  The computer industry has exploded in opportunity, while union jobs are disappearing faster than pancakes in a diner.

Check Out: Vocational Information Center’s Career and College Planning Resources

Step 2 – Reality Check

After you have selected a career, there are three important questions:

  1. What does it pay?
  2. What is the future demand for this position?
  3. What do you need to become qualified?

If you get a liberal arts or a history degree, the related jobs probably won’t pay so well.  Before you study to become a journalist, you should know that newspapers and magazines are dying, along with those jobs.  If you want to enter a professional career, such as a Teacher, a CPA or a Lawyer, you must be qualified.  The reality check is probably the most critical step in the career planning process.  If you skip this step, you may wind up with a bunch of student loans and no way to make a living.

I know someone who is pursuing a Master degree to advance in a career as a social worker.  I don’t know her income to student loan ratio, but I am going to guess the ROI is pretty low.  She definitely loves to help people.  But, living with her parents in her 30s is a heavy price to pay for the love of a career.  I know someone else who is 25 and just got his Masters from Pepperdine.  He works in the banking field and probably makes close to what I make after putting 25 years into my career.  Money isn’t everything in choosing a career.  But, it sucks to work so hard for so little money.

Check Out: Bureau of Labor Statistics article Jobs of Tomorrow

Step 3 – Follow the Money

If you live in Michigan, Ohio or upstate New York, I wouldn’t count on lots of high paying labor jobs in your future. If you live in a state with a diversified economy, such as Massachusetts or California, there are some growth industries you should consider.  According to CNN Money, the highest paying college degrees all seem to end with Engineering or Science.  Right now, math skills pay well and they will in the future.  According to CNBC.com the highest paying careers are in the Medical and Dental fields.  Other high paying careers are in Engineering, Computer Science, Aviation, Chemistry, Biotech, Energy, Accounting and Senior Management.

I have been very fortunate to work in a high growth industry.  But, even the computer industry has its ups and downs.  I was working as a Product Specialist when the ’92 recession hit.  And, thousands of computer people hit the streets at the same time.  My company laid-off our DEC people and shut down the VAX.  So, they needed somebody to run the new PC network.  Since I was about to lose my job, I quickly volunteered and became the IT person.  At first, I wasn’t so happy about this.  Let’s face it, IT can be a grind.  But, I soon realized that an IT person isn’t confined within the computer industry.  And, since that time, I have worked in the Manufacturing, Network, Construction, Insurance and Medical industries.  I am free to follow the money.

Check out: CNBC.com article 15 Highest-Paying Jobs

Step 4 – Get an Education

Every job seeker should know a four-year degree is the new high school diploma. People who have them will get the best jobs and work for the best companies.  People who don’t have a degree will get the jobs that are left.  A college degree represents a huge commitment in time and money.  But, the alternative is a career full of dead-ends.  If you don’t have the grades, money or financial backing to attend a university, start out at a junior college and work your way through.  Everyone in my family has taken this path and we all have college degrees.  So, I know it can be done.

I currently work in the medical device industry and I’ll bet there aren’t three people in my company without a college degree.  I work with people who have degrees from UCLA, Michigan, Alabama, Florida and Notre Dame.  I confess that I only have a two-year computer science degree.  But, I should definitely have a bachelors degree for my current position.  I have lost a lot of money and job opportunities because I dropped in and out of college.  In fact, this is the single biggest career mistake I have made.  Thirteen years ago, I clawed my way into middle-management without a college degree.  But, this is nearly impossible today and I wouldn’t recommend it.

Check Out: CNN Money article Most Lucrative College Degrees

Step 5 – Find a Good Employer

One important thing to look for in an employer is upward mobility.  There is a reason they call it a dead-end job and that’s not where you want to spend your career.  There is no honor in going down with the ship, unless you are the Captain and you have a golden parachute.  I have read many stories about getting hired at “trophy companies” and how it has helped people’s careers.  It is also crucial to avoid greedy companies who have no loyalty to their employees.  Working at a pressure-cooker company can be good for your career.  But, it comes at a high price to your personal life.  Let someone else take one for the team.  Look for companies that reward talent and hard work.

I have posted many times about the good and bad employers I have worked for.  So, I don’t need to cover that here.  What I wanted to talk about instead is getting promoted.  No one wants to hire a Systems Analyst to fill an opening for an IT Manager.  Everyone wants to hire an experienced IT Manager to ensure they can get the job done.  So, to make that jump into Management, I had to get promoted into the position.  In fact, I had to leave the company and then I got hired back as an IT Manager, two years later.  So, in order to get ahead in your career, you have to work for a company with opportunity; you have to prove yourself; and then you have to let the company know you are serious about advancement.  If that doesn’t get you promoted, you may have to jump ship.

Check Out:  Fortune article 100 Best Companies to Work for in 2009

Step 6 – The X-Factor

Everyone puts intangibles on their resume, such as “strong interpersonal skills” and “pays attention to detail”.  Unfortunately, many forget about their intangibles as soon as they are hired.  Soon, they become the “company’s most annoying employee” or the “person in search of nothing to do”.  These are the first people to be let go in a down-turn.  If you want to get ahead in business, you need to go the extra mile, treat people with respect, deliver quality work and volunteer for projects.  You should find a mentor and make some allies within your company.  Do lunch with coworkers, past, present and future.

Most of what I have accomplished in my career came from sheer guts and hard work.  Every door was opened to me because of my positive attitude and my ability to make problems disappear.  The stumbles in my career came from slacking off or by allowing myself to become disenchanted.  Early in my career, I had a boss who told me something critical.  He said, “You have a lot of talent, but a bad attitude.  You will get a lot farther in your career if people like you.”  This was the best advice I received in my career.

