First Jobs Aren't Child's Play

Your youngest recruits may be fresh out of college, but they're ready to make grown-up contributions to your company. Here's how smart companies are getting the most out of their youngest employees.

It's 5:30 p.m., and the sky over Pittsburgh is darkening. Most of Emily O'Brien's peers are on their way home or hitting the bars. But she's still in the office. She and her boss just returned from Mexico, and now she's on the phone with one of her company's biggest customers there, trying to sound intelligent -- in Spanish (not her first language).

O'Brien works for FreeMarkets OnLine Inc., a booming startup that organizes interactive online events in which suppliers bid for customers' raw-materials business. She's an assistant market maker -- a job that's part marketing, part customer service, and part sales. Whenever online bidding gets out of hand, she helps put out the fire. When a client wants $10 million worth of wood, she calls dozens of saw mills to see whether they can fill the bill.

It's a great job, offering lots of responsibility and autonomy -- plus stock options. "There are no artificial barriers to promotion here, and my input is valued," O'Brien says. "There's no thought control, and no vertical hierarchy." It's also O'Brien's first corporate gig. She's 24 years old.

FreeMarkets puts many of its entry-level hires into jobs like O'Brien's, and that makes the company exceptionally attractive to talented college graduates. Because the dark truth about entry-level jobs is this: Most of them suck. Companies post recent grads to remote silos, where they pay their dues by doing scut work. Lacking context or guidance -- much less decent leadership -- young recruits suffer mostly in silence until better opportunities appear.

That nonstrategy worked nicely for decades, but it smacks of wild luxury today. Employers can't afford to pay college-grad salaries for menial work that high-school kids could just as easily do. More to the point, now that corporate loyalty is disappearing and now that career tracks are becoming less certain, smart college grads aren't going to waste time in jobs that aren't great right now. According to the National Association of College Employers, 11.6% of the class of 1997 -- more than double the number from five years ago -- changed jobs within a year of graduation.

Think of it this way: You can make entry-level jobs exercises in mediocrity. Or you can give recruits real tasks, tangible resources and support, and room to move. If the rookies fail, maybe you don't want them anyway. But if they pull it off, you can give them even more responsibility. And once word gets out that your company offers high-quality entry-level jobs, more of the best prospects will look your way for work.

Startups like FreeMarkets are forced to think about entry-level hiring in precisely that way, because rapid growth creates incessant demand for talented people. There's simply no room for wasted effort. But some established employers get it as well. Charles Schwab has designed its Wings Program to let young people explore the company through a variety of temporary assignments before they choose a permanent position. Enterprise Rent-A-Car hires more new college grads than almost any company in the nation, assigning most of them to be field-office entrepreneurs. First Chicago, a venerable commercial bank, lavishes resources on a select group of recruits, whom it calls "First Scholars."

These companies grasp the particular psychological makeup of first-time employees, who enter the workforce with high expectations and extreme needs. They expose their charges to jobs across the organization, and they allow recruits to see how stars in the company function. Their managers devote time and money to making young workers smarter faster. Most important, these employers have done away with the decrepit culture of dues paying. They make sure that young workers have meaningful, interesting tasks to do from day one. That's what makes a great first job. In fact, that's what makes any job great.

"Every Private Is Somebody's Kid"

For the turbocharged Emily O'Brien, any entry-level job would have been a disappointment. After graduating from Georgetown, she worked for a year in Asia and Latin America, where she organized educational programs for native high-school students. Once stateside, she had difficulty finding a job that promised the same degree of stimulation and independence. She even considered taking the free-agent route as a marketing consultant for outdoor-education programs. "Not being bored was my prerequisite," she says.

Try getting inside the heads of O'Brien and of people like her: They've got serious wanderlust, big ideas, and a low tolerance for busy work. But they're also young -- still anxious, still unsure of what to expect. "There are very few adult rites of passage in the United States," notes Glen Meakem, 35, FreeMarkets's cofounder and CEO. "For better or worse, the entry-level job is the way many people make the transition into adulthood."

Meakem, who is young enough to remember his own passage into adulthood, has nursed many of FreeMarkets's employees through that process. "It's like the army," he says. "Every private is somebody's kid. It's important to make sure that people are met at the airport when they first arrive in town and that everyone has a party to go to on Saturday night. New hires need to know that they're not just a number."

