Graduates' first job can show where they excel -- or don't

Listen up college seniors, you have the upper hand in the job market this year.

So that means you could be pickier about your first job, which can set the groundwork for the rest of your professional life.


"I really believe that the chief value of the first job out of college is to help you figure out what you like, generally your strengths, what you're good at, and what you don't like, generally your weaknesses and what you're not good at," says Dede Bartlett, a former executive at two Fortune 500 companies who lectures on career issues to college students.

Employers plan to hire 17.4 percent more college graduates than last year, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. It is the fourth consecutive year that employers have estimated double-digit increases in hiring, which means more competition among companies to hire graduates, the group says.


With that in mind, here are three things that soon-to-be graduates should consider during the job search and as they mull over offers. These are in addition to a good starting salary and benefits, of course.

A first job should be a place for learning and growing.

Will the job offer training or development opportunities? What about mentorship? And how often will performance be evaluated?

For instance, most new hires at Enterprise Rent-A-Car start at an entry-level management training program. The company, which was recently named as one of the top 50 places to start a career by BusinessWeek, plans to hire 8,000 college graduates this year, up from 7,000 last year, says Pam Webster, a corporate recruiting manager.

At a job that doesn't have a regular evaluating process, "you may find it hard to understand where you're excelling and where you need some help," says Susan D. Strayer, a former Johns Hopkins University career adviser and author of The Right Job Right Now.

Some companies have a formal mentorship program for new hires, which can help young people navigate the "unwritten rules of that particular workplace," Bartlett says.

Look for a job that has a collegial work environment.

Bartlett advises college seniors to find out about the culture of the workplace by talking to current and former employees. The Internet makes the research easier. Go to the company's Web site and Google the company for information.


A friendly workplace also means finding the right boss. Ask to interview or meet your potential future manager.

"Bad bosses are one of the top reasons young people find dissatisfaction in their work since they're really looking for mentors early in their careers," Strayer says.

What are the realities of the real world?

In other words, find out what is expected from you at the job, including job duties, hours and work expectations.

Often overlooked but just as important is understanding the dress code, Bartlett says. Business casual does not mean the same thing for everyone, so ask questions.

Not following the dress code is "one of the things that bothers employers a lot," she says.


Strayer says she has seen recent graduates lured by high salaries or the coolness factor of a particular industry.

"Make sure you ask the right questions about the hours you'll be working and understand the core job duties so you take the job for the right reason," she says. "Money's great, but if it means you're doing administrative work all day, you might come to think otherwise."

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