Check Out:  Article from PayScale.com Recession-Proof Your Career

Alternative 1 – Vocational Jobs

Maybe this whole career track thing isn’t for you. Maybe you aren’t a book worm and you have no intention of completing years of college.  The good news is that there are many opportunities in vocational fields that pay pretty well.  These fields include: Plumbers, Mechanics, Electricians, Handymen, Landscapers, Construction, Catering and a host of others.  Although manufacturing jobs are disappearing, the service industries are creating new jobs.  And, as working folks seem to have less and less spare time, they are more than happy to pay others to take care of their needs.

I always dreamed of being a professional, so I shunned vocational fields.  But, I have many friends, neighbors and aquaintences that have chosen this path and they are very happy with it.  They don’t work a lot of overtime and they get paid extra when they do.  And, they don’t have a lot of stress in their lives or pressure from deadlines.  Most people who are employed in vocations make less than me.  But, they didn’t spend years in night school or late nights working for the man.  They are home for dinner and tuck in their kids into bed.

Check Out:  About.com article Highest Paying Occupations for which a Degree Isn’t Required

Alternative 2 – Self-Employment

According to the book The Millionaire Next Door, you are four times more likely to become a millionaire if you are self-employed.  That’s because with greater risk often comes greater reward.  And, there is no greater reward than to be in control of your future.  There are grim statistics of business that fail within the first five years.  But, it is also becoming increasingly rare to remain in a job for more than five years.  Just remember that if you build a successful business, you would need to get fired by a lot of customers before you are out of business.  Employees aren’t so lucky.

I have always been a closet entrepreneur, which is one reason I maintain this blog.  I have always had a dream of “making it on my own”, even though I have a great career and a steady paycheck.  My two oldest brothers are self-employed and will never work for others.  My Mom sold her small business and retired five years ago.  I live in a neighborhood filled with plumbers, electricians and other small business owners, who make a lot more than me.  And, they wouldn’t trade places with me for the world.

Check Out: Inc.com article Best Industries for Starting a Small Business

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that everyone has to choose their own path in life.  And, that path will depend greatly upon the amount of time and energy you expect to put into your career.  If your choice is to drift along through life, taking whatever comes your way, then don’t expect to get paid very well for your effort.  And, if your choice is to pursue a career or a business with high income potential, then don’t expect your path to be easy.

“I should have been trying to build a career, rather than leaving it in the hands of somebody else.”

Ray Walston - American Actor

Recommended Reading

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5 comments to Practical Advice for the Career Challenged

  • zud

    dang, even homer simpson makes more money than me – nuclear generator operator? lol… and unnhhh math, the bane of my existance. i squeaked through 1st year calculus and discrete mathmatics and darn near did a dance whilst handing in my final exam.

    i think i failed step 2, not properly researching what my options were after graduation, what the rates of pay were and specifically whether there were companies that would hire me.

    i too steered away from vocations and liberal arts degree and instead “followed my interests” and not only got a degree but a masters in a, lets say..fairly obscure science. now i cringe when i hear ppl advising, just get a degree any degree!!

    i realized that my education/training was so specialized that it was hard to find a company that would hire me unless i wanted to move far far away. unfortunately with aging parents that wasn’t an option.

    my caution to those out there would be not to become too specialized, choose a career that is portable if you or your spouse has to move and offers the ability to shift companies easily and of course move up. the tech industry seems absolutely perfect for this, and even offers good self employment potential.

    i am interested in hearing from folk who have made a drastic career change, ie went back to school or something past the age of 35-40. how did it turn out for you?

    thank you for this post :)

    • Zud,

      I think it depends a lot on what that specialized science is. If it is something like Anthropology or Sociology, that skill probably isn’t going to bring you much money in a limited geographical area. But, you know what, I wouldn’t worry about that. A lot of people work in fields that aren’t related to their degree. The fact that you have a masters degree should convey to employers that you can get the job done.

      If it were me, I would start by figuring out what the most attractive and lucrative employment opportunities are in your area. Then, I would try to figure out how to make your skills look transferrable, so you can get your foot in the door. Write up a resume that says very specifically that you are looking to change professions. Of course, you may have to start near the bottom in another field. But, you have 25 years to climb the ladder and make some money.

  • Gosh, thanks for the shout-out, Bret!

    I’d like to add a sub-bullet to #2: Make sure you enjoy doing what you have chosen to do. It is no secret that those who enjoy their jobs (usually) make for the best employees, and the best employees get the bulk of the yearly raise pool. They are also (usually) the last ones to get laid off.

    I would qualify #4 by saying that the education doesn’t have to be a college education, per se. It can be self-education, or (as you mentioned) it can be vocational. Those without college degrees may take longer to attain a high income, but if they end up in a field they love – either working for an employer, or if they are self-employed – I would wager that, in the long run, most will end up ahead of their college-bound counterparts who go to work for a company.

    Then again, it ain’t all about the size of the salary. Wise people understand that it is really about quality of life. :-)

    Best,

    Len
    Len Penzo dot Com

  • […] 3. Hope to Prosper – My friend Bret was lucky enough to have the number 3 position for “len penzo sucks” and so, because he is a very busy man that didn’t have a fresh article this week, I am highlighting an older post of his that offers some excellent practical advice for the career challenged. […]

  • […] Check Out: Practical Advice for the Career Challenged […]