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How to Make 'Paying Your Dues' Work for You

A woman sitting on a couch with a laptop and papers.

​Many early-career professionals wonder if and how long they have to "pay their dues" by spending a certain amount of time in a lower-level role doing work that may be repetitive, unchallenging and, sometimes, unseen. Some workplace experts have argued that this is an outdated model, mostly because there's a risk of getting stuck in a dead-end job and there are better ways to demonstrate expertise besides time in the role.

However, there is value in paying your dues for early-career professionals, especially if you find an organization committed to employee development, engagement and retention.

Time spent in less-glamorous roles gives early-career professionals a chance to build relationships, learn the business, achieve results and establish their employee brand. It also provides an opportunity to demonstrate loyalty, which is highly valued at work. Here are four suggestions to help early-career professionals pay their dues while gaining valuable career experience.

1. Participate in a rotational program. One of the ways to get new experiences early in your career is to participate in rotational programs. The key benefit of rotational programs is the exposure you get to roles in a specific functional area, such as HR, finance, product management or engineering. These programs build your knowledge of the business and help you develop skills like adaptability, problem-solving and leadership.

2. Make sure you contribute. Early-career professionals should not leave their position until they contribute to the employer's success and learn a new skill. In other words, each job you have early in your career journey should enhance what you can offer to future employers. Therefore, don't leave a job until you can demonstrate the value of the experience on your resume. For example, did you change the way the candidate experience is evaluated (process improvement)? How many people attended your training sessions, and what was your average evaluation score? Did you help a business unit figure out how to retain recent college graduates?

3. Find a project. If you are past the learning curve in your role (i.e., approximately the first six months) and not delivering results, you are wasting your time. Every month you are not contributing is time lost. What should you do if you're in this situation? Find a project team you can join.

Sometimes it's tough to learn about projects, as there may not be a systemic method the organization uses to advertise project opportunities. However, if you speak to one of the following people, they should be able to help you.

First, senior leaders will know about project initiatives in their respective areas—reach out to them. Next, befriend an HR stakeholder (e.g., an HR business partner) and ask about potential project opportunities. If your organization has a formal project management office, reach out to their stakeholders. Finally, reach out to your manager, mentor or work buddy and find out if they know about any project opportunities.

4. Keep learning. It sounds like a cliché, but you shouldn't leave a job until you've learned something. One of the key strengths early-career professionals have is an interest in ongoing learning. It begins in school and is easily transferable to a work environment. While most people think learning means acquiring skills, increasing your knowledge of the industry and business is equally important.

For example, you should be able to answer the following questions about the organization:

  • At the time the organization began, what problem was the founder(s) trying to solve? Do those same problems currently exist? If not, what problem(s) is the present leadership trying to solve?
  • What are some of the organization's most important achievements?
  • Compared to competitors, what are the strengths of your organization? What are the weaknesses? Opportunities? Threats?
  • What are the short-term goals your organization expects to achieve in the next one to two years? What are the longer-term goals?

Now answer the following questions about the industry:

  • Which external trends will have the biggest impact on the industry?
  • Will the demand for services and products in this industry grow or decline?
  • Are there any mergers or acquisitions expected in the industry?
  • How are customer demands changing in the industry?
  • What technological trends are expected to have the most significant impact on the industry? 

One of the biggest advantages of paying your dues is finding out if you're interested in leadership opportunities. Ask yourself if you have an interest in:

  • Creating a vision for what your area of business should achieve.
  • Taking steps to help the organization maintain a competitive advantage.
  • Contemplating the talent needed to drive the business forward.

Paying your dues no longer means spending time in dead-end jobs. Now, early-career professionals can learn and figure out where they can make the biggest impact.  

Kyra Sutton, Ph.D., is a faculty member at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, N.J., where she teaches courses in training and development, as well as in staffing and managing the 21st century workforce. She also has served in lead HR roles at Pitney Bowes and Assurant.

[Start your own job search at SHRM HR Jobs, where we connect top employers with premier HR professionals.]


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