Timeless career advice for a changing job market

Professionals share the lessons they’ve learned that can help job seekers during times of transition.

Adult holding a coffee cup

Wendy Shoemaker, senior associate director of the KU Career Center, says the best career advice she ever received came from her dad. “‘No matter what you’re doing, do a good job doing it. Embrace what you’re doing, have fun doing it, do it well,’” Shoemaker says. “I’ve taken that to heart that no matter what I’ve done in my life, regardless of what the job is, putting my whole heart into it and being a good person to work with, being a good problem solver.”

Shoemaker says that advice still applies right now, as the present and future of work feels like it’s constantly changing in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We get stuck with the idea that there’s one career for me, one pathway,” Shoemaker says. “In reality, there’s multiple pathways so that when life throws you a curveball, you’ve got a couple of other ideas. We have lots of opportunities and lots of choices. Actively engage them so that when something happens, you’re more able to adjust, adapt and move forward.”

For those preparing to begin their professional lives, looking for positions or considering a change, the job market can feel especially daunting right now. Is the degree you’re pursuing still the one that will help you achieve your goals? What are reasonable expectations for an entry-level job in this economic climate? Is it even the right time to think about where you want to go next?

According to Corey Mohn, executive director at Blue Valley CAPS, a professional studies-focused high school program in Overland Park, there are still opportunities out there to explore, and ways to ignite your curiosity and passion for your work. The important thing is to keep an open mind and be flexible.

“Keep an open mind about what valuable engagements might look like,” Mohn says. “There’s a lot of unknowns about what you really want to do. Don’t get too focused on ‘It has to be a full-time job where I’m reporting to an office in this industry, in this organization.’ That may have been a reality for certain industries before COVID, it’s less of a reality now.”

Both Mohn and Shoemaker say that right now, it’s just as important as ever — if not more important — to develop versatile career skills and professional relationships that will give you a strong start right now, and serve you well in the long run.

Here are some of the lessons they’ve received, and ones they’ve learned on their own, that can help you in considering your academic and professional path forward.

Build relationships

“Most job opportunities that open up don’t even get listed publicly,” Mohn says. “There’s this underground market of opportunities, and you have to have conversations with people to even have a chance of knowing it’s there.”

Beyond just knowing about what opportunities exist, Mohn says that having a robust network of connections — which you can still build while social distancing via email, phone or online conferencing — will serve you in different ways at various points in your career. “When you first start out, it’s the importance of getting to know people and seeing beyond a position description and a role, but thinking more about the purpose of the work, how you leverage the strength of others, working as a team, and getting beyond your own position,” Mohn says. “But the more you evolve into your work from a transactional job into something that feels like a career, you’re looking for what interests you in your work, and what you bring of yourself to an organization.”

Shoemaker says not to think of networking as a mindless, transactional exercise. “People think of networking as an unpalatable thing to do because it feels like you’re using people, when in reality it’s about making real connections, paying it forward, having something to offer another person,” she says. “It’s about being curious and engaging with people. ‘Tell me a little bit about what you do. What are challenges in this field?’ These are questions anyone can ask any person working.”

Do your research and lead with who you are

Shoemaker encourages job seekers to not only be open to lots of opportunities, but also to know what they’re getting into. “Typically, people start applying for jobs scattershot, without doing the homework and understanding what they’re applying for. It’s important to be adaptable and flexible, but you need to do the research,” Shoemaker says. “We’re all in a transition period, so as much as you can build connections and learn about the day-to-day aspects of a job or a company, you’ll be much more adaptable in the long run.”

Mohn says research can help in the interview process not just in knowing the ins and outs of a company, but by helping you know what you bring to the table. “If you stay true to who you are when you’re explaining what you want to do inside of an organization and the role you think you could play, you’re essentially painting a picture for that employer,” Mohn says. “If that employer then decides to hire you, you know they’re hiring you for all that you are. Therefore, you’ll be successful, and you’ll be well positioned to do what you do.”

Mohn says this lesson is part of the best advice he ever received from a mentor: If someone offers you the job, you’ll likely love the job. If they don’t, you won’t enjoy it. “If you’re honest about who you are and you’re not offered the position, often times people tend to be disappointed by not getting the position that they’re gunning for,” Mohn says. “But in reality, what that advice told me was that they’re actually doing you a favor, because what you’re bringing to the table isn’t a fit for their office culture or is not something they’re going to support. It completely changed how I’ve reacted to news related to opportunities. It’s kind of taken the sting out of it, to be honest.”

Stay Curious

Shoemaker says the most successful career transitions she’s seen usually come from people who stay active in a variety of areas, not just their day job. “Working with people who have made career transitions, those who do it well are always cultivating something, either a hobby or a side gig,” Shoemaker says of developing professional agilities. “Keep thinking about things that are interesting to you, that are vibrant.”

Mohn encourages students at Blue Valley CAPS to keep considering the areas that keep them engaged, but also to be willing to ask questions that will develop their confidence in a given subject. “That’s a big part of the conversation,” Mohn says. “‘How do I have authentic experiences? How do I know it’s OK to try something I may not know how to do, to get knocked down a little in terms of my confidence and my understanding? If I know I can lift myself back up, I can make a pivot, or understand how to do something differently. I have a sense of accomplishment that next time it’ll be a little easier.’”

Regardless of the field you’re pursuing, Mohn says the connections you make through seeking out relationships, pursuing knowledge and growth, and being willing to ask questions can help you reach fulfillment.

“We tell students that it’s great to have a job. Everyone needs a roof over their head,” Mohn says. “Career is the next step, growing yourself as a professional, rising up the ladder. A small percentage of people reach what we refer to as a calling. That’s when you’re so dedicated to a cause or a purpose that it transforms everything else. I think you find that calling much faster if you have a robust network of people you’re connected with.”

Other helpful resources:

Tips for turning the traditional approach to networking upside down

How to write a cover letter: 7 easy tips for success

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