is retail the only prospect for me
February 8, 2014 7:59 AM   Subscribe

I'm 21, live at home, and don't know what kind of career I can hope to get. I'm worried that I'm going to be stuck working crappy jobs for the rest of my life and never move out.

I've been attending a community college this past year. I'm doing well and hoping for As this semester. I'm taking general education classes, but my future major looks like it's leading toward the visual arts direction. (I say that passively, but no..I really love art/design and have known that I wanted to pursue this direction since I was young.) I think I want to eventually double major once I transfer to a four year college. I was thinking of some bio focus to aid with scientific illustration. You don't really have to major in art to get a career in it, but I feel that it keeps me pretty sane to take those classes, and apparently most general useless BAs are pretty much equal..? I'm not sure about that, but that's what people say on this site and other places. Plus, I want to transfer to certain programs that require certain art prerequisites. I'm not adept enough at math to make it or its cousins a career focus, and I'm not the best at writing or researching to focus intently on some kind of liberal arts/writing intensive major.

As a current retail worker, I feel miserable. I can see how easy it is to get stuck working at a job like that, though, considering the number of older employees who complain about still being part time, don't have cars, and generally seem miserable as well. Some have children, which forces them to take anything they can get. Working there is a major factor that motivates me to do better while simultaneously filling me with dread and stress. I make maybe $450 to $5__ something a month but really wish I could quit and focus all my energy on my future goals and school. It interferes because I'm already bad at time management as it is, but I'm sticking it out and planning to do the whole student loan thing my last two years.

I live right near a big city in which my CC is located. It has a lot of resources for those who want to take advantage of them. I want to work on a graphic design portfolio to apply for this internship program it runs with companies that pays twice the wage of retail. My interests are more focused in drawing and illustration, but I feel that those can transfer over into graphic design since both employ composition, color theory, etc.

That's all that I can think of in the short term. I'm worried about eventually finding a job that doesn't force me to deal with disgustingly rude customers, for little pay, with a slight touch of back pain and unbearable tedium added to it. I don't know anyone in my immediate family who has had some kind of professional job. Everyone else either works/worked crappy jobs or subsists on some kind of benefits.

What skills should I be learning now to make myself more employable in areas other than retail? I use photoshop for digital painting but need to practice more with the other programs. I know basic things in word and excel. Will it really help to learn those in more depth? I attend figure drawing sessions to improve my skills. I don't need to work in the art field. I just want something that doesn't involve the general public and allows me to be to myself most of the time. One of those boring desk jobs is my ideal job. I've done volunteer teaching before, but I hated it. I'm a very reserved person, so it wasn't fit for me. I don't want to live at home for the rest of my life surrounded by dysfunctional and mentally ill family members. The cost of living here is too high to move now, so I have to rely solely on my future job to really become independent.

I also have US and EU citizenship, but I can't even fathom the process of finding a job over there eventually. I just know that I don't want to wake up at fifty and look back at a life of prolonged underachievement, with some tv show being my only hope for the day. I want a life of being able to cover basic necessities, traveling occasionally, and indulging in a luxury cupcake every now and then.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Basic accounting/bookkeeping will go a long, long way.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:04 AM on February 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

Learn some Visual Basic for Microsoft, and you'll be a rockstar in most offices. If you can create custom tools in the Ribbon of MS Office tools, you're going to be great. A bonus is that, with your interest in graphic design, you could combine that and the VB knowledge into creating custom templates, which I've found is totally in demand in thee offices I've worked in.
posted by xingcat at 8:14 AM on February 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Certainly apply for the internship program, and if you don't get that, consider office temping, which will get you out of retail and teach you a lot about how to be a professional in an office setting.

In fact, you should be looking towards trying lots of different things right now. Pay attention to what you're good at and what you enjoy doing. When you meet people with jobs that seem interesting, talk to them about those jobs: how they got them, what skills they need, etc.

Beyond that, I would say that you are really young and you are far from the only 21 year old who's not sure what they want to do for a career. In fact, most people either don't know what they want to do at 21 or change their mind later. I think the best thing to do is follow your interests and talents as you're doing, looking for career paths that match them.
posted by lunasol at 8:14 AM on February 8, 2014

I think you're getting way ahead of yourself. You won't wake up tomorrow and be fifty.

When I was 20something and I could no longer stomach retail, I switched to working with developmentally disabled adults. It was challenging, rewarding, extremely flexible and met lots of cool people. Since people may need care 24x7 there was tons of shifts. And even of you got a bummer of a shift at first it was pretty easy to switch it up cuz the field has fairly high turnover.

