How to escape low-wage service jobs in your 20s?
May 22, 2013 7:31 AM   Subscribe

Those of you post-grads figuring it out in your 20s (or 30s) doing odd jobs, waiting tables, jobs not nec. related to your major, where are you now? What advice would you have if you could go back and do it again?

When I was 18, I met a bunch of 23 and 24 year old post-grads living together. Some of them weren't working. Others were working part time shifts at coffee shops, restaurants, and bike shops. All of them were still figuring things out and not pursuing what they originally majored in. When I worked at a coffee shop at this age, my coworkers were late 20 somethings who were figuring things out too. They had been there for a while.

I wonder what happened to those people. And, I wonder if some of them are still working those part-time shifts, that have maybe turned full time. I'm not saying that working in retail or the food service industry is bad, but it's clear that these people had meant it to be a temporary gig.

Now that I'm a 23 year old post-grad, I'm a bit surprised to find myself in the same boat. I majored in architecture, which was hit very hard with the recession, not to mention the flood of architecture grads already looking for work. The pay for entry-level architects is not very high, the hours tend to be very long, and the work is, usually, but not always, pretty mundane as an entry-level with lots of autoCAD, scanning, and Adobe. Anyway, I've decided it's not for me. I've had an inkling of this thought in university, but I excelled as a student and didn't pay it enough thought since school was pretty easy and rewarding for me (scholarships, awards, etc.) But now that I'm faced with reality, none of those things really matter, and more importantly, I know that it's not what I want to do. So now what?

Obviously I need to get a job, so while I'm figuring things out, I plan to get a part time retail or food service job. I understand how easy it is to get comfortable in these jobs though, and that's what I'm afraid of. Waitressing will likely pull in more money hourly (+ tips) than an entry-level architecture job, you'll get more person-to-person interaction, you don't stare at a screen all day and you're on your feet which is much healthier than sitting all the time. But there are no health benefits and though it'll be enough to comfortably live day-to-day, it's not an ideal setup for planning long-term. I know the solution would be to keep your eye on the prize, which is figuring out your next career move, but I'm afraid I'll just slide and get stuck into the service industry field. I don't even know what general direction I want to go. Those aforementioned 20-somethings are now in their late 20s or early 30s and I wonder how many of them are still in those types of jobs. And with the economy the way it is, I wouldn't really be surprised if they haven't left.

So have you found yourself in this position as a post-grad reconsidering your career options (i.e. not wanting to pursue what you majored in but not sure of what you want)? Are you still in it? Or have you successfully used that time off whilst working part time jobs to find out what you really want?

And do you have any advice for someone like me? Or a past you?

posted by bluelight to Work & Money (38 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have a low wage job, but I'm not working in my field, and if I could do it all over again, I'd network like hell and do some internships. If you're fresh out of school, I'd make a concerted effort to keep in touch with your classmates and professors. Even if architecture seems blah to you right now, you never know when you might need those contacts in the future.
posted by desjardins at 7:37 AM on May 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Have you considered looking for jobs in related fields like Construction Management?
posted by Jahaza at 7:38 AM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your description of entry-level architects is pretty similar to a description of entry-level everything, you know. If you've truly decided that career path is not for you, fair enough - but no matter what field you go into, you're going to have to pay your dues one way or another. Working full time as a recent college grad is just going to sort of suck for a while, especially since you aren't used to that type of schedule. Honestly, if you can get one of those entry-level boring architecture jobs, I'd probably go that route. It's going to be a lot more comfortable to figure out what you really want to do when you're making a full-time salary and building your resume with legitimate work experience.

That said, almost everyone I know started out after college waiting tables, or working as a receptionist, or working retail at a futon store.... and we are all now (in our mid-30s) more or less happily making decent money in various "real" jobs we enjoy. The burnout in the type of low level service job you're describing happens pretty quickly for most people. Either you'll get tired of it and feel some motivation to figure out what to do next, or you'll find you unexpectedly enjoy it and stay there for a long time. I guess what I'm trying to say is: you sound pretty motivated to find your place in the world. Try to trust that it will work out in the end - but you're probably going to have to be willing to do stuff you don't love somewhere along the way.
posted by something something at 7:43 AM on May 22, 2013 [19 favorites]

I understand how easy it is to get comfortable in these jobs though, and that's what I'm afraid of. Waitressing will likely pull in more money hourly (+ tips) than an entry-level architecture job [...]

I'm one of the people stuck like this. I worked in service industry-type jobs through my 20s, and, in an attempt to get out, completed a bachelor's degree when I was 30 (and I knocked it out of the park, in a way, graduating summa cum laude). Now, at 34, I'm still making <$30,000/year in a job which doesn't require a degree. You don't want to wind up like me.

I don't think the danger is that you will "get comfortable" in a job like this. The danger is by the time you're in your mid-thirties, most employers see a fifteen or twenty year track record of low-wage/low-prestige work and assume that there's a reason why you weren't a "professional" by the time you were 30. Of course, there are a lot of other variables in my situation, many of which are wholly the result of my choices, and some of which were dumb luck: the university I chose (low-prestige state school), the year I entered the job market after completing my degree (2009), the degree I chose (biology, with a minor in chemistry), my lack of undergraduate research experience, etc.--but I really believe that if I were eight or ten years younger many employers would be more willing to give me a shot. If it's a field you're interested in, you should absolutely scrabble for a "professional" position as soon as you can, even if it's less pay and more work in the short term.
posted by pullayup at 7:50 AM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you want to eventually have a professional job, get a job in an office, even if its data entry. People get jobs from networking, and you aren't going to make great connections as a waitress.
posted by empath at 7:56 AM on May 22, 2013 [15 favorites]

The pay for entry-level architects is not very high, the hours tend to be very long, and the work is, usually, but not always, pretty mundane as an entry-level with lots of autoCAD, scanning, and Adobe.

