People ask me this question a lot: If it’s such a good job market for young people then why can’t I find a good job?

The answer is that there are tons of really bad jobs being offered. For all the talk of flexibility in the workplace, very few companies are actually offering engaging jobs with flexible hours. You usually have to pick one or the other.

But many people are looking for special setups with a job – for example you need a lot of flexibility so you can write a novel, or you have no idea what you want to be doing and you want time to think but you don’t want to starve, or you only want to work for six months before you travel in east Asia.

Each of these circumstances screams: Retail. Or some version of a bad job that is similar to retail.

When I graduated from college the job market was terrible, so I have a lot of experience in retail jobs (and getting fired from them). So I thought I’d give you a primer on how to select a job from a smorgasbord of terrible jobs offers.

Get the word on the street
There’s tons of gossip about what it’s like at brand-name entry-level jobs. If you want to train during the day for the Olympics, work at Home Depot. It’s their specialty. If you have big medical issues work at Starbucks. Even people working part-time are sometimes eligible for their great benefits.

Alex Frankel wrote Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee. He spent two years working in the service sector and he gives the low-down on each of the big name brand stores that he worked at. And there’s a preview in Fast Company this month, which I will summarize.

Gap: Bad. Endless shirt-folding.

Apple: Good. Great employee education process.

The Container Store: Picky. You’d better love their product if you’re applying for a job.

Conduct your own interview
Look, it’s not like the service sector is overflowing with applications. Even though you are looking at dead-end jobs, you are still in high demand. This is still an employee-driven job market. So leverage your demographic luck and turn the tables on the interviewer. Conduct your own behavioral interview to determine if the manager at the terrible job will be good. (Note: If don’t know what a behavioral interview is, click here. If you want to know how to ace one yourself, click here.)

Kronos is a firm that teaches retail businesses how to hire good managers. Steve Hunt is from the talent management division of Kronos, and he says that the best way to tell if your manager will be good is to understand how the manager got hired. The company should have a clear set of guidelines for evaluating management candidates and the company should hire managers. Hunt recommends that you ask how the company measures and evaluates a manager’s people skills. How your manager answer this question can tell you a lot about how serious they are about making sure their managers aren’t jerks.

If all the jobs are lame, pick a mentor who is good.
I used to work for Esther Williams – the bathing suit beauty queen who was still sending a headshot from 1950 even in 1995. Well, actually it was I who was sending the headshot, since signing her autograph was my job. It was a great job because I was playing beach volleyball all day, trying to get on the professional tour, and I could deal with Esther’s fan mail at night.

It sounds fun, maybe, to people who like reading sappy letters from lecherous men, but signing the autographs was no walk in the park: She was always telling me to make her E loopier. But there was a redeeming quality about the job, and that was that Esther is a marketing genius. And I learned a lot from her about how to build a brand. This is when I realized that it’s not the job that matters but what knowledge the person you work for can share with you.

21 replies
  1. Ross
    Ross says:

    What if all the employment offers are in the business-to-business sector (i.e., not retail)? And remember, not everyone goes to college an earn a “you want fries with your order” liberal arts degree…meaning, there are lots of jobs outside of retail. As for the writing a novel and trip to Asia examples, I wouldn’t even consider such potential employees in the ‘potential’ pool of applicants.

  2. Queercents
    Queercents says:

    Penelope,

    I worked in menial service jobs for a decade – all through college and while starting a business and the best one was: Kinko’s (now FedEx Kinko’s).

    Back then they offered great training, good benefits, evening and graveyard shifts and since they provide business support services, it was actually a good place to network and be exposed to a number of different businesses.

    ********
    Nina,
    Thanks for the tip. It would be great if everyone could write in with inside information on good and bad retail jobs. What a great resource that would be.
    Here’s my tip: Barnes & Noble is demeaning; too concerned with loss prevention.
    -Penelope

  3. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:

    I have made a lot of mistakes in my career over the years, however, one thing I did right was that I always worked in the field I was trying to make it in. For instance, my undergrad was in journalism. When I wanted to be a journalist, I only worked in news organizations. I made less money at the crappy little weekly newspaper that I could of if I took a clerical job at a bigger company, but that would have probably only lead to a better clerical job. So I went from small weekly paper to small daily to larger radio station to mid-sized public television station at a college to an administrator job at the college to Director of Marketing for a trade organization the college is a member of.