They also need to brace themselves for culture shock. Even the best jobs rarely offer the same intellectual stimulation and sense of community as college did. And undergraduate institutions often make things worse by raising students' expectations. "Extremely sobering" is how Richard D. Thau, author of "Get It Together by 30" (AMACOM, 1997, with Jay S. Heflin), describes his first job-hunting experience after graduating from Haverford College in 1987. "On Sunday, the commencement speaker said I was one of the smartest people in America. Then, on Monday, I had to take a typing test."

For four years in college, your recruits have been urged to take big risks and to feed their minds. They come to the job ready to see and to conquer. And you're about to disappoint them. Or are you?

The New-Hire Halo

First Chicago makes sure that it doesn't disappoint its recruits. From the start, its First Scholars are told that they're expected to walk on water. The company then devotes time and money to making sure that they can do just that.

The bank started the First Scholar Program more than 30 years ago, and the program remains a model for how to put a halo on your new hires' heads. Each year, the bank recruits about 15 liberal-arts majors -- top students from top-ranked schools. In return for a four-and-a-half-year commitment, First Scholars win a salary of nearly $40,000 ($13,000 more than the average liberal-arts grad makes right out of college). First Chicago also pays tuition for a night-school MBA program at Northwestern or the University of Chicago.

The program is considered to be a fast track to the ninth-floor executive suite. Scholars are immediately set apart from the bank's hundreds of other college hires. They lunch with John McCoy, CEO of Bank One Corp. (First Chicago's parent company), and other top brass, and they meet frequently with senior execs who act as mentors. The bank also assigns one executive, Vice President Janet Leong, 43, the task of doing nothing but shepherd the Scholars' careers. "These people could become our colleagues for life, so it's important that we start their careers off correctly," Leong says.

True, that strategy risks creating a morale-damaging caste system in which the majority of college hires are relegated to the slow track. In fact, some managers complain about Scholars' outsized egos -- although Leong insists that all new recruits eventually enjoy the same opportunities within the bank.

More to the point, without its high-octane program, the bank couldn't hope to lure top talent from international banks and from management-consulting firms. Even the program's title helps feed the sense of elitism that appeals to bright 22-year-olds who otherwise might choose to join, say, McKinsey & Co. It's an overlooked lesson: Job titles matter to young workers more than you'd think they do. "Staff assistant" and "analyst" are what you call cogs in a machine, not people whom you want to feel good about their jobs.

That distinction is especially important in the rental-car industry, where the moniker "entry-level worker" conjures up the image of a polyester-uniformed wretch behind an airport counter. That's why Enterprise calls its college hires "management trainees." "People ask our recruits, 'If you have a college degree, why would you want to take a job renting cars?' " says Judy Stoltz, 33, group training director at Enterprise, who has trained hundreds of rookies. "They have to understand that this isn't just renting cars. It's a management-training program." So, by calling its young hires management trainees, the company signals its aspirations for them.

Tim Hutchins, now 25, shared those aspirations. He put himself through college by operating a forklift at night. After graduation, he interviewed with companies such as PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch -- but none of them offered much growth potential.

Then Hutchins discovered Enterprise. The "management trainee" title pushed a button. For Hutchins, management wasn't something out of a Dilbert cartoon -- it was a goal. "That title said to me that I could advance if I performed well," he says.

His friends, many of whom had won first jobs that paid $35,000 a year (about $10,000 more than the typical Enterprise entry-level position), thought he was nuts. Then he shot the lights out: Within 13 months, he was promoted to assistant branch manager. Including performance bonuses, his salary could top $50,000 this year. "These days, when we sit around drinking beer, my friends realize that I've surpassed a lot of them in both salary and responsibility," he says. In fact, several of Hutchins's friends now work for Enterprise.

The Imprint Stage

The first year on the job is all about learning. "We refer to it as the 'imprint stage,' " explains Timothy Clark, 42, a first vice president at First Chicago, who runs the institutional-trading desk and who manages the First Scholars in his area. "There's a lot that they want and need to know, and you're worthless to your organization's long-term health if you can't pass on some of your experience to them."

At First Chicago, much of the imprinting takes place during one-to-one mentoring relationships -- often between scholars and young managers. Jason Rosenblatt, 22, and Candice Kline, 27, have developed such a relationship. Rosenblatt became a First Scholar after graduating from Duke last year. Kline is his first boss. They work on a team that develops software products to perform complex currency calculations for international clients. Heady stuff, but Rosenblatt says that he's keeping up. And he credits Kline, who includes him in every meeting that she goes to. "We sit down and rehash everything that happened during the meeting. That gives me an opportunity to pick her brain," he says.