You can't just focus on the first year of your working life when trying to decide what to do. If you take a job like this, in five years you'll be making more money and doing something more interesting. If you take a restaurant job, in five years you'll be working in a restaurant. No promotions in waiting tables.

Furthermore, if you take an entry level architecture job and decide you don't like it, it'll be way easier to pivot from an architecture job to another office job than it will be to pivot from waiting tables to an office job.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:56 AM on May 22, 2013 [19 favorites]

When I was in those shoes, I went to grad school. For architecture. I don't recommend grad school or architecture. However, as others have said, it is at least an office profession, and it will be easier to transition to other professional jobs from there than from a service type job.
posted by Kriesa at 8:00 AM on May 22, 2013

If I could go back and talk to my younger self, I would offer this advice:

Employers mostly only want to pay you to do some variation on what you have already done before. So, if you're going to make terrible, entry-level wages to do something, make sure it's starting you down a career path you enjoy. And if you can't get paid to work in the field you want to be in, make sure your crappy day job leaves you enough time and flexibility to do what you'd rather be doing on the side for little or no money, so that you can be positioning yourself for a move into that field as soon as possible.

___ years ago, I was waiting tables and tending bar. I made more money than most of my peers who were interning, starting at the bottom, etc. Fast forward to today and I am still more or less in the restaurant business, but I hate it. Those peers generally make what I make or more and have jobs they enjoy.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:03 AM on May 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was un- and under-employed for a large chunk of my early twenties and if I could go back I would have started temping IMMEDIATELY upon leaving college while looking for a "real" job.

I only turned to temping when I was holy shit broke broke broke and without health insurance and even getting turned down for retail jobs, and almost immediately got hired from a temp job into a full time position with awesome health insurance and (finally, after a rather ballsy raise request ifIdosaysomyself) great salary.

I realize my fast-track trajectory was really lucky, but if I had started doing something to bring in some income sooner (and make connections in a corporate environment) I would have had a lot more options and a lot less oh god I'm gonna be homeless stress.

Temp. Temp temp temp temp temp.

I still don't know what I want to do, but at 27 I'm finally comfortable and secure enough to actually figure it out, all while picking up some great stuff to pad out my resume.
posted by phunniemee at 8:11 AM on May 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

I spent most of my twenties in grad school (yet another way to waste them, in a lot of ways!) but I've had many friends in this position and made one slightly similar move upwards move myself. Here are a few ways that I can think of people making the jump from service positions to the 'real' world:

1. They knew someone in a field they were interested in who got them a job. Honestly, that's by far the most common. Sometimes whole friend groups get lifted up this way: one person gets employed, starts throwing job leads out to his friends, and in a few years nobody's working at that restaurant anymore.

2. They started all over from scratch and got a master's degree in something that made them employable (library science, nursing, etc.).

3. They got hired as an intern, temp or an admin assistant in a field they were interested in and clawed their way up from there.

What I have literally never seen happen (and I know a fair number of people) is a person working in a low level retail job for a couple of years and then getting tired of it, mailing out resumes, and getting a good entry level job in their preferred field. The world doesn't work that way. Resumes for entry level jobs sent out cold are just...not successful. It's almost a joke that they post the ads for them, because 99% of them are going to either go to a person with one of the in's listed above (the last "in" not mentioned there, because it's not relevant to you, is being a promising brand-new 4.0 GPA graduate from the school preferred by the employer.) And yet people spend years of their lives trying to escape their jobs via that method and feeling rejected by a system that was never going to work for them.

In my experience, if you come from a middle class background and went to a name brand school and don't have other disqualifying attributes (like a drug addiction) the odds are in your favor that you won't be working in retail by the time you're 35. If you're perceptive, you'll notice that all the ways you might escape have more to do to with privilege (well-connected friends, the money for a master's degree, the time to work for basically nothing while you get a foot in the door) than with merit, but...that's a post for another day.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:11 AM on May 22, 2013 [17 favorites]

If you have any energy/sustainability/LEED training AT ALL, or you are willing to get some sort of additional training in that area, you could be very nicely placed to go into the energy consulting/energy auditing field. Also, look into firms doing Property Condition Assessments -- your architecture background would likely make you appealing, and you could be trained on the job to do the work. Both fields are short on experienced candidates and as a result are hiring entry-level folks to train. You'd come in at a lower salary but you'd be very versatile within the first two years or so. Also, lots of travel, and health insurance.
posted by pie ninja at 8:16 AM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

A job that you don't like with upward mobility is infinitely better than a job you don't like with no upward mobility. And it's hard to like a job without any future in it.

I would seriously reconsider your "it's not for me" decision w/r/t your degree field. Even if the jobs are terrible and mundane, you will probably have a plausible path up and out of them and into more interesting work. A lot of entry-level service sector work is equally mundane, but lacks an exit strategy that leaves you better off than when you started.

