What I Wish I Knew Before Entering the Workforce

I tell the story about my arrival to New York City to begin my career often – usually for comic effect.

I chose New York by default. I wanted to work in the entertainment industry and didn’t like Los Angeles. So despite the fact that I didn’t know what a borough was, I headed for New York. I had a U-Haul, a cat, less than $100 and a hazy connection to a friend of a friend who had a room for me in Brooklyn. Well, the U-Haul broke down and the potential roommate forgot all about me so I hid out in my sublet until hunger drove me to face the world.

It was terrifying. It was exhilarating. And I eventually figured things out.

I was recently asked as part of a blog series on Brazen Careerist, “What do I wish I knew before I started working?”  and I thought back to braving New York City looking for work. As an HR professional and someone who now guides others’ careers, there are a few things I’d like to share with you that I wish I had known much sooner.

College won’t prepare you

Probably the biggest shock to me when I started working was how ill prepared I was to build a career. I had held various hourly jobs since I was 14 years old, and it was those practical skills I initially drew upon to become gainfully employed. I had no idea how to meet the people who could give me the kind of work I wanted, what the market was like at the time, or how to build a steady reputation in my industry. Instead, I fumbled for years on chance – one opportunity here, another there – with little connection between them.

Every career is a business career

The moment I stepped into the workforce, I was running a small business – and the product was me. No matter what your  career, you must build your business (independently or as part of a team), and certain skills are a must. Sales skills allow you to sell yourself, marketing skills allow you to gracefully, but cleverly, promote your accomplishments and build a reputation, and financial skills allow you balance the lean times with the flush. How many business classes were required as part of my arts major in college? None. Learn from my mistake and take business classes now. 

Seek out great mentors

I did not major in Human Resources – my chosen career and passion. Why? I had never heard of it. You just can’t know what you don’t know, and having strong mentors who know your strengths is critical as you fill in your career goals. In my do-over, I would find career counselors and mentors rather than relying on peer groups and parents’ agendas. Once I was working in my chosen field, it was over 5 years of struggle before I connected formally with a mentor. I would love to have that time back to be able to exchange ideas with someone who was already three steps ahead. Find a mentor now.

It’s all good

I can think of many more lessons I wish I had known before entering the workforce, I had so much I needed to know, and yet, the mistakes I made were as important to my professional development as the successes were.

The best advice I would give you, ultimately, is that everything is a learning opportunity and everything learned is a marketable skill in the workplace.

How about you? What do you wish you had known before entering the workforce?

Photo credit iStockphoto

About the Author

Kelly Tanner

Kelly Tanner, PHR is a Human Resources Director in New York City and a freelance writer. Her passion for developing organizations through responsible and innovative human capital management in small and mid-size businesses has driven both her HR and writing careers, and she is eager to see HR professionals look to what's next in the industry. You can connect with Kelly on Twitter as @NYCareer.


David M. Kasprzak

Amen to all of that! Here’s the milestones for many of us:

1) Go to college, major in what you think you enjoy 2) Get job. Maybe in what you went to college for. Doesn’t matter, though because 3) discover the job you’re doing isn’t what you enjoy 4) spend years trying to figure out what you enjoy 4) go back to school for something you actually want to spend the next 30 years doing 5) figure out how to get paid to do it.

I’m on step 4.

On a side note, there are 2 things I wish I’d known before I entered the workforce:
1) The winning numbers on just 1 powerball lottery
2) What I wnated to do with the rest of my life anyway


College definitely doesn’t prepare you. I just graduated in May and I think to myself daily, “what did my tuition pay for again?” I even took business classes! I am currently doing what you described, drawing upon working experiences and they are my saving grace.

I also want to say that choosing a mentor should be done very carefully. At my experience level, everyone wants to give me career advice and I’ve certainly had some horrible mentor experiences.


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