At Enterprise, entry-level workers easily find branch managers to emulate. "I used to take notes on what I liked about each of my managers," says Tim Hutchins. "I've picked the best traits from each." Not that Hutchins has fully formed ideas about what he'll do with all of those superhero leadership skills. The best first jobs play to such uncertainty. At Enterprise, entry-level jobs are multidisciplinary -- by design. Management trainees market and sell, they run operations, they do the books. If employees like Hutchins ultimately decide that they want to focus on, say, human resources, they can move to a regional headquarters after a year or two. But Enterprise figures that new employees should first have a chance to discover skills and interests that they never knew they had.

Charles Schwab elevates that discovery process to an art. No participant in its Wings Program arrives with a predetermined job title or departmental assignment. Instead, before they apply for permanent positions within the company, newbies take on a series of short-term assignments of their own choosing. Schwab created this approach for one reason: The talent market dictated it. "We got many of our young employees through temp agencies," says Laura Stepping, 38, who helped create the program. The best workers -- the ones whom Schwab was actively trying to hire full-time -- actually liked the temp situation. After all, temps can leave and not come back if they decide that they don't like a company.

So Schwab designed its new program to resemble a temp-agency experience. "Schwab is a big company, and there's no reason to expect that 22-year-olds will know what department they want to work in," Stepping says. "By letting them select various interim assignments, we're telling them that it's all right to explore, that it's okay not to be sure about what you want to do."

With interim assignments, everyone wins. Wings associates get to explore a wide range of functions and departments. And, because the Wings Program funds their salaries, line departments are eager to take associates on. Managers in those departments can then use the interim period to audition associates for permanent jobs.

Compare the search for a first job to picking out your first car. You wouldn't buy a car without taking it out for a spin first. So doesn't it make sense to test-drive your first job? "Schwab didn't have me pigeonholed the day I arrived," says Cher Lee, 23, who graduated from the University of California at Davis last year with an economics degree. She worried that prospective employers would assume that her potential was limited to crunching numbers. "Schwab made it sound as if I could go anywhere."

So Lee put the company to the test. Although her background in technology was limited to a weeklong course in HTML coding, she decided to pursue an assignment that involved Web design. Working in Schwab's nonstandard-assets department, she developed an online reference tool to help Schwab employees understand the exotic securities handled in that department.

Wings associates commit to Schwab without having any idea what their salaries will ultimately be. Their starting base is about $30,000 -- less than the new-hire pay at most investment banks and consulting firms in San Francisco. Although all associates get raises once they decide on a permanent position, there's no guarantee that they'll earn what they could elsewhere. Big money isn't the draw. "This is a job," Lee says, "where the value comes in being able to push your career in whatever direction you want it to go."

Born to Run

Can you trust an entry-level hire with more than make-work? FreeMarkets OnLine founders Glen Meakem and Sam Kinney don't hesitate to hand employees like Emily O'Brien an airplane ticket, along with orders to explore a new market or to contact a prospective customer. Although Meakem says that he's careful not to risk everything on the business judgment of a 22-year-old, he knows from experience how much young people can accomplish. "In 1991, I left the Harvard Business School to lead a combat-engineering platoon in Desert Storm," he says. "Most wars have been won by 25-year-olds leading 18-year-olds, and young people started many of the largest companies in the world today."

Meakem's young turks do pay their dues -- in FreeMarkets's fashion. Each Friday, the newest employee must collect money for beer. But there's meaning even in the mundane: "That's a pretty useful chore, because you get to talk to everyone in the company," says O'Brien, who has taken her turn as the designated bartender.

At Enterprise, Tim Hutchins gets the coffee brewing each morning. Once properly caffeinated, he begins chipping away at the tasks that all branch-level workers share. Someone has to stand behind the counter, so he does a shift there once a week. He also spends hours on the phone, since most customers call Enterprise's branches directly for reservations. He pores over the budget, he dabbles in collections, and he even helps out with shift scheduling by playing weather forecaster. "We always see demand increase 48 hours after a storm -- from people who have wrecked their cars. We try to have an extra person in on those days."

But the work that Hutchins enjoys most is sales -- which is also the work that drives his branch's success. Long ago, Enterprise realized that the key to attracting business was establishing ties with insurance-claims adjusters and with employees at local body shops -- people who could refer business to the company. So, almost every week, Hutchins hits the road to visit accounts, dishing out doughnuts and spreading the Enterprise gospel. Last summer, when the mercury soared past 100 degrees, he made his rounds in a rented ice-cream truck. "Being an entrepreneur is what's cool these days," he says. "And that's what I get to do here."