The general suckitude of most office jobs is defined not by the actual nature of the work being performed, but by the people you have to work with, at least in my experience. Fairly tedious and boring stuff can be, if not actually enjoyable, at least decently rewarding in the company of good people; conversely, I don't think that the most interesting challenges in the world would be worthwhile if you were constantly surrounded by assholes.

So I would try to find something that matches your educational background, or where you can at least make use of your education (i.e. where it won't be useless on your resume), regardless of the apparent tediousness of the work. By doing so, you might have more leverage to find a company and workplace that's not terribly dysfunctional or otherwise a miserable place to spend your time.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:16 AM on May 22, 2013 [7 favorites]

...reconsidering your career options (i.e. not wanting to pursue what you majored in but not sure of what you want)?

Work in a job that will add interest and long-term mobility through transferable skills to your resume while figuring out what you want as quickly - while still accurately - as possible and work toward it. This job is not in a restaurant. It's temping or office work or a cool internship or a boring internship at a cool company. But immediately start working towards solving your core problem.

It sounds like you've already identified that you want a job with more interpersonal interaction and physical movement. That's good. What are career tracks that involve those duties that have better long-term prospects for you?

Somewhat involving architecture, here are some off-the-cuff ideas: government parks employee, government facade restoration employee, private restoration specialist, museum work in public facing areas that involve architectural knowledge, architecture professor/teacher, history professor/teacher, carpenter (possibly in a school woodshop). Research ones that sound good to you, and see if they are. You may find the job itself is good, but the chances of getting that job (history professor, architecture professor) are close to nil. Pick a job you think you could actually be hired into.

Or maybe you now hate architecture. You still want to identify a job that sounds decent in terms of its lifestyle, salary, duties, career track and promotion capabilities, etc. and then work backwards to figure out what you need to do to get there. But having finished a BA in architecture, I'd see if I could spin it into an arena I'd be happy in.
posted by vegartanipla at 8:17 AM on May 22, 2013

I think your best bet is to apply for grad schools/make decisions about what you want to try next from the vantage point of a professional (eg. architectural) job. A good service job would keep you in better shape and could pay more, but ultimately that experience (even if you move into a completely different field) will probably be viewed as more valuable. That said, a good friend of mine worked his way from a server into a General Manager position at a very nice restaurant and then went on to get an MBA at a top school. So it's certainly not impossible.

Have you considered the Peace Corps? RPCVs seem to get a good jump on grad school.

The good thing is you are still very young and many employers expect some amount of jumping around in your 20s.
posted by SpicyMustard at 8:18 AM on May 22, 2013

The pay for entry-level architects is not very high, the hours tend to be very long, and the work is, usually, but not always, pretty mundane as an entry-level with lots of autoCAD, scanning, and Adobe.

If you interview for a better job, what sounds better: "I am currently an architect at XYZ firm, and I am looking to make a change, and I think my skills from there will be valuable" or "I am a sales associate at Target and want an office job" ?
posted by deanc at 8:21 AM on May 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you want to be X, you need to go do X or go be near people doing X. It really is that simple. The world is full of actors that are waiting tables, but what the world really needs are guerrilla film makers and buskers and theater troupes and guys that can build stage sets and hang lights and ...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:25 AM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

You majored in architecture and you're thinking of waiting tables.

Have you ever considered going out and building houses? Swing a hammer, hang some drywall? Or maybe do some interior finish work? Or if that's too much, you can always sell these construction items. Most guys that come sell me windows and kitchens don't know a goddamn thing about aesthetics and design.

You know how to design a building, so why not go actually build one?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:30 AM on May 22, 2013 [9 favorites]

I knew one guy who started out in architecture, had a difficult time getting employment, and wound up as a building inspector. You already know a lot about the built environment... are there any careers in planning, building, inspecting, documenting, financing, brokering, repurposing, or deconstructing buildings?
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:46 AM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I took a part-time job that paid nearly nothing BUT it gave me the skills, job title and connections I needed for the next job. When I say it paid nearly nothing, I mean it paid minimum wage. In reality, it was less than minimum when you add in uncompensated overtime. It paid less than waitressing (which I did on weekends). It paid less than working in a grocery store bakery (which I did a few nights a week).

However, that job set me up for the next job which paid well and had me solidly on a career path.

My best advice is to take any part-time or low paid job IN YOUR FIELD to get rolling. If you need to cobble together a few part-time gigs, then fine. But get something going that's building some relevant work experience. Then join and attend professional associations - many have lowered rates for students and un/underemployed members.

My guess is that 99% of people's first jobs are boring, entry-level scut. The other 1% are the children of Jann Wenner.
posted by 26.2 at 8:55 AM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Can I just give my two cents as an employer?

We're located in a resort town with lots of seasonal employees. Every single time I have taken a chance to hire someone in an entry level position for a full-time, long-term position, I do hear rumblings of "I made more money as a server than at this job." I tell them this:

You have to stop thinking about THE JOB and start thinking about A CAREER. A career gives you the path to grow and develop your skills, which in turn will allow you promotions that give you a higher salary. A career gives you a job with benefits and paid time off. A career gives you direction and the chance to spread your wings and move forward. A career will sustain you and educate you.

"Just a job" does not.

