'Non-Career' Work Offers Grads Income, Experience

By Tania Anderson
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 19, 2007 11:02 AM

When Lauren Pool, a 2005 graduate of the University of Virginia, returned to Northern Virginia last summer following a job teaching English in Brazil, she knew she wasn't ready to restart her teaching career right away.

Nagged by her bills, she found a serving job at Indigo Landing, a restaurant overlooking the Potomac River in Alexandria, Va., while she looked for a teaching job and researched graduate schools.

It kept the money coming in -- and Pool never felt that prospective employers were thumbing their noses at her restaurant work. "I have an advantage of being in the teaching field," she says. "Educators are more receptive to the fact that I've been floating around."

But it's not only educators who feel that way. Employers of all kinds are increasingly receptive to restaurant, retail, temp and other "non-career" jobs on the resumes of their college graduate candidates, say recruiters and career counselors.

Valuable Personal and Professional Experience

Even given the competitive nature of the area's job market, they say, employers understand the high cost of living in Washington and realize that not everyone has the financial ability to intern for free or focus solely on job hunting.

"Most employers recognize that your experience after college, at least for the first couple of years, is not indicative of the rest of your life," says Marva Gumbs Jennings, executive director of the career center at George Washington University. "The risks [of taking non-career jobs] are minimal."

In fact, some employers would rather see someone work in a job not in their career track than focus exclusively on job searching because it demonstrates initiative and financial independence while also potentially helping develop some of the basic skills needed for the workforce.

Temporary office work can be particularly attractive to recent graduates who have never worked in an office setting, as well as those still wondering what industry to pursue a career in. Even better, it often leads to permanent jobs in part because the job-hunting temp is a known commodity to an organization. "You've proven to be a contributor," says Gumbs Jennings.

The trick for job-hunting graduates is to properly spin the skills learned while waiting tables or answering phones on a resume and cover letter. The tactics: Emphasize customer service skills, people skills, problem-solving techniques and the ability to work on deadline while highlighting the ability to communicate, listen effectively and work with different personalities.

"If they've learned to work with other people, they want to highlight how they've learned that and how that helps them better deal with other folks throughout the organization," says Kye Mitchell, Washington market president for professional staffing firm Kforce.

Some employers prefer restaurant or similar experience, Mitchell says, because it demonstrates self-sufficiency. Some retailers, such as Nordstrom, meanwhile, are known for top-notch training, which is attractive to employers.

"If you're interviewing for an entry-level position at a company for an accounting job or an IT position, they would prefer to see some level of restaurant experience or some level of retail where you're having to understand people's needs," says Mitchell.

Another benefit of working in a non-career job after graduation is the opportunity to develop connections with other people and build up a network of contacts. Some career advisors even encourage recent graduates to take some time off before launching their careers. "We should not be putting pressure on these kids to [start careers] right away," says Marilyn Goldman, who runs Horizons Unlimited, a career counseling firm in Washington and Rockville.

In Some Fields, More Experience Required

There are downsides to the experience, however. Kevin Simpson, executive vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, a non-profit organization that markets government careers to young people, says he doesn't like to see job candidates who have worked in a non-career job for years instead of months.

"That's obviously someone who has settled into something," he says. "I would wonder if they've been doing everything they can to advance themselves professionally."

And the benefits of such work experiences may not be a replacement for field work in some endeavors. Career counselors say that job seekers looking for engineering and scientific jobs should make sure they have training, research experience or other job experience alongside their non-career work.

"They like to see more career-type internships or research within the university," Mitchell says.

A non-career job won't ruin someone's chances of getting a job at McLean, Va.-based software firm LogiXML Inc., but hiring managers agree that a background and hands-on experience in technology is crucial.

"There's nothing holding them back once they've done that and they show enthusiasm and hard work," says Pat Giles, a human resources and office manager at LogiXML. "Someone who had to hustle and to work in a job not in their field doesn't prejudice me against interviewing them or hiring them."

At ARC International Concepts, an advertising and marketing firm based in Falls Church, Va., hiring managers are open to entry-level people lacking related experience because the company provides training. But job seekers should still be able to talk about how their non-career jobs taught them to work with people and multi-task, says Nicole Beaty, an administrative assistant at ARC who helps with hiring.

Personal -- and Financial -- Flexibility

There is yet another benefit to non-career work that may appeal to young workers, suggests Pool: It offers flexibility while you take time to decide what you want to do without depriving you of income, making potential career or other life transitions more easily bearable.

"I still think of doing it again," says Pool, who has left Indigo Landing to work as a full-time tutor while she searches for teaching work. "It's something you can always go back to for money."

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