Since the 2008 economic downturn, graduating millennials have faced a tough job market. While other age segments have rebounded, job growth for millennials has been flat or down. Adding to the pressure young graduates face is big debt, with the average student owing some $35,000. Given these realities, it’s time for millennials to rethink how they approach selecting their first post-college job. In particular, they may want to critically question some of the clichés (“Become a lawyer!” or “Join a global brand leader!”) that their parents or peers may still be espousing.
At the heart of today’s job market sits the question of what knowledge contribution workers make to their employers. At AlphaSights, a global knowledge search firm, we are intimately familiar with the type of knowledge individuals bring to the marketplace. In thinking through their career options, millennials would do well to consider the four different paths below, based on the knowledge contribution each entails:
Subject Matter Expertise: Learned professionals such as doctors, engineers or lawyers acquire and re-apply a body of knowledge that has been developed over centuries. Regarded as both a safe and a prestigious career choice in the past, these fields are now under threat, as “codified” knowledge quickly becomes universally accessible online, and is prone to automation and offshoring. In a field where codified knowledge is king, career success requires pushing the knowledge frontier forward—simply regurgitating what resides on Google is a losing proposition. Breaking new ground requires a true passion for one’s chosen field and long-term commitment. For young people, this can be daunting, as most recent graduates don’t follow through with the first field they choose.
Company-Specific Expertise: Millennials hired into junior roles within larger organizations spend their early years picking up the ins and outs of the organizations they have joined. As the titles of many young graduate programs suggest (e.g., “Unilever Future Leaders Program”), much of the knowledge young people will acquire is company-specific. As large organizations in every field are increasingly disrupted by new entrants, millennials risk spending years learning company-specific skills and processes that may become obsolete before they can be put to good use. Since the average millennial will have four job changes before turning 32 years old, it’s important to acquire skills that are immediately and widely transferrable.
Creativity, or the knowledge and ability to create something new, is of course many people’s dream—getting paid to pursue a passion, be it writing, design, art or music. As Freakonomics has documented, however, these roles can be lucrative at the very top, but are brutal at entry level, with little guarantee of future success. For every JK Rowling or Jamie Oliver, there are countless others who are forced to abandon their passion in search of more steady income. Tellingly, the most successful creative types are often those with the strongest understanding of the economics of their chosen fields, which leads us to the fourth type of role, and the one I consider the best choice for many of today’s graduates.
Client-facing, revenue-generating roles such as sales, trading, brokerage and business development sit close to the bottom line. While these roles may lack the esteem of medicine or law, they give young millennials the opportunity to grow their business toolkit from day one. Moreover, the knowledge developed in such frontline roles is highly personal, non-codified and ports over to other aspects of managing any business, including valuable soft skills like understanding spheres of influence, communication, quick thinking and uncompromising results-orientation (“always be closing”). Absent starting out as an entrepreneur, beginning one’s career in a bottom-line-focused role, ideally in a high-growth environment, is probably the most fertile learning ground for today’s job starters.
Here are three more reasons millennials should strongly consider pursuing commercial roles:
1. Sales roles are recession-proof. Sales roles are the most stable during a company or industry downturn, and are consistently ranked by US News & World Report among the top 100 jobs due to their low unemployment rate and high salaries. These roles generally offer higher earning potential, as well—a boon to young people facing mounting debt.
2. Sales roles build transferrable skills. Every employee or business leader must develop the poise needed to present to customers, master client relationships, and the strategic planning and leadership skills necessary to grow a book of business. Beyond helping hone interpersonal business skills, revenue-generating roles give millennials a chance to learn the economics behind building a profitable business. These skills make millennials both more marketable and more successful in future roles.
3. Sales roles grow your network. Client-facing roles offer exposure to many different types of people, industries, and job functions, both internally and externally. They also teach young graduates how to identify decision-makers and navigate through informal political networks. Perhaps most important, they help millennials build their own external network they can leverage for future job opportunities—a key long-term benefit, since 85% of all positions today are now found through networking.
In pursuing jobs early in their careers, millennials must consider what type of knowledge they’ll be building, and how the value of that knowledge is likely to evolve over the course of their career. Investing in yourself and building knowledge that is sought-after, will retain its value and is transferrable is a good bet. Acquiring a strong commercial skill set early on, and maximizing exposure to different people both internally and externally, is also a smart way to start your career–even if your longer-term dream lies in the creative or entrepreneurial realm.