Not everyone's going to be a 25 year old who sells his website for a billion dollars. Most folks I know worked really hard and put in their dues to get where they are. You can't move up if you don't move on.
posted by HeyAllie at 8:59 AM on May 22, 2013 [6 favorites]

It sounds like you're opting out of architecture because it seems too hard and boring to find a job and try it out.

Every career worth doing has a high learning curve and seemingly-insurmountable barriers to entry. Try out architecture. You owe it to yourself. Don't give up before you've even started.If it doesn't work out, it will be that much easier to find another office job - office jobs tend to lead to more office jobs.
posted by sid at 9:04 AM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think one of the most pernicious lies ever told to university students is that there is a wonderful, soul fulfililng job available to each graduate of their program.

So scale it back. If you don't want to do architechture, what DO you want to do? Now, as I've said before, not everyone can be a Cowboy-Astronaut, but what kinds of things do you enjoy doing? I like understanding tech stuff, being the expert in a specific computer program, sitting at my desk and fooling around with excel and going to an office with nice people. What does this have to do with my major of English Literature? Not alot.

So, assess the skills that you posses now. I'm sure that the Auto-Cad, scanning and Adobe is useful somewhere, in some arena. If not, what other skills do you have and enjoy using?

I started out in customer service for the phone company about 3 semesters before I graduated. As it turns out, I LOVED the company I worked for, I loved learning all about the new technology (cut me a break, in 1984 it WAS new) and I loved the people I worked with. So rather than turn my efforts to teaching English, I just kept moving up in the company. I became a billing specialist, a Major Account Manager, a Field Marketing Specialist, a Senior Sales Executive, a Conferencing Specialist, A Data Networking Sales Engineer, etc. I'm sure you get the idea.

The point is that the dumb, entry-level job that I originally took, turned out to be a 25-year career that brought me a lot of satisfaction.

So, while serving is a fine thing to do, is it a career path you want to explore? Or would you rather be in a place where what you're doing today kind of sucks, and kind of pays shit, but will put you on a career path?

My recommendation is find a job in a field you think you'd like during the day, and do serving at night for extra dough. Then you can have your cake and eat it too.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:08 AM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had a friend who graduated a few years ago in almost your exact same position, although I don't know if she was quite as disillusioned with the field when she first graduated. From an outsider perspective, I think that a lot of what keeps her working in food service today is that she spent the first year or two looking for entry-level architecture jobs, which are extremely hard to come by on top of the other factors you mentioned, then went to grad school but dropped out after a semester after finding the workload absolutely brutal. The whole process was so discouraging that as time goes on she seems to be losing the momentum to move into a related field.

I don't think there's anything wrong with acknowledging that architecture isn't for you and working a service job for the meantime, but it's entirely on you as to whether you get comfortable and never move on. Start working now on identifying a parallel career that you want to enter and do whatever it takes-- network, do informational interviews, take on internships or low paying jobs-- to help you get your dream job down the road. Be prepared for the fact that you will probably still have to take on jobs that don't pay well and are boring and tedious. In the end, service jobs also tend to be low paying and tedious but they will never get you any closer to your ideal job.
posted by fox problems at 9:29 AM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a post-grad (university, many moons ago...). My work history found me working in the Food Services Department of several hospitals over the course of high school, and then University part-time. Later when I graduated from the Arts, I could not find work. I went and found a job in Food Services in a Hospital. And, was a crutch. The pay was way too good to leave, it was unionized...but soul-sucking. 9 years later, I got out, but wound up going back to school (community college) to do "something else." I managed to find work in my field after several months of searching, but it did take a lot of work. And I did have a spouse to help with the financial impact.

My advice: Take your coffee shop / server jobs - there is no shame in paying the bills! But don't wait to look for other opportunities, whether it be related to your field, or doing "something else". Perhaps take online courses to get more credentials related to the workplace of Architecture, like management courses? Who knows, perhaps you could find something that interests you within that realm. If anything, coffee shop/server jobs teach you valuable soft skills. Good luck!
posted by MeatheadBrokeMyChair at 9:29 AM on May 22, 2013

A couple of thoughts about privilege and employability:

In my experience, there are two things that will be taken into account when you are applying for professional positions. In order, these are:

1. Skills & experience

2. Personal relationships

Employers are generally unwilling to hire an unskilled and unconnected worker. Currently, you don't have many marketable professional skills--no, your college education (generally, unless you have a CS or engineering degree) does not count, and time spent working in a service industry job is worth exactly nothing. The cost of pursuing avenues which can lead to a worthwhile professional job has been offloaded almost entirely onto you.

This cost can take a variety of forms: various professional degrees, unpaid internships, volunteering, and entry level/temp-to-hire "dues-paying" positions. This is where your relative level of privilege matters. If you have some kind of social or financial cushion, you can wait tables through your 20s and trade your money for skills in another way. You can take time off to complete a Master's degree (and not drown in debt doing it) or work as an unpaid intern. If you can't make that kind of investment, it becomes much, much harder to bootstrap yourself out of the service sector. I suspect that the entry-level architecture jobs are a very specific low-risk (to the employer) condition where they are willing to provide on-the-job training, which is why so many people here are urging you to reconsider.
posted by pullayup at 9:29 AM on May 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm that person - I'm the 28 year old architect who finally feels like they made it out of that bullshit!! It's possible and it's very rewarding!

