Any entry-level position can seem like a financial step up - especially after a stretch of unemployment or minimum-wage work - and it’s easy to get excited about your sudden wealth of steady paychecks, medical and dental benefits, paid vacation days and so on. But in the midst of all this celebration, it’s also important to keep an eye on the big picture: Does this job have growth potential, or is it a dead end career-wise? A little time spent planning ahead now can save you big career-planning headaches down the line - so here are three ways to investigate what your entry-level job is really doing for you, and what options it offers in terms of your long-term goals.
Examine your industry
Just as national economies go through booms and recessions, individual industries go through growth spurts, stable periods, consolidations and downturns. You can catch the broad strokes about many well-known industries in the national news, but it’s also worth your while to spend some time reading business magazines and websites that cater specifically to your field. Many of these publications’ major stories are likely to carry a positive spin - after all, their printing and web-hosting costs are supported by companies in your industry - but with practice, you should start to spot some broad trends. Are companies in your industry expanding boldly into new markets, or are they threatened by local competitors? Are they opening factories and creating jobs, or are they downsizing their properties and outsourcing work? Are they exploring and exploiting new technologies, or do their software and hardware hearken back to dusty decades of the past? None of these trends will be universal, of course - every industry contains its share of movers and shakers, along with stable old-timers and poorly managed messes. By keeping track of who’s expanding and who’s shrinking, though, you can gain a sense of whether your industry is poised for further growth, teetering on the edge of layoffs, or somewhere in between.
“You should also look at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website and see what the growth potential of your job field is,” says Terry Pile, principal consultant for Career Advisors. “It’ll tell you if your field is growing faster than average, if jobs are being replaced quickly, and so on.” And along the way, you’ll gain a high-level perspective that can help you impress your bosses.
Check up on your superiors
Tracking large-scale industry trends will help you grasp your industry’s overall stage of development - but to spot more immediate opportunities and pitfalls, you’ll have to scout out the situation in your own company and local office. As you chat with your bosses and superior officers in meetings and at company lunches, ask them how they got where they are today. Were they promoted from within the ranks, or did they come from another industry altogether? What jobs formed the stepping stones of their paths to authority and responsibility? You may find out that some of them started out in the same position you currently occupy - or perhaps even worked for your company as temps before coming on board full-time. Others, meanwhile, may have acquired translatable job skills in completely different fields. Even if your company has brought on a large number of workers from other companies or industries, you may still have a shot at moving up the ranks - many employers agree that promoting from within is more cost-effective than hiring from outside - but it’s still critical to learn which positions and skills are most likely to qualify you for eventual promotion. If most of the people who occupied your current position never moved up, it’s a fair bet that your own career advancement depends on jockeying for a transfer - either to a more promising position, or to a company that’s more aggressive about promoting from within its own ranks. “It’s fine to ask questions about the company’s growth potential, its turnover rate, and so on,” Pile says. “This shows your employer that you want to stay within the company - you just want to know what your opportunities are.” And those opportunities may take many forms aside from the traditional promotion ladder. You can learn a lot about your organization - and achieve some valuable networking - by joining a committee or staff group outside of your own work area. “Expand your skillset and become involved with your organization more broadly,” says Bob Gomez, interim director of the University of California, Irvine’s Career Center. “If you don’t know anybody, nobody knows you.”
Find a mentor
Independent research is a powerful tool, but there’s no substitute for a personal guide to your industry’s ins and outs. Your mentor doesn’t have to be someone who occupies exactly the position you want - in fact, he or she doesn’t even have to be someone who knows you particularly well. The most crucial factors in mentorship are a clear set of shared goals and a mutual ability to offer help. In other words, mentorship represents an investment of time and expertise on the mentor’s part; it’s your job to justify that investment by working diligently and responsibly to demonstrate that your mentor chose you wisely. You can do this by providing your mentor with small favors when needed, or simply by making your knowledge and labor available to your mentor during tough times. In return, a well-chosen mentor should give you the inside scoop on your company’s promotion practices, on its true place in your industry as a whole, and on its employees’ lesser-known paths to success. “You can have multiple mentors, though,” Gomez says. “No one mentor can do it all. In fact, if you develop a broad network of people who work at other companies like yours, you can get invaluable feedback about how to approach the next step in your career.”
Although no two industries structure their administrative framework in quite the same way, they’re all subject to the same basic economic factors: Supply and demand, availability of credit, size of the labor pool, and so on. Some proactive research on your part can help determine where you company’s headed - and where you’re likely to fit into that future. The expertise of company veterans, on the other hand, can provide you with handy information about which personal career strategies are workable in your industry, and which are likely to lead to stagnation. Arm yourself with information from all these sources, and you’ll be in a strong position to evaluate the growth potential of your current position - and perhaps even to negotiate for a better one.
Ben Thomas, a member of the Riley Guide writing team, is an expert on many topics related to the workplace. For more help on navigating your career path, check out www.rileyguide.com.