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“I’m Looking For My First Job — What Should I Do?!”

I know it’s been awhile since my last entry, but there’s a good reason: I’ve finally been allowed to work! That’s right, my US work authorization is now approved. And what a surprise, there are people here who need writing expertise. I’ve been helping businesses in Wilmington, NC attract more potential customers to their websites or places of business. Now I’m on the tail end of a weekend, though, and have some time to pen an entry here.

So lately I’ve been encountering, online mostly, young people who are about to enter the job market. Typically, they tell me they don’t have a resume at all or that they’re proud to send out, and they don’t know what to do to find work. What I’d like to do here is share what I’m advising them to do about that. These are some of the things I wish I had been told way back when!

If you’re in high school, you’re probably looking for part time or a summer gig…maybe one that you can pick up again next year if you like. If you’ve graduated from high school but haven’t had any work experience yet, this is for you too.

First of all, it’s easy for you to get work.

Truly! Entry-level work is the simplest to be hired for. Here’s what the employer is looking for, to decide whether to hire you or not:

  • Will you show up?
  • Are you honest?
  • Can you follow directions?


The employer is trying to avoid these problems:

  • Some people will frequently call in sick, or not at all, leaving the employer in the lurch with an understaffed operation.
  • Some people will steal, money or goods or both, costing the employer.
  • Some people will cause hiccups in production, delays, lost items, and arguments because they can’t do what others want them to, and this costs the employer time and money.

That’s pretty much it. Now the fact is, many people (young and experienced) cannot say “Yes” to these things. Take stock of yourself. Can you say “Yes” to all three? If you can’t, there are positions for you and we’ll discuss them below. The one I’m especially concerned about is the third: Can you follow directions?

The reason I ask about this question is not because I think you may be stupid. In fact, you may be too smart. Some people like to figure out things on their own, and are wired to find it difficult to conform to someone else’s idea of the way something should be done. This isn’t “wrong,” or “bad”; however, you do need to know it about yourself if it is true, because taking a job where you have to follow highly-supervised, detailed operations to the letter is going to make you miserable.

Now back to all three questions. The employer looking for entry-level wage help is probably not seeking skill. They likely want simple, repetitive tasks to be done over and over the same way by friendly, accommodating employees. That’s fine and we as job hunters need to know to expect it. You may change their mind later about you, but at the start this is the pile you are lumped in with.

THE RESUME

Take those three questions and use them to drive the layout of your resume. Of course you don’t have any experience yet—that’s why you’re looking for an entry level position! They know that. So don’t let it bother you.

Writing your resume, start with your name, address, and phone number (and email address if you want). Don’t worry about a “career objective” yet. We’ll discuss that below.

Since you have had little or no work experience, put down the paper route or odd jobs you’ve done. Now we’ll answer those three questions.

In your life you have done things that exemplify “Yes” answers to those three questions employers are asking. Maybe you took band in school. Perhaps you had a 7:30AM math class you had to show up earlier than the rest of the school for. Swim team member? Did you go every second Saturday to take care of your elderly grandmother for the morning? These all tell employers that “Yes,” you will show up.

The second question, honesty, can be difficult to quantify or write something down about. Employers may take it as a given, or accept so many of their hires will turn out to be dishonest. If you have any volunteer experience, any cash handling experience—even if you’ve been given an allowance in exchange for doing chores—any tasks where you’ve been left alone in a room or facility or home that wasn’t yours or your parents’, list that here.

For the question about whether you can follow directions or not (assuming you can and are comfortable with it), think about activities you have done with others. Maybe you helped your Dad change the car oil. Do you like to cook with your Mom? Have you gone shopping with either parent, and been asked to do something like get all the dairy products and bring them back to the cart? These show that you can follow directions and work with others.

So you get this resume put together and use it. Of course it’s an entry-level resume, and once you get some experience you’ll eliminate some things and add your first job onto it. For now, though, employers are going to know you’re new to the job market, but they’ll see some things that will probably trigger some realizations about your character. Remember, it’s No Big Deal that you’re looking for your first job.

After these things, put down anything you’ve done that was out of the ordinary. Did you make a flash game for a school project? Represent your school at a spelling bee? Think here about anything that makes you distinctive…something that, when the employer meets you, will jog their memory and make them say, “Oh yeah, you’re the person who…”

Lastly, back to the “career objective” section just under your name and contact info. I wouldn’t put a title or the words “career objective” here: I suggest a sentence or two saying what kind of position you are looking for.

“Um, Jason…what am I looking for?”

THE JOB

Since this is your first job search, you’re actually in a neat position. You don’t have any experience, which means you’re a clean slate from the employer’s perspective. You don’t have anything to “unlearn,” and you don’t have any bad habits. But where do you look? As an entry-level candidate, you have the choices of Restaurant, Retail, or Office positions.

Restaurants have front of house (waiter, busboy, host/ess, runner, cashier) and back of house (dishwasher, prep cook, cook) positions. Front of house naturally deal with the public. Back of house roles often have less pressure. Restaurant people are usually quite friendly, fun to work with, and in my case have made for some friendships that have lasted decades—far longer than the time working there.

Retail operations have roles like inventory/stockperson, floor salesperson, cashier and loss prevention officer. They are often higher pressure than other positions. I have little retail experience, but have done loss prevention in high-end operations and naturally look around when I’m in stores to see how they operate. Finding one with a friendly supervisor who isn’t on a power trip (same everywhere, really) is key for your happiness.

Offices have positions such as receptionist, clerk, delivery driver, marketing assistant and others. You may be able to find some atypical roles like sample tester which puts you in a back room away from the public. Generally, the closer you are to the public, the higher the pressure but also the higher the pay.

Each of these environments will color your outlook as you get experience. The choice will also close the other doors to you—or at least make it more difficult to open them later. Generally, with three years or less of experience in one of these three environments, it will be easy for you to change from one to the other. Over that, and you will start getting typecast.

Once you’ve made up your mind which field you’d like to get into, write a line or two such as “Seeking a front of house role in a fast-paced restaurant” or “Seeking a retail sales position with a fashion-centric, well-branded store.” Now the resume is complete and you can start sending it out. When you interview, all the things you’ve written down on it are talking points, and things that will sell you to the employer because they answer “Yes” to those three questions they worry so much about.

Now what if you’re the person who said “No” earlier: “No, I don’t like to follow directions; in fact, Why Should I? I know this stuff better than anyone else and who’s to tell me how I should accomplish this?!” This isn’t because you’re arrogant, I know. It’s about competency and ability. The example that leaps to mind is a young person who programmed some cool app or game in their school class—put something together in a way nobody else ever thought of. Thinks differently and shouldn’t be stuck in a repetitive job with others.

OK. What do we do with you? Whatever it is you’re such a hotshot at, and you want to work at so badly, put that in your “career objective” spot. That’s like, “Intent on creating iPod apps that blow the minds of users!” Then you put whatever it was you did that makes you special right underneath that: your very first “experience” line item. Explain in detail. You must look different and stand out to employers.

Follow that with all the rest we discussed above. Now because you want a less restricted work environment, you’re going to have to do a little more legwork than the average first-time job hunter. You’re also going to end up with a higher pay rate, too, so stick it out. Find organizations that are doing what you want to do. Get you resume in the face of people who are looking for you, whether they have a job advertised or not. See, what makes you unique is the thing they may need so badly they’ll hire you before someone else steals you.

If you have any questions about what to do if this is your first job search, please post a comment or send me a note. I’m here to help!

Seeking killer job hunting tips for a really low investment? Check out my ebook, “Get Hired FAST!