Nowadays my job is completely different but I always looked back fondly at my years working with DD adults. I'd do it again in a heartbeat if life worked out that way.
posted by ian1977 at 8:15 AM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sounds like graphic design / illustration is what you really want to do, and you're already taking some good steps toward it. Is there a way you can devote yourself more fully toward it? Would your parents be willing to support you for another few years if you quit your job that you hate to focus on school full time? Graphic design is a good, marketable skill that's possible to get started in without too much onerous training or credentials, and you can practice it anywhere in the world, either at as an employee or an independent contractor.

One possible way to get started would be to learn some very basic web development from a book or a community college class. Just enough to make a web site or two of your own, just simple but well-designed pages to highlight some of your art that you like or some other interest. Once you've gotten that far, you can offer to do some basic web design or development for your friends, family, clubs, whatever. (Just don't offer more than you can actually handle.) This will give you some very useful skills and an easy way to show them off to potential employers. Even if you aren't interested in focusing on web design long-term, being web savvy is very useful for any sort of artist or designer.
posted by mbrubeck at 8:26 AM on February 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Designers on software projects get paid well. It is a desk job where you don't ever talk to the general public. You typically need to be wizardly with Photoshop, good at Illustrator and familiar with all the various UI/UX concepts and controls for the platform you are developing. If you are doing web stuff you need HTML, CSS and a bit of javascript. If you want to get into AAA games or pixar movies you need to be great at figure drawing and know how to run a 3D package like Maya.

One major downside is that if you want to make a lot of money and have loads of job options you need to live either in the Bay Area, Seattle, Los Angeles or NYC. Salaries and number of positions drop quite a bit in most other cities. I am not sure about Europe.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 8:34 AM on February 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm an art professor, artist, and occasional freelance graphic designer. Though people really like to say that art is a bad career choice, it doesn't have to be. It's just that few people can make a livable salary just by drawing/painting what they want, when they feel inspired. But the gist of that is pretty much true of any career.

Scientific/technical illustration positions are not at all impossible to find. You need to have a portfolio that demonstrates you can illustrate with detailed accuracy; I just taught an advanced studio course in this and I had projects on drawing organs, engines, a dissembled children's plastic toy, and architecture. Have some that are just line drawings and others that show you can use color both photo-realistically as well as in a more stylized and personal way.

For graphic design, knowing how to use Word and Excel (not really the equations side, more the making a pretty table or a nice document side) are absolutely helpful and are at this point kind of considered baseline knowledge if you're skilled in graphic design - most won't even ask about this, it's just assumed. You need to know how to use Illustrator and InDesign in addition to Photoshop. It's also becoming more and more expected that you know at least the basics of web design and have created and published your own website as well. If you learn AutoCAD and/or other 3D modeling software, you'll find your job prospects get even broader.
posted by vegartanipla at 8:40 AM on February 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

You don't sound confused at all, on the contrary. People do work in design, it's a real thing. Work hard on your portfolio, transfer into the best school you can afford, and throw yourself into it. There are only a few months left in this semester. Try to push through it. Temping isn't great while you're studying, given unpredictable pay and schedules and changing commutes - if this job is doing your head in, maybe (just for this semester) see if there are other retail jobs in better environments (eg Whole Foods, bookstores).

If design doesn't work out, accounting isn't hard to get into. But you've got enough time ahead of you to give this a chance.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:41 AM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your degree isn't useless.

Sit down with someone at your school (or a school you're looking to transfer to, if your cc doesn't have an arts/design department) and talk about art and design careers possibilities for someone in your situation.

Lots of people work as designers and in the arts in general. But you won't get one of those jobs if you don't spend time now learning about the field and what your prospects are.

Don't drop out. (And, in corollary, don't force yourself to change majors to something you hate, thus insuring that you'll eventually drop out.)

Don't have a kid.

Make that portfolio and submit it for the internship! (A lot of people in this thread are going to tell you not to do internships, but in your particular case it's totally warranted, and you should strongly consider doing one if at all possible.)

You will definitely need some graphic design skills if you hope to get any sort of career in a design context. Hell, half the admin jobs out there want you to know Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign, which is crazy but worth being able to do. Know, too, that nowadays a lot of illustration is happening in the digital realm, so you will need to know "graphic design" software in order to get a job as an "illustrator". Illustration skills are also pretty useful in a graphic design context, if you end up pursuing design rather than illustration as a career path.

Knowing Word and Excel fluently is incredibly helpful going forward. Especially since, while obviously you want to be a designer and not in a boring support position, the reality is that being an administrator at a creative company is at least better than retail. If you know Excel like the back of your hand, you'll be valuable somewhere, even if it's not your dream job.

