When your career has failed to launch
September 23, 2016 12:15 PM   Subscribe

I'm in my early 30s and graduated in 2008. As a result, I feel like I've never had a career and am starting to panic about the future. Can I ever pull it all together?

I had the fortune of graduating in 2008. Ever since, part due to my own flaws and part because of the insane job market, I've barely been able to make it. I'll try to be brief about my main job history (I'll leave out stopgap work in retail and food service that isn't on my resume anyway), but I'm worried that I will never have the career success my family and peers are experiencing.

So, my work history since getting out of school:

Job A: A call center for five months after graduation. I was laid off, along with 40 others, thanks to random selection that hit various departments of the company. It was made clear to me that this was not my fault. I no longer put this job on my resume because of the short duration.

Job B: Sales assistant for a TV station. I was here seven months and got let go after a failed PIP. This job is on and off my resume depending what I'm applying for. I do know that none of the managers I worked with are at the station anymore. I'm not sure what weight this would bear, if any, if a future employer ever really wanted to know I worked there and reached out to them.

Job C: I did editing for a website. I was there for almost five years, but fell out of favor when management changed, I got put on a PIP because I was struggling and got fired again. The manager who fired me has refused to give me a reference, but other past supervisors thought highly of me and have agreed to be references. In the time I was there, I started as an intern, got a paying position and then got a promotion. So not a horrible record, but I feel being fired is a huge black mark.

Job D: Freelance social media for a startup. I was there almost two years when the manager eliminated my position. She loved me otherwise and will also be a good reference when needed. In fact, when Job E--my current job--sent them a reference form to fill out, my now Ex-Manager said she wrote back about how awesome I was for her. I also had a second supervisor at Job D who said she would be a reference.

Job E: I've been there for a year, and it's a call center job. To say I am not thrilled to land here would be an understatement. My coworkers and management are generally good folk, but I'm not happy with the job. It's tedious and there is no room for advancement within the company. My manager knows it's not a great fit (though she seems to like me personally) and even said hey if you want to resign, we will bend over backwards to give you a good reference and we won't consider this a firing. Of course, much as I'd love to take her offer, it's not as if I have the luxury of doing so.

Now, should the call center job go south, I'm not hopelessly unskilled. I did volunteer fundraising work over the summer. I'm phone banking for one of the Presidential campaigns. I'm about to start some social media management work for a website. I'm trying to decide between one of two career paths. But part of me feels like it's really too late to have a career, as others seem way more ahead of me and neatly pulled together. I'm even afraid to apply for jobs at this point, as I've been passed over so many times for "more experienced candidates" that I guess I feel like I'm not gonna be an asset anywhere.

Can this career be salvaged?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
What is your degree in? What kinds of jobs interest you?
posted by FireFountain at 12:25 PM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sorry, just saw that you are anon but it's kind of hard to answer your question without knowing what your skill set and education are.
posted by FireFountain at 12:26 PM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

What is your degree in? What are you good at?

You make no mention of what you want to do, just what you have done. Spend some time really thinking about what you enjoy doing and what careers in your field of interest are stable and lucrative enough to make sense as a long-term path.

My first thought is that you should get extra training in something specialized and then target those jobs. NOT another degree, which is costly and time-consuming, just additional training. It could be anything: coding bootcamp, project management, business analysis, technical writing, software expertise (e.g, Salesforce, Tableau). Even taking some advanced online courses in Excel will be helpful in that it's a super useful skill that is needed in almost every field.

Some small amount of retraining also adds some smoothness to your otherwise stilted work history. "I explored several career options before I discovered I'm really into sign language [or whatever]. After pursuing some additional training in sign language to supplement my experience, I'm excited to launch my career in this field."

You're young. Your career is absolutely salvageable. But first you need to figure out what it is you want to really do and then develop an actionable plan for how to get there. Good luck.
posted by scantee at 12:30 PM on September 23, 2016 [8 favorites]

Sure! Early 30s isn't a lost cause at all. You can always get into a job that turns into a career that you wanted, or a career you didn't even think of yet.

It seems like you've been in positions that didn't really inspire you up until now, so I'd wonder what it is you want to do, and what factors are keeping you from it. Is it the industry? Is it your skill level? Is it education? Location? Those are the questions I'd ask first.

But the main thing I'd say is not to despair. I didn't do much with my career at all until I was in my mid-30s, and I kind of fell into what I do now, and I'm doing very well at it. So all is not lost.
posted by xingcat at 12:32 PM on September 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you've got skills that someone is willing to pay for, you'll probably be able to have a decent career. And people are generally willing to pay for customer service skills, so it's not hopeless. I'm 36, married, with a child on the way, generally pretty happy and successful-feeling, and I work in a customer service-related field. It's not my dream job, but I can support myself and my family and live well enough.