I worked in the most BORING architecture jobs ever for about 5 years YEARS and after all those years of AWFUL work for AWFUL pay, I am happy to say I am now a project manager with a fantastic team, at an amazing firm, making a very good salary! KEEP PUSHING FOR WHAT YOU WANT AND DON'T GIVE UP!!

When I was in your position, I dedicate myself to making the most of my boring job. I got in there, kick some ass, had as much fun as I could through the shitty situation. Also, I refused to let my job run my life. I left work on time as often as I could so that I could feel fresh and not feel trampled by my job (which happens in architecture). Respect yourself and your time and your employer will likely do the same. If they don't, fuck em, there are jobs out there that will.

Serving tables is not going to help you be an architect. Many of my friends fell into this trap and they are still serving tables 5 years later (but with a part time architecture gig on the side). They have not made it back into architecture, or any career for that matter.

Also, generally, if you stay in architecture, move to New York City. The jobs and pay are much better here ;)
posted by LZel at 9:45 AM on May 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

You're going to get a lot of advice on this one. Much of what I say may be repeated, but it's definitely an important question for you to be considering, and I think you're going about it in the right manner.

First of all, you're going to have to pay your dues at some point. Maybe more than once. If you don't know what I mean when I say "Don't Eat The Marshmallow", go Google it. What is very important to consider is not only the actual task involved in the job, but the general skills that occur around work. The reason college degrees are so prized is two-fold. The first is that you learn how to think and produce results. The second is perhaps more important. You show that you can set a goal that is four years away, and work incrementally to achieve it. This is very important. Lots of people I started with did not make it through college. They opted out for a variety of reasons. They did not complete the journey, thus no degree. So when you look at your college degree, not only did you get a degree in architecture, you have a degree in finishing what you started. It's not an easy road for most of us, to be sure, but you did it. That is paying your dues.

So you've paid the first part of them. Now for the second part. Even if all you do in an office is entry-level AutoCAD, you are still in an office. You learn how to show up on time (believe me, this is not as easy as it sounds), deliver results, work with a team, respect authority, network, work the power structure (read: gossip), and a whole host of other things are are about the office environment. Are those things important? I believe they are.

I have often worked with creative professionals in corporate roles. They often have a very rough road in because they are not used to the functioning of the work. They are very good at the task itself, but it's all of the contextual things. I'll give you another example. A good friend years ago was a waiter. He was used to being paid out nightly (tips) and weekly (salary). When he graduated grad school, he went to an office job where he was paid monthly. You have no idea how long it took him to adapt to that change. He often had to borrow money to buy new clothes, as he was doing very well but wasn't used to budgeting for things like ties, shoeshines, taxis, etc. There's a whole world of nuances in the context of one's work.

McKinsey was famous at my business school for a marathon of 35 interviews with one candidate. They often came with a day or two of notice. And traveling to those interviews was about £40 each, and took two hours each way. Why so many? We came to believe that they are looking for people who are very stable. That each time he met with them, he was clean-shaven, suit pressed, attentive, etc. Regardless of what was going on in his life. This guy was going to be thrust into serious situations at a moment's notice with a lot of money and time on the line. Lots of people could do the task – M&A Valuation – but they were looking for fit. Fit is what you get by paying your dues.

Secondly, there is a bad assumption amongst people when it comes to things like jobs. If I tell you the unemployment rate in the US is 10%, you may be horrified. But that also means 90% of people have jobs. If I tell you that it's 2% for masters-degreed professionals, that means 98 out of 100 people have jobs. There is the often the assumption that we will each fall into the worst-case scenario. Perhaps that's a basic human behavioural protection. Who knows? The reality is that whilst you see a bunch of crap entry level architecture jobs and a lot of unemployed architecture practitioners, the reality is that is not the story.

In my view, your generation has a very bad bent toward entitlement. You want to run fast and things to happen immediately. You're used to content on demand and a world that is exceptionally malleable. Yet the rest of the world continues operating by the old rules. Apprenticeship has been around forever for a very good reason. You need to learn how to conduct yourself and deliver to specification. In most jobs, there are infinite nuances that can cause problems, and you need to learn which to avoid, and which are acceptable. I see lots of unemployed people who don't want to take entry level work because it's boring and it sucks. Yes, it is boring and it does suck. And it does that for a reason. Because you need to learn. Think of entry-level jobs as the next iteration of your education, only now you are being paid to learn. If you do take an entry-level job in architecture – any entry level job in architecture – you will be massively ahead of all of your cohort who believe they're too good for that. THOSE are the people that will not go very far in life, for they are simply not willing to do the work.

Thirdly, you're orientation toward waitressing and Money Now is a slippery slope. So you start waitressing and make a bit more money than you would otherwise. You get better at it and make a bit more. The entry-level job requirement is never going to go away. What will happen is that the gap between your current pay and that pay will grow, making it increasingly difficult to make that step. Right now, you have a choice of two paths. In a few years, it will be a step down. Whilst the people who took the entry-level path are ascending. You'll want to go on trips. To buy things. To live better. And that all takes money, and it will consume your earnings. You may get to the point where you don't see how you could earn that entry level salary again. And then there you are, a professional service person.

And there's nothing wrong with that. Lots of people go that route and live great lives. The ones that are happy made the choice to go that way because it's what they wanted to do. I know lots of happy bartenders and career waitresses. They have good lives. Often, they love people. They LOVE people. They just love the whole scene of it. Or maybe they have a dream of their own bar or restaurant. Or they're using the cash to fund an education, or a record label.

