Think back to when you were a senior in high school, excited and optimistic and a little anxious about everything the world had in store for you. When you daydreamed about your future, what did you imagine? What kind of job did you see yourself in? How much money did you think you’d be making?
Now, reflect on your professional life today.
If you’re like the majority of young adults, reality probably hasn’t lived up to your expectations. In a Clark University survey of 1,000 emerging adults, ages 21 to 29, 70 percent said they hadn’t advanced as far in their career as they’d like.
Perhaps things haven’t worked out as you hoped because you couldn’t afford to continue your education, or the burden of student loans forced you to accept a less desireable role so you could begin paying off your debt. Or maybe life just happened.
No matter why your perfect job has eluded you so far, you can still (re)discover and achieve your career goals. But you need to want it and you need to earn it.
Here are four steps to take in order to prove to yourself — and employers — that you’re ready for the job you’ve always dreamed of:
1. Define your career path.
As kids, when we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up,the majority of us responded with a few simple ‘TV and movie’ answers: lawyer, fireman, sports star, teacher. But do we fully understand what it takes to succeed in these careers, or even what careers exist outside of those few you’re familiar with?
This disconnect is what inspired me to create PathSource, which empowers young adults and career changers to research and explore what career paths are available to them. By better understanding the field you want to work in, you can define realistic career goals and clear steps to achieve them.
Talk to professionals you admire and ask them what skills and experiences helped them get to where they are today. You might be surprised to learn exactly which qualities are most useful, especially those that aren’t typically listed in job descriptions.
Once you’ve decided what you need to do, decide how you’re going to do it. Plot which milestones you’ll need to pass and the different ways you can get there. Remember that there’s rarely just one way to achieve your career goals. It’s more important to be able to recognize a great opportunity when it comes along.
2. Expand your skills.
If you’re having trouble advancing your career, it might be because you lack the right skill set. No matter what type of job you’d like, thanks to constant advances in technology, the qualifications employers seek in candidates never stop evolving.
Finding an employee with a deep understanding of Microsoft Excel or typing skills used to be a nice bonus for employers. Now, those skills are expected. A 2015 Burning Glass Technologies survey found that those specific skills are in the top ten baseline skills employers across industries look for in applicants.
If it’s been awhile since you’ve regularly used a particular software program popular in your dream industry, sign up for a refresher course. Or better yet, think back to the research you did while defining your career path and look for online classes that will help you learn skills recommended for success by other professionals.
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3. Freelance for experience.
If your current job isn’t in your ideal industry, the biggest hurdle to transitioning into a new field can be a lack of experience. You could have all the skills in the world, but if you can’t prove that you know how to apply them in a specific setting, employers may be hesitant to hire you.
One of the best — and easiest — ways to gain experience before moving into your desired career field is to freelance. According to a 2015 survey by Freelancers Union & Upwork, 34 percent of American workers have freelanced in the past year. Additionally, 14.1 million freelancers are “diversified workers,” or people who have a day job while picking up freelance gigs that require a different skill set.
This allows workers to continue making a regular income with a traditional employer, while experiencing the freedom to choose freelancing jobs that are right for them as a way to gain marketable job experience.
If you’re unsure of your ability to succeed as a freelancer, start out small or find a more experienced freelance partner. This will build your confidence for bigger, more involved jobs. Once you’ve created a solid portfolio of your freelancing experiences, you’ll be ready to apply for a more permanent position.
4. Know what a good cultural fit looks like.
When it comes to finding a company that will be a good long-term fit for you and your career goals, you have to consider the company culture. This means more than evaluating whether employees bike to work, go out to lunches and happy hours, and participate in office yoga sessions.
Rather, focus on the core values of the company and whether they’re actually emphasized in day-to-day operations. In particular, ask how decisions get made. Is the process centralized? Is it consensus-driven? Do people make these decisions largely via phone or chat or in large in-person meetings?
A 2015 LinkedIn survey revealed that, when changing jobs, 49 percent of professionals said a big challenge was not knowing what it would be like to work at the new company. A position might seem perfect for you, but if the company’s culture doesn’t mesh well with your personality or way of working, it’ll lower the chances that you’ll be satisfied or successful.
Make a list of things that are necessary for your career success and happiness. Would you rather work in a large or small office? How closely would you like to work with your co-workers? What type of support would you like to receive in regards to your career goals?
Once you know what type of company culture you’d be able to thrive in, you can incorporate those criteria into your job search. You’ll then be able to find a job, company, and career path that will lead to the job you’ve always wanted.
What other steps should young professionals go through to help get them on the right path to achieving all their career goals?