The multiple failed PIPs, though, tell me that your hard skills are not what's holding you back. The big question I have is, what is causing you to keep getting put on PIPs? And why, once you're put on them, are you not able to improve? You may have a good reference from Job C, but the fact that your position was eliminated suggests that you didn't exactly make yourself irreplaceable there. Likewise, Job A, the layoffs may have seemed random, but I feel like they probably shielded top performers and only randomly laid off the lower levels. The common thread through most of these is that you seem to be doing the minimum to get by. That, more than anything with the economy or lack of skills, is probably what you should think about.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:36 PM on September 23, 2016 [8 favorites]

Being fired is a badge of honour. You didn't fit, it was the wrong culture. When you found a good one, it was great but the company couldn't manage and you were laid off. It sounds like you're not really interested in high pressure selling but you are probably better at it than you want to let on. Once the genie is out of the bottle you're never going to get promoted. At the editing job, you were able to keep a cap on sales knowledge which probably served you well. At the social media job, the sales ability probably was an advantage but because you did not manage accounts when the company sank you had no safety net. So here you are, back at a call center with an understanding manager. I bet you are bored as hell.

My suggestion is to cold call for your next job. You have references lined up to fuse the multiple experiences into a well-paying if risky job, line social media and/or website editorial account management. You may not want to do this. You can pick the references that represent the job you want.
posted by parmanparman at 1:07 PM on September 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

My manager knows it's not a great fit (though she seems to like me personally) and even said hey if you want to resign, we will bend over backwards to give you a good reference and we won't consider this a firing. Of course, much as I'd love to take her offer, it's not as if I have the luxury of doing so.

Oh dear. Not knowing the context that your manager said this in, it's hard to say for sure, but it sounds like your current job is not at all secure.

In general, resigning is certainly not "a firing" -- it's simply quitting the job with appropriate notice and a nice letter to your employer. The context where a manager would generally say something like "if you want to resign we won't consider this a firing" is if you are about to be fired -- there would be no reason to phrase things that way otherwise. It's a heads up that you are very likely to be fired very soon.

It sounds like you might run into financial troubles fairly quickly if you are fired. It's time to look for anything that can make you some money while you figure out your career job. Sure, it would be great if your next job is an awesome fit for you, but if you have to take another call center job for a few months while you are finding that there is no shame in that.
posted by yohko at 1:21 PM on September 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

A career consists of your reputation and work experience. You can always build on that with a little luck and persistence (and talent helps too). I can't imagine a scenario where it would ever be "too late to have a career," as long as you are healthy enough to work. I think your biggest barrier here is that you expect to measure up with your peers. You need to give yourself the permission to start from where you are instead of where you think you should be.
posted by deathpanels at 1:26 PM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm about your age, and frankly, I don't know a huge number of people who do have a career the way our parents might have. The term "gig economy" sums it up well; we're all just doing what we can to get by. When I was a kid, there was some stigma to that, but now it's just how things are. I also really think that claiming other candidates had more experience is often just an excuse. I wasn't hired for a student hourly entry-level job in an industry that I have five years of very relevant work experience for, and they still told me the other candidate had more -- I doubt it.

It can be pretty easy to look tidy and pulled-together on the outside. Your resume has a couple of long stints on it, and there's no reason to bring up that you were fired from the one because it's multiple jobs ago. Nobody's going to grill you on each and every transition. I'd put your volunteer work on there too, if you can fold it in well, because it shows that you are a diligent person who looks for ways to contribute in your down-time. If you don't wish to specify your candidate (understandable!) you could always describe your current position as GOTV.
posted by teremala at 2:28 PM on September 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm banking that you can. I have a one failed career and I am in grad school to start another. It also depends on what you want out of a "career." It means different things to different people. Do you eventually want a top management position or do you just want to be doing something that allows you to continue to home a specific skillset?
posted by Young Kullervo at 3:37 PM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was in your position three years ago. I graduated in 2006. I was at a boring but stable job where I wasn't advancing. They told me they were going to cut my hours and I was barely making it as it was, so I looked into parttime work. I signed up at a gig economy website and was soon bringing in extra cash.

Then I did an assignment at a startup typing in addresses for four hours at a time. I asked if they wanted me to come back, and they did. I kept going back. They brought on more people. I was asked to lead them. It was great.