The ones that seem unhappy are those who fell into it and couldn't get out for the reason previously mentioned. They didn't make the choice, they avoided making another choice. They wanted a bit more money now, and now they are stuck. They are usually massively overqualified, but over time, they give up on their dreams. All because they didn't want to go pay their dues. They didn't like the idea of being an office monkey. The salary. Sitting inside all day. They thought about all the reasons that they didn't want to the job, rather than focusing on the big picture and what they did want.

Lastly, there is the consideration of what you want to do. Do you want to be an architect? If you do, then Go Do It.

I love the startup stages of businesses and focus my work around that. The fields have been diverse – from television, to brand strategy, to sustainability, to management consulting, to property. For me, the attraction is the phase of the business, and creating employment and initial cash returns. I love the challenge and the blank page. But that's me.

Someone once said that if you have a story inside of you screaming out, you have to share it. That is where great writers and filmmakers come from. Great being people who are satisfied with their own work, as opposed to finding commercial success. My own journey has always been informed by that little niggling idea that will not go away. I was fascinated by market research as a use of psychology, so I went and did it. I became fascinated by environmentally-focused business strategies, so I went and did that. All along the way, I listened to that passion and that voice. Often paying my dues.

What is your story that needs to be told? You have to figure THAT out first. If it's architecture, it doesn't matter what you have to do to go get it. There was a study of successful people and unsuccessful people. One of the big mental differences that they found was that unsuccessful people looked at how much more they had to do to achieve a goal. Successful people celebrated what they had done that day. Unsuccessful sales people saw 2 closes out of 10 to mean 8 that aren't done yet. Successful sales people saw 2 closes out of 10 as 2 more than they had yesterday.

So consider the career of an architect. What is the ultimate goal (obviously to build a building in Manhattan Ted Mosby)? Consider the entry-level job as the starting point. Does anyone want to go sit in the airport? No. But you want to go see the ashrams of India, so you have to sit in the terminal.

If you do a service job because it will pay you more than a desk job, you will get better at serving people and not better at working at an architectural practice. If that is what you want to get good at, then go do it. But don't do it for the money, because Your Grand Life Ambition is not worth the difference of a few dollars an hour. As you go, you will see that the absolute most important thing you have is your time. Use it wisely.
posted by nickrussell at 9:47 AM on May 22, 2013 [31 favorites]

If things have always been easy (i.e. you were good in school and liked it), you may be feeling out of your element in a deep way ("if it's hard and boring, this is obviously not the place where I belong"). This can lead people to go back to grad school without having a clear purpose or drive, just because at least you know that you belong in school. Don't do this. Really, really, don't do this. Even if you have friends, in a few years, who are in grad school and love it, and you are working in a corporate job you don't love.

When I was in my twenties, I had friends who were doing the grindy dues-paying low-level jobs in businesses and nonprofits, and at any given moment it seemed like they were getting a kind of raw deal. But they were not stuck there. They moved, and kept their head about them looking for how they could prepare for the next step. Those people went through their twenties building skills and connections, trying out different tracks in their field, building their managerial experience, etc. They now have the awesome jobs you fantasize about, where they have control and respect and get to do the interesting stuff.

So the way you get there is to build skills (by doing hard stuff, screwing up for a while, then learning how to do it); build connections (by being employed, by not being afraid to make phone calls and meet face to face with people, by going outside their comfort zone), etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:55 AM on May 22, 2013 [5 favorites]

When I was an unemployed recent grad, I got a seasonal job at Barnes and Noble and a part-time paid internship. The internship helped me keep a foot in the world that interested me while the bookstore helped me not go hungry. Those gigs led me to a 9-to-5 with health insurance where I was miserable. I wanted to write so I wrote occasionally for a small publication, which gave me clips. Writing samples plus work experience helped me get in the door at a nonprofit where I spent the next five years of my career. I did not have connections, a degree from a prestigious school, or a great GPA but I did have a proven record of being the type of person who gets her hands dirty and does what needs to be done.

One of my best friends is an executive assistant. He usually works for the heads of organizations and helps manage their lives. When we were both starting out in our careers, I was bummed that he was making more money than me. The thing is, years later, he's doing the same thing - for bigger organizations, but he's not happy about it. Plus he bought a place so now he has to keep making a certain salary. He can't afford to say, I'll take a pay cut for a job that will help me get where I want to go. I'm working in the field where I want to work. My job isn't perfect but it feels right for right now. Don't focus on the money. Lean on credit cards if you have to. Don't get discouraged.

People talk about paying your dues. I'm starting to see that you never really stop paying your dues. Having that attitude makes you a better colleague. When my director realized that someone needed to be at our multi-day event at 6 a.m. every day, she volunteered for one day and organized the rest of us. I have so much respect for people who are willing to stuff press kits, answer phones or do whatever grunt work needs to be done regardless of their title.