    When you first get out of school, it’s always harder than you think it will be to get a good job. The only real difference between those who make it in their field and those who don’t is persistence. Get knocked down, get back up.

  4. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    Good Point. There is always a job available if you want it. Want is the key word. And when you first get out of college or are still in college you need a job that tailors more to your circumstances than anything. My first job in IT was a computer operator. I was going to school full time during the day and worked from 2-10pm in the computer room at night. It was great, I did my homework (which was a perk that my boss went over in the interview – so don’t slam me) at work when there was downtime and it catapulted me into where I am now. I learned a lot about how to work with people. It wasn’t hard because I had just moved to the north from the south so people loved talking to me to hear my “accent”. What you learn from a job is how you measure the value of the job – and you may not know until you leave that job just how much you learned. I ended up working for that company and the same boss for 9.5 years until it was bought out…I just kept learning I guess!

  5. Dave Atkins
    Dave Atkins says:

    It’s an interesting idea to find some job to pay the rent while you pursue your dream. But is this realistic? Most jobs like this REALLY SUCK because they pay like $6-8 an hour…it’s nice to fantasize about how you could go do a “no-brainer” job while you write your novel, but the reality is that most no-brainer jobs are hard work for low pay that leave you exhausted and demoralized at the end of the day.

  6. Charlie
    Charlie says:

    A great alternative to retail or waiting tables is legal temping. Especially in big cities, you can make good money working 9-5 without experience or the pressures of a “career” job. All you need is a college degree and availability. The first job may be difficult to get (the key is to keep calling your agency to assure them that you are ready to work) but after that you will be in high demand.

    I did this for 5 months in New York last year making $17/hour with time-and-a-half overtime often available. A lot of my friends there were saving money to travel or working on artistic pursuits after work. In fact, a lot of actors in New York do this until they get their big break.

    It’s not stimulating, but if you just want something easy to get into that will tide you over for a while, it’s a great option.

  7. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    “What if all the employment offers are in the business-to-business sector (i.e., not retail)? And remember, not everyone goes to college an earn a "you want fries with your order" liberal arts degree – meaning, there are lots of jobs outside of retail. As for the writing a novel and trip to Asia examples, I wouldn't even consider such potential employees in the – €˜potential' pool of applicants.”

    WOW – in response to Ross. When I got my BS in Civil Engineering there was a hiring freeze where I wanted to work – so I got a job taking phone orders at Williams-Sonoma for about a year – then I finally got a position at an engineering company in SF.

    The W-S job taught me a lot about people and life and ever since then I think everyone should have a service sector job at least once in their life – if only to learn how to not talk down to others who they deem below them.

    I have continued to work in and evolve in my profession.

    And as for not considering people who do things outside of their career as “potential” employees…you would deny someone an opportunity for employment – if they met your qualifications – just because they took 6 months off from work to follow a non-work related dream?

    Not everyone follows the same path.

  8. Working Girl
    Working Girl says:

    If you have to work in a crummy job, for whatever reason, the key to happiness is working with people you like.

    It’s like the army. Low pay, chance of getting shot—the only upside is the incredible camaraderie of the troops.

    Same thing goes for retail (and other crappy) jobs. It’s all about the people.

  9. Emily DeVoto
    Emily DeVoto says:

    I think you should write a novel about working with Esther Williams and answering her fan mail!

    And I guess the same could apply to any crappy job. There are always the personalities, as long as you can detach from them.

  10. John Trosko
    John Trosko says:

    Penelope,

    Great post. I loved your story about Esther Williams! Suzanne has great tips on sticking to your field and working at it. Later in life, you will reap the benefits.

    – John

  11. Tina Su
    Tina Su says:

    I love your blog. What a great idea! Keep up the awesome work.

    Love & Gratitude,
    Tina
    Think Simple. Be Decisive.
    ~ Productivity, Motivation & Happiness

  12. Dale
    Dale says:

    Your decisions/priorities will most often be determined by the needs you face at a particular point in time. And the need you experience will most times make your job choice a forgone conclusion.