Then they said they were moving this operation elsewhere. I knew I could hang on, but I wanted more opportunity. So I applied to one job and I got it. I didn't think I would like it all that much, but the lady that interviewed me had started off as customer service before going into HR. I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I wanted that opportunity.

I am now three years later in a job I love. I have learned so much and am so much more marketable than I was three years ago.

Like you, I had a checkered job past. There were jobs where I was frankly terrible. And many that were tedious. Thinking about it now, I always learned something, even if it was just that I didn't like doing it.

Look for opportunity. Grunt work doesn't suck nearly so much when there is light at the end of the tunnel. Be willing to put in a bit extra every time. You mentioned you have had a few PIP. Be honest with yourself and what you were missing- do you need more follow thorough, to communicate better, to slow down? Or! You should avoid that type of job because it is wrong for you. That's valid, too.
posted by Monday at 4:10 PM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I used to be you! I graduated college in 07 with a degree in journalism, and proceeded to be:

*A clerk at a temporary Halloween store, including time as a costumed character waving a sign by the side of the road

*A small-town reporter for just under 1 year

*Transfered by the publishing company to run the newspaper's website, because I was the only person who knew how the internet worked

*After a cross-country move (and nearly 3 years unemployed and a spectacular failure at independent contracting as a copywriter) I became a food service worker for a university in what was a shockingly hostile work environment -- I was so tired and angry all the time

*After yet another cross-country move (!) I'm now working for a small town library doing graphic design and marketing, and its the greatest thing. (I should point out that I got my foot in the door with said library by taking a part-time gig shelving books.)

I should emphasize that I have zero formal training in graphic design or marketing; on a certain level I have to power through the imposter syndrome and trust my self-taught skills. (I'm very lucky to have a supportive chain of command, all the way up to the library director. They're great!)

I guess that's a long and roundabout way to say that having the crappy jobs taught me a lot about what I knew I didn't want. I didn't know enough about freelancing, for example, to know that my clients offered me insultingly low pay for my work; I know better now.

Like you, I had a lot of anxiety about it being "too late to have a career" or that I had wasted my degree, that I should have majored in something else, etc., etc. And I'm at a place right now where a lot of those anxieties don't matter any more.

Sure, I'm not using much of my journalism degree (besides writing press releases). Could I be "farther along in my career" if I had started the library stuff earlier (now that I know it's where I want to be)? Maybe, but hindsight is hindsight and journalism was legit the most career-oriented major I could have taken at the time.

What I'm trying to say is don't beat yourself up for your job history. Have a had a career so far? Hell no. But I'm in a place where I could, if I wanted. (Or maybe not! The world just doesn't support 40-year careers like it used to. No one I know is working with the expectation of a gold watch at retirement, even if they love where they are.)
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 6:50 PM on September 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

5 years editing a website plus some social media and sales? I'm not a web person, but it sounds like you're in online marketing? Inbound sales and lead generation? This isn't my world, but there does seem to be a theme, so that's good. You'll need to address what's causing the recurrent PIPs and layoffs first, of course.
posted by salvia at 6:56 PM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

You have what can be called a "spinnable" work history. Info on where you're located and what your degree is in would be helpful.

The quick answer is teach yourself to code. If you're not in an area that is thirsty for coders, try looking for jobs in communications management, PR, social media, or other things within your skillset. Keep in mind that good jobs are found through a combination of luck and nepotism, as we sadly do not live in a pure meritocracy. Use LinkedIn, your alumni network, and your social circle to help you get soft introductions to hiring managers.

These days, you should not expect to "move up" within an organization. The days of working yourself up through the ranks of a monolithic employer are over. You have to move out to move up. Work beyond your job title, prove your skills, and then apply for jobs at other companies in the next higher tier.

Do not compare yourself to others. That way lies madness. Focus on your strengths, and build on them.

Best of luck.
posted by ananci at 8:36 PM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

You have 7 years experience in website editing and social media, and you graduated 8 years ago. That is actually a career. In fact, it is my career (although I have recently moved up/broader). We just recruited someone for a web/social media role and the CVs we looked at had between 3 and 10 years experience. So you can definitely turn your CV into something credible.

I think the issue is the PIPs. Not because you need to mention them to potential employers, but because you need to address whatever is causing them to happen. For example, you can't just coast and do the minimum if you want to have a career.
posted by plonkee at 10:03 PM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

You just described everyone I know, at least everyone who isn't super extraordinarily talented or flush with parental money. And I graduated in 2006, so two additional years of limbo. No real answers here but a lot of sympathy.
posted by miyabo at 4:36 PM on September 25, 2016

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