And don't go to grad school until you have spent a few years in the real world. My husband got into a great grad school when we were finishing undergrad. Since it was $60,000+ for one year, he put it off for a year. One year later, he was making money instead of paying tuition. He hasn't gone to grad school and I don't think there is anyone in the world who cares that he doesn't have his master's degree. You don't need a master's degree to do most jobs and if you get to a point where you need one, you can get it then.
posted by kat518 at 10:15 AM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just to add on to the argument that doing 'something' in your field is better than having a McJob somewhere else, here is my $.02:

1) Do you know of Architecture firms nearby? Call their HR departments and ask them which temp agencies that they use. Then go and sign up at those agencies. Tell the people at the temp agencies that you are interested in working at XYZ Architecture firm. Even if that means you have a shit job in Architecture, you are still working in/near the industry.

2) Until you can get a paid gig, find a way to be involved in Architecture/building stuff/design/whatever. Is there a Habitat for Humanity near you? I'm not in the field, but I think you would have a better shot at talking to an architect there than at the restaurant where you might work.

3) If not H for H, see if there is somewhere else that you can intern, or volunteer, or ANYTHING that will get you the experience that you need to move up.

4) And when you are at a point where you need to work at the restaurant to pay rent, remember that you NEED to be spending time paying your dues in your chosen field. Could you waitress on the weekends, (hopefully) make enough to get by? How about evenings and weekends, and 8-5, M-F you will volunteer, intern, do whatever you can to make your bones?

5) Are there any professional associations nearby? Is there anyway you could take an Architect to lunch, and ask them for advice? Think of ways to meet other people in your area of interest. Do you know anyone who is already working in the field?

Hope this helps,

posted by dfm500 at 11:06 AM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

The general suckitude of most office jobs is defined not by the actual nature of the work being performed, but by the people you have to work with, at least in my experience. Fairly tedious and boring stuff can be, if not actually enjoyable, at least decently rewarding in the company of good people; conversely, I don't think that the most interesting challenges in the world would be worthwhile if you were constantly surrounded by assholes.

QFT. Almost everyone has to take a dues-paying, low-level job at one time or another. But even if your work is tedious and pay is low, try your level best to find an entry-level job in a pleasant workplace. Paying your dues might be tedious, but it shouldn't be soul-destroying or feel like running a gantlet of abuse.

There may be some career paths where newbies are routinely treated like crap and have to eat shit and smile; but if at all possible, find an entry-level job (in your field or a related one) in a workplace that treats everyone, including support staff and entry-level employees, decently.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:45 PM on May 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

And, I wonder if some of them are still working those part-time shifts, that have maybe turned full time. I'm not saying that working in retail or the food service industry is bad, but it's clear that these people had meant it to be a temporary gig.

I am 27 and I am in a sort of vagary of white-collar young grad office employment, and in my experience, people who are similar to me in terms of background who are in service/retail jobs fall into one of two camps.

The first camp is people who have zip interest in traditional status markers (like a stable job, fancy housing, car, etc) and are doing other stuff on the side. These are the people who live in anarchist/punk houses, rescue wild animals, do guerrilla theater, make art, podcast, do music, go camping, and whatever else. They work enough to pay their bills and do other stuff. Cool for them!

The second camp is people who have a lot of Too Precious For This World, and unfortunately I'm getting a lot of that from your question. The first few years of work suck. Any entry-level job is going to be like what you describe. You don't have to become a minor character from The Office, but someone has to answer the phones and copy the meeting agenda and cross-check the permit applications. Don't become a person who works in restaurants and is constantly about to move to LA, but next month when everything is perfect. Nothing is perfect.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:31 PM on May 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the input everyone, it's certainly given me a lot of food for thought and made me realize a few things as well.

For those who mention a sense of youthful entitlement, you're absolutely correct. When I worked as a full-time intern at a design firm for nearly a year, I hated everything I was doing and wasn't really aware of the concept of "paying your dues." An entry-level coworker at the time, however, did get it and tried to pass the message on to me when I asked if he liked working at the firm. I kind of got it, but I don't think I quite got it until everyone here chimed in. Now that I'm having trouble even finding openings in this area, I regret my attitude, but I'm glad that I'm learning from it now.

At the same time, however, my interest in architecture has been one I've struggled with for a long time, even back at university. It's not just that I don't like the entry level work...after visiting a number of firms, I don't think I really see myself doing the mid-level architecture work or even higher up as a manager on these types of development projects. Despite my success in school, I don't have that much confidence in myself as an architect.

Still, I have resolved to keep looking and applying to jobs in architecture and related to architecture, doing informational visits, talking to HR people, and take up service/retail part-time to make things meet, if necessary. I'm really happy I posted this question; thank you everyone who contributed, your responses have really made me look at my situation in a new light.
posted by bluelight at 4:09 PM on May 22, 2013

bluelight, your update is so spot on. Don't do it!! Don't become a waitress while figuring things out, thinking things will just slip into place! I moved back to my hometown after college thinking I'd find some service industry job to keep me afloat while I "figured things out" and waited for my boyfriend to graduate and it was the biggest mistake I've made in my life, even thought I made minimum wage + tips as a waitress and a decent wage as a bank teller, for awhile. I am so adrift and unhappy and unmotivated and yes, you really do start to see where you went wrong, how you should have had more confidence in yourself, visualized yourself where you wanted to be, &c. I am very lucky and happy to have gotten into an internship program that will move me out of here and give me something cool to put on my resume, but if I hadn't, I would feel so depressed and stuck right now! And trust me, you make more as a waitress, but the hours are unreliable, the tips are unreliable, no health insurance, and, well. It's the service industry. I miss the nice, clean, professional offices where I worked "boring" jobs during college. (Just today I was thinking about the office assistant job I had at a credit union in college and how if I'd stuck with it, I'd have a very cush position right out of college-- but finance isn't what I wanted to go into, so ultimately I think it's ok. But the point is, you start to crave those things you take for granted when you're younger.)
posted by stoneandstar at 7:09 PM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I always got a job in my field (though that's a wide range of things), even if it was a "temporary job while figuring things out/paying the bills." It was always something I'd be able to talk about on a resume. For my friends who tended bar or worked in retail without getting stuck in it, it was something they did on the side to supplement their income while also working in their chosen field.