    In my younger days,I had the intense, ever present need for cash to support my family and education. Nothing else mattered!
    I chose to wait tables because I got “paid” every day. The fact that I was an introvert with no self confidence and hated having to meet people did not matter. All that mattered was getting paid. Ironically, I learned the most from the years I spent waiting tables. And that is the best you can hope for from an awful job (besides eating regular meals and the ability to pay the rent). Below I offer my most significant realizations about awful jobs:

    a. I learned that when there is a need we can do almost anything that we wouldn’t do ordinarily. (E.g. Cleaning up after an elderly person who has just regurgitated his spaghetti, meatballs, breadsticks, merlot, and spumoni so that you can be sat another table in your section)

    b. I learned that I can change. Now I am not nearly so introverted, in fact, people actually think I am extroverted.

    c. Service oriented jobs teach you about people, period!

    d. You are only worth what you are perceived to bring to the organization.

    e. You are only “working” if your boss (the customer) sees/knows what you are doing on his or her behalf. Hint, communication and subtle self-promotion are often skills acquired on the job.

    f. You are only worth what you think you are worth. No one will pay you what you deserve unless you ask for it. Hint, be prepared to leave.

    g. Don’t get too comfortable. It becomes difficult to leave, even a terrible job, once you’ve gotten really good at it.

  13. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Suzanne’s insight is really valuable here. You learn from every job you do but you get more bang for your buck if the crappy jobs are also in the field you want to work in.

  14. Steve
    Steve says:

    It never ceases to amaze me how much entitlement this new generation of workers comes to the table with.

    Having the time to write a novel or travel the world generally comes at or near retirement (unless you win the lottery or have tremendous early success) – after one earns the right to live comfortably and be in pursuit of their dreams.

    It used to be that you had the four years you went to college to finally figure out what you want to do with your life, so that when you graduate you go about the business of doing what you were taught to do. I know if either of my kids EVER came to me after the six figure investment I made in their future and said “Gee, I don’t really know what I want to do with my life”, I would immediately tell them they can come back home, work retail, or whatever they can do to earn a living – TO PAY ME BACK MY WASTED TUITION MONEY.

    The bigger problem though is a practical one. While workers may want “flexibility”, time to dream, etc., business still has to be done during regular business hours. Absent a workforce committed to continuing this, nothing would ever get done.

    And as for being worth what you think you are worth – hogwash. You are worth what your resume verifiably can demonstrate you have actually ACCOMPLISHED.

    Keep dreaming. No company with a desire to grow and survive will ever let Generation Slacker dictate the terms of their employment.

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      Steve,
      With all due respect… your children are not your serfs. You CHOSE to pay for their education. You did not have to.
      This shows an interesting generation gap. I think that the X’s, Y’s, and Milleniums tend to be more inner reflective. It is not that they lack work ethic. However, they absolutely do not have the “stereotyical” baby boomer mentality that you do whatever necessary to make “big bucks” at the expense of work/life balance in anticipation of seeing the “golden gates of freedom” once they reach the coveted age of 65. They want to create balance now and integrate the two. Since when was that so horrible?
      I personally would prefer to stabilize myself with a solid skillset before taking extended leaves of absences, etc.. for world travel, personal endeavors etc.. however, each person ultimately controls their own career.
      So bottom line… you’ve come across as self-righteous and not very big picture oriented.

  15. Ken Forester
    Ken Forester says:

    The best job is the one that offers relatively decent pay, but offers most job security. Jobs and unemployment are totally based on the state of the economy. See job security entry in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Job_security) and you will see why economy is the number driver of jobs and unemployment. Or better still, go and check your Job Security Score at http://www.jobsecurityscore.com and do some research on this economic analysis site (www.scorelogix.com) and you will agree with me. I have been unemployed during last recession and everytime economy slows down or goes into recession I find the number of unemployed people I know spike.

    The national Job Security Index has been going down for a few months now, so it's time for some of us to get worried.

    –Ken–

  16. Luvfredom
    Luvfredom says:

    I wonder why people overlook Sears/Kmart, Walmart, Cosco and other retail giants. If you have a degree you can move up very quickly. Many people complain about low pay, horrible hours and having to learn a lot in a short period of time. Look at it as a boot camp. I had a graduate degree and I tried desperately to get into higher ed departments. My best way in was through Sears. I started low, became a trainer and eventually ended up at the top of my game. I think job seekers are guilty of the very thing they accuse employers for. They seek “perfect” jobs instead of creating the perfect opportunity. Get creative and seek low hanging fruit and watch your career soar.

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