The bad thing about being unemployed during a period of high unemployment, besides the obvious of being jobless, is that the competition can be unusually fierce. Though I encourage pursuing the ideal (whether it’s a company-paid position, freelance work, or business start-up), career nirvana may be a few steps away in this economic environment. Over the years, in good times and lousy ones, I’ve met folks who have started or retooled careers in entry-level positions; they laid the groundwork for greater opportunities and, when the time was right, moved up and along quickly. Here are some uneven career paths.
Management Development Program
I had always thought of management trainee programs as being for new college grads but a veteran manufacturing manager went this route to learn the banking business (fortunately with a well-run institution). While his peers were still figuring out business models and P&L statements, he was forming relationships with business owners, quickly assessing their cash flow needs, and closing deals.
Going on the road seemed like an odd move for a guy who used to be a national sales manager and then president of an apparel company. But he wanted to move into the golf industry and decided he could shorten his learning curve by making sales calls on golf pros. In about year, he was ready to take on a sales leadership position for a golf apparel company and, in less than 10 years, more than tripled his group’s sales with profit margins that topped all other divisions.
Front-line Sales and Customer Service
Front-line, entry-level positions (retail sales associate and bank teller) were the way a couple of recent college grads got a start with companies that led to a promotion as a logistics analyst and selection for a management training program. Showing dedication to a company, learning about the structure, and being able to apply for internal postings gave each an edge. I also know a person who worked a side job in retail sales and moved to pharmaceutical sales, owing largely to his success in establishing relationships, presenting ideas, and generating stellar sales results.
Childcare Provider / Household Overseer
Someone I spoke with recently helped a family friend by running a household and taking care of children while the family made a cross-country move. After vacating a sales management position, she joined them so she could also relocate, took a temporary position with a promising company, and earned a promotion to a project management position.
Slowly building a career, starting as a nursing assistant and then adding credentials (first RN, then Nurse Practitioner through a Master’s degree program) helped one person transition from a declining industry to one with potential. Part-time work provided field experiences that laid a foundation for continued growth. Similarly, other folks I know have worked first as a teacher's assistant on a part-time basis, and then earned credentials and moved to a full-time teaching job.
An actor and voice-over artist took several months away from a real job to launch the freelance portion of his career. He dreamed up a marketing plan and then made contacts that could help him land gigs. After returning to the workforce, he was able to use his free time to perform (and get paid for) his services rather than spend time marketing them.
For whatever reason, my friend's target organization didn't hire him as an official employee so he worked for a few years as a contractor. He did get to show his capabilities and, after he learned to document them on paper, got noticed. When he finally got employee status, it was for a position in a high-profile facility that engages his expertise.
You may be in one of these situations right now, are content, and intend to stay right where you are. Or you might be considering taking such a job to ride out the storm of unemployment; picking the right position, one aligned closely with your long-term goals, is essential. Though working at anything should be valuable in nearly any situation, being strategic about your decisions now can make you look brilliant later. And, even if you don’t impress all potential employers, you can learn some things that you can leverage in a new job. Just remember to move on before you get stuck in a job you don’t want forever.