I'm not saying my career has been one long directed, goal-oriented narrative, but it has been something I've been able to weave together into a story by selectively picking the aspects of the various jobs I have had to explain my developing skillset and background.

It's fine that you don't want to be an architect (and probably a good idea, considering the field), but as you figure out what you want to do, consider that working in an architecture firm or some other kind of company doing work related to your major doing entry level work tells a story that will serve you well in your job hunt looking for what you really want to do while working as a waitress or an administrative assistant will not.
posted by deanc at 7:51 PM on May 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

Just a personal example of how working in an office can help you, even for a menial job: I was working in a government mail room as a college drop out with convicted felons and people with mental disabilities as my colleagues and one day, I fixed my boss's computer that had gotten infested with viruses, which led him to recommend me to temp in the desktop support office of the agency when they were short of staff, which gave me the opportunity to switch to the IT career track, which led to them paying for training for me, which eventually led to the career I have now working at a major tech company. The fact that I worked at a place where there was a path from A-B is what even opened up a possibility for me to have the relatively well-paying career I have today.

There's no way to do that as a waitress, really.
posted by empath at 8:27 PM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just a thought, is your hesitation due to real lack of interest, or fear that you aren't a prodigy or superstar? I'm in a field that attracts people who are used to being #1 and special, and it's often a rude awakening when they find themselves surrounded by intellectual peers and, sometimes, superiors, for the first time ever. Perhaps that isn't the case for you at all; I'm just mentioning it because your contributions to a field can be valuable and meaningful regardless of whether they are the BEST THING EVAR. The happiest, most well-adjusted folks in my field are those who are grateful at the opportunity to share, learn, and grow through their experiences with others; the least happy are those who feel threatened by others' talents and experiences.

Best wishes as you figure all this out!
posted by Schielisque at 9:02 PM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

my interest in architecture has been one I've struggled with for a long time, even back at university. It's not just that I don't like the entry level work...after visiting a number of firms, I don't think I really see myself doing the mid-level architecture work or even higher up as a manager on these types of development projects. Despite my success in school, I don't have that much confidence in myself as an architect.

I'll muse that this is at the root of your quandary. If you were totally enamoured with being an architect, you may well be happy to make coffee for Sir Norman all day long as a first step.

This is something it's worth working out. Are you insecure regarding your skills toward architecture or are you insecure as a person? These a very different matters, and will affect your decision-making accordingly.

If you are insecure as a person, chances are that you are not seeing your capabilities and opportunities for what they really are. In this case, it's not architecture you doubt, but everything. In this case, you probably want to go for architecture, because chances are that you are much better at it than you give yourself credit for. Chances are you are much better at everything than you give yourself credit for.

Which coincidentally is the other thing about the entitlement thing going on right now. Young people's expectations are very high, yet often they do not feel competent to achieve those expectations. As if they should be super successful but then they have no idea how or why. It's just because they've been told for their entire lives that They Are The Ultimate People In The Universe. Have It Your Way. An Army Of One. and all that. Then, it comes time to join the rest of the world, and there's a mismatch. As one put it to me: I am supposed to go conquer the world right? I've never even been in battle. I don't even know where the battlefield is. How am I supposed to conquer anything?

But I digress. The other insecurity is about architecture. If you are generally a secure person and happy with yourself, but have this nagging suspicion that architecture is not for you, you really need to try it, and try it quickly. Maybe you will fail your ass off and it will be absolutely horrible, but I'll bet if you don't do it, you'll always wonder "what if".

There was a famous psychologist who said that in the age of modern technology, we're living in a time of increasing "knowingness" with decreasing direct experience. His analogy was imagine you are sitting in a chair outside a room. People go into the room. They come out of the room. One is a writer, and he wrote about what is going on inside the room. Another is a photographer, and he took a few pictures of the room. Another is a builder, who speaks of the room in dimensions and materials.

The point was that you can sit in that chair and get heaps of information about the room, to the point where you think you know everything about the room. Yet you have never been in the room. Maybe there is a detail that didn't matter to anyone else, but is all that you are going to care about. Or the smell. You can't smell the room with someone else's nose.

So if you doubt your skills as an architect, you probably owe it to yourself to at least go fail in reality, rather than in thinking you are going to fail and not try. Maybe you hate architecture for six months or a year. Quit. People quit jobs all the time. It's a job, not a one way trip to Mars. If it's wrong, you'll do what we all did. Quit and go find another one. It's not like waitressing is going to disappear as a career choice in a year's time.

If you haven't already, you should have a go with Coehlo's The Alchemist. Maybe twice. Until you feel deep within that you can always go back to being a shepherd. Whatever your version of that may be.
posted by nickrussell at 9:20 PM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

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