Ron Lieber (rlieber@fastcompany.com) is a senior writer at Fast Company.

Sidebar: How to Design a Great First Job

By the time they arrive at your doorstep, your new hires will have been wooed by many organizations. So their expectations will be high. Entry-level work can be mundane. But most first-time hires don't know that -- since no one dares to tell them the truth during the recruitment phase. Here are ways to soften their landing.

Roll out the welcome wagon.

Get rid of the administrative stuff beforehand. There's no quicker way to kill youthful enthusiasm than to choke it with hours of filling out forms. Before your recruits start work, send all the necessary paperwork to their homes.

Spend the first few days introducing new hires to your mission, strategy, and culture. Make them feel like part of the team. "It amazes me that companies don't take the time to explain to new hires how their businesses actually make money," says Maury Hanigan, whose company -- Hanigan Consulting Group, based in New York City -- focuses on recruiting and retention. "How is the company positioned in its market? What do its various divisions and departments do? How do they all fit together?"

One more first-day tip: 22-year-olds love getting their own business cards. It makes them feel like the adults that they nearly are. Why not have a box ready for them on day one? And can we please get past those boring white rectangles? It's much more fun to have something funky and colorful to hand out to your friends.

Let them hang with the stars.

Entry-level workers want to feel like they're in the loop. So give them access and exposure to the big thinkers on your staff. How can it hurt to let new hires sit in on a few strategy meetings? "There's rarely any reason to give out information on a need-to-know basis," says Marc Muchnick, a corporate consultant in Coral Springs, Florida, who helps companies like Fidelity groom their new hires. "So put your young employees into situations that they wouldn't otherwise be in."

Make work, not dues.

What do entry-level workers want? Two years ago, Maury Hanigan posed that question to 250 students. More than half answered that job content was the most important factor -- even more important than money.

If your entry-level jobs still involve making coffee and shuffling papers, then you're in trouble. "The logic behind dues paying is that, in the long run, there will be a reward," says Bruce Tulgan, of RainmakerThinking Inc., in New Haven, Connecticut. "But these days, investing in those kinds of long-term rewards is risky, since the 'Lifetime Job Club' isn't admitting too many new members. It's easy to imagine paying those dues now and never cashing in."

Sidebar: How to Find a Great First Job

So you still have no plans for the fall? Don't worry. Most of your classmates who rushed to sign on with one of the big companies that came to campus had no clue what they were getting into. "Many people accept offers without having any idea what they'll be doing," says Cheryl Matherly, director of career services at Rice University, in Houston, Texas. For those who don't want to be among the clueless, here are a few things to consider.

Narrow your options.

What are your passions? Which industries give you the most exposure to interesting work? When Jason Rosenblatt started his job hunt, in the winter of 1998, he put investment banks, consulting firms, and the commercial bank First Chicago side by side.

"Investment banks have about zero interest in your professional development," Rosenblatt says, recalling horror stories told by friends who put in 100-hour weeks. And, while he knew that consulting would offer him the chance to move from project to project, he figured that he would have little control over what those projects were.

So he chose to become a First Scholar at First Chicago, signing up to do six-month rotations in various departments while the bank put him through business school. The result: good pay, great exposure, nice long-term potential. "I wanted to make an impact right away," he says. "My input may not be vital, but I want it to be valued, and I want to be included as an equal member of the team."

Pick your boss.

Loyalty hasn't disappeared entirely from corporate life. "Loyalty these days is between individuals, not between people and companies," says Bruce Tulgan, of RainmakerThinking Inc. Bad bosses can ruin a great job, and good bosses can make a so-so job feel fantastic. The type of boss you have can also make or break the next step of your career. So, once you're offered a job, talk to people who have worked for your boss-to-be.

If you can't pick your boss, then find a coach -- someone who has the power (and the desire) to look out for your interests, someone who can pull you off bad assignments and keep you informed about great assignments. At First Chicago, Vice President Janet Leong plays that role for First Scholars: She's on the lookout for a Hong Kong posting for Rosenblatt, who speaks Chinese and wants experience overseas.

Open your mouth.

What do you want out of a first job? Money? Skills? Tell someone -- preferably the person who is dangling that offer in front of you. "Don't be ashamed to let people know what you want," says Jessie Woolley, president of Crimson & Brown Associates, a recruiting and publishing company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "If they have to guess, they may guess wrong."

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