Shoot for relevant work Internships are still popular, and the overall economic belt-tightening has actually made them more attractive to companies: interns tend to be higher-performing students who are interested in the field of the internship, and they also tend to work cheap – a significant value to any employer. And internships are pretty easy to find because they’re promoted to colleges and universities, and your school’s counseling center likely has application information for scads of them. But don’t limit yourself to programs that have been created by other organizations.
Another way to find career-relevant work is to create your own job that offers a compelling value to an employer, and then go out into the world and sell it. Here’s an example of what I mean: Let’s say you want to be an accountant, but you’re stuck spending the summer in the small town where your parents live, where there aren’t any accounting internships. Go to the local accountants’ offices and offer to clean their toilets in exchange for the opportunity to learn how the profession works in the real world. You’ll get turned away now and then, sure. But most professionals will be impressed by the audacity and eagerness, and you’ll probably find someone willing to accommodate you. You may need to flip burgers for money, but you’ll still be making progress toward your career goals.
Excel Whatever you do as summer work, do it well. These jobs may not earn you much money; they might involve a lot of hard work; and they might feel like a significant step down from the ivory tower. But they also set a precedent for your career, and if you’re a rock star in your summer job you’ll get good references down the road. (Besides, if you’re lucky enough to work in a smaller business, your boss might easily be someone who will get nice and chatty with a prospective future employer – for good or ill.) Good hiring managers know that your performance as a short-order cook during the summer between your sophomore and junior year speaks volumes about how well you’ll do as a newly minted professional.
Doing well at anything is more about what you bring to it than what the environment offers you; and if you can bring your A-game to a line of quesadillas on a cooktop, you’re more likely to rock a business meeting than another applicant who burned the quesadillas because he was too busy studying economic theory. And perhaps more importantly, summer jobs frame your attitude toward employment in general; if you want to excel later in life, you should probably start practicing now. Most highly successful people will tell you that their focus isn’t on money, accolades, or advancement: it’s on the work. You learn to work by working.
Don’t stop learning I will never forget the sage advice given to me by the old man who ran the station where I first recorded spots: “If you ever find yourself stuck in the snow in North Dakota, and some old lady offers to teach you how to knit, learn. One day it’ll probably save your life.” Having never been to North Dakota in the winter, I have yet to test this wisdom directly, but the point is absolutely true, and it’s a shift in thinking from the “information download” mentality of college. Whatever you’re doing, you can learn something that will be relevant to your career. You want to be a lawyer, but you’re stuck digging ditches? Talk to your coworkers: a lot of your future clients will probably be just like them.
You want to be a doctor, but you can only find work in a kitchen? Get real good with the knife. You want to be a famous Hollywood movie star but you’re stuck working retail? Try out different characters with different customers. (Just don’t steal something and send the surveillance video to TMZ. That only works if you’re already famous.) Every job is an audition for the next one. Every situation offers an opportunity. Don’t let a stumbling job market keep you from leaping toward your future.