Web development skills would also be useful. I know a lot of creative people who work as freelance web developers to supplement their income, and it's probably the best day job there is.
posted by Sara C. at 8:46 AM on February 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

all of the above. seconding Illustrator, InDesign, Photoshop etc.

also, work,work,work. the more motivated you are to make things on your own, the more impressive that is to someone reviewing a portfolio or resume. it not only shows initiative on your part but it allows you to engage your mind with materials and techniques in a personal, directly useful way. get your hands on as many things that inspire you and wring them for all the creative ideas they can give you. go to the library and stand in the design or art section and just look through every book that grabs your attention. you don't have to check them out but they are a free resource and nothing trains your eye and your taste so much as looking. go to a book store and look through the art and design magazines on a regular basis. find things that you like and try to figure out what it is that you like about them. when i was young i had an epiphany about what i thought made a good drawing and once i could say what made something good i could then set about making my own version of good.

take notes!! writing something down etches it further into your brain. writing your thoughts and ideas about something allows you to take it outside your brain and examine it objectively. but again, just go for it and try to engage what it is that you want to do on your own and in your own way. direct experience is the most valuable asset in any creative field. fake it til you make it and don't be afraid to fail because if you mess something up you'll either have to fix it or start again and both things are priceless teachers.

Also, at 21 you'll be surprised where life will take you. i know that there are people who set themselves on a course and don't stray far from it, achieving their goals etc. but even they would probably admit that life throws curve balls and that opportunities arise in unexpected places. if you can teach yourself how to learn, then every crappy job you have will be of some benefit later on down the line. also, ask around for job options. ask family and friends and friends of friends. put the word out that you want to do such and such job. even if it's not exactly what you want it's a job and leads you closer to your goal. any job i've ever had has come through someone that i know.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 9:26 AM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you have an Aquent office nearby? They offer training.

A lot of agencies offer online training, such as Robert Half, which leans more towards accounting.

I picked up a lot of skills on the job. One agency sent me to be a file clerk at an accounting office. Within a year, I was handling receivables for a multi-million dollar account, issuing debits and credits, and using Excel to produce reports.

A lot of the accounts receivable work was tedious, but it was predictable and not hard to learn. They just started me with looking up invoices to see if they had cleared (been paid) and that way I got familiar with their computer system. In general, it was super quiet and I didn't have to deal with the general public.

What I am saying is you can get training and job skills in other ways besides going for a degree, and once you get hired permanently by a company, they often have tuition reimbursement and many have their own in-house training facilities.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 9:46 AM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I got very, very lucky with an entry-level admin gig at a startup-style company in the tech sector, which then turned into a PA job and is now turning into a communications job. It's not the direction I saw my career taking, but I love it. I got the job when I was around your age and drifting - I took it to pay the rent after I moved back to the city where I did my degree, but it turned out to be a way better fit than I'd expected. The pay was low to begin with, but I've had a decent hike every January since I started and I'm now making around $20k more than when I joined.

The great thing about working in this kind of environment is that they're often willing to take smart people who don't fit the traditional mould for the role they're hiring for (I am not your traditional PA), and depending on the company there will likely be all kinds of opportunities open for you to work towards once you get a foot in the door. One of our former receptionists is now a business analyst, while another is a marketing associate (as is a former sales admin).

Look out for companies with friendly, people-focused cultures which care about hiring and growing smart people within the organisation. I've learnt so much about things I never imagined interacting with in the two and a half years I've been there, and in a fairly big city you should hopefully be able to find a few places with a similar profile.

The only thing to watch out for with startups is that some of them have crappy management and/or cultures because the people who set them up don't know a damn thing about treating people right. Look for a people-focused culture and ask specific questions about company culture and management values/ethos if you're unsure when you go to interview.

Good luck! I was in your shoes not so long ago, and I know how much it sucks - but it can get better, fast, in ways you haven't even imagined.
posted by terretu at 12:33 PM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

All I want to add is that -- this is a very small sample, and it's admittedly oldish -- 7/8 of the people I knew who graduated in 2000 from applied/commercial design programs (both college and university) are now directly working in commercial design at mid or senior levels and making above the median average income. The eighth started in fashion and now works in information architecture.

While of the humanities and social science grads, most (including myself) either stumbled up through office jobs (not that there's anything wrong with that, necessarily) or had to retrain in an applied or vocational field. With that said, a degree or college diploma of any kind is a necessity today. It won't guarantee anyone a job, but not having one takes you out of the running for a million jobs. It's the equivalent of a high school diploma, these days, for good or ill.

Right now, stats are saying there's slow to average growth in graphic design, but that's true for almost every sector other than part-time service occupations. There's 'bright growth' for some fields (video game design). The designers upthread have commented on skills most relevant in ordinary offices and other places and I hope others add more.

What I gather (and I wonder if those working in the field can confirm) is that design isn't usually the kind of thing you can half-ass your way into; you have to commit to it, ideally in your twenties.

A post-secondary education is a requirement to participate in this economy; you know you're good at design; it's better than a lot of other things and won't hurt you for other work.
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:21 PM on February 8, 2014

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