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Why building career capital should be the No. 1 priority in your first job

Choosing your first job is like buying a house: it’s your chance to build up capital to move on to bigger and better things in the future

What is career capital and why should it be the no. 1 priority in your first job? Well, like the financial equivalent, career ‘capital’ is the stuff you accumulate ‘in the bank’ to set yourself up for the future.

As a student, it’s important to know what skills and qualities you need to secure an internship or graduate position.  But what about after you land that first job?  How are you going to move up the ladder, secure a promotion, eventually become the CEO or even start your own business? That’s where career capital comes in.

Career capital refers to the skills, credentials and contacts that will distinguish you from your peers and accelerate your leap to the next great job . And just like financial capital, some folk focus on building their nest egg, whilst others go for the short term blow-out. It’s easy to be seduced by big money and a smart office when taking your first job- but when the shine wears off a year or two down the road, you need to be able to move onwards and upwards. Career capital is your passport to bigger and better things.

So what should you look for in your first job? 

Early on in your career, building flexible career capital is what matters because unless you’re certain that you want to specialise from the outset, you need to keep all of your options open. Just like financial capital, career capital is as much about freedom as it is growth.

So when you’re considering that first job,  ask yourself the following questions:

1) Will I acquire transferable skills?

Look for a position that let’s you quickly build a  range of business skills and experiences. A position that throws you different challenges, allows you to take early responsibility, lets you work in a variety of locations and with different people at all levels,  offers a great opportunity to build your career capital.

But make sure you focus on the skills that really matter: personal productivity, communication skills, management,  leadership, negotiation and innovation are transferable skills that all businesses look for. Starting to build these skills early means you’ll have the freedom to change direction, whether inside or outside the organisation.

Certain sectors, such as consulting, and opportunities such as management training programmes, lend themselves to building career capital rapidly. But you don’t have to work for a large company – often smaller companies will throw in you at the deep end and, assuming you swim rather than sink, you could be exposed to a whole lot more than in a big corporate.

2) Will I  be working with great people?

The people you work with are key to getting ahead at work. It’s not about what they can do for you but what you can learn from them. Look for a position where you will be surrounded by motivated and knowledgable people who are willing to delegate, nurture, lead, give feedback and mentor – and then show them that you are a willing and able lieutenant. And we’re not just talking about people within the organisation; will you be exposed to others outside the company? Clients, suppliers, industry experts, agencies- they all add to your future network and knowledge base.

If you can demonstrate that you are ambitious, capable and loyal, your colleagues and contacts can become your greatest champions when it comes to future promotions, references, or new job opportunities.

3) Will I be able to make an impact?

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your first job should be all about watching and waiting. Building your career capital depends on notching up some early achievements. It may easier in some jobs to make an impact than it is in others, and it may be easier in smaller companies than it is in larger ones.

Companies where the structure is flatter and the culture less formal, can provide better opportunities for building career capital than those with a rigid  and formal hierarchy.

Look for a role that let’s you play to your strengths so that you’ll have the opportunity  to shine and  figure out what it takes to make an impact. We can’t all be good at everything but if the things that matter in a particular role are those that will simply highlight your weaknesses,  it may be wise to reconsider.

4) Will this role give me options for the future?

If like many new graduates, you don’t quite know where you might end up, keeping your options open should be a top priority for your first job.

Some first jobs are better than others in future-proofing career options.

Look for roles that won’t make you specialise too highly /too early, especially at the expense of developing those crucial transferable skills. A few years as a management consultant is likely to give you more options than the equivalent time as a lab technician  or computer programmer.

Seek roles that will help you acquire added value skills such as coding, finance, quantitative analysis – you don’t need to become an expert but employers highly  value a working knowledge in these key business areas.

Be aware that it is easier to go from the corporate world into the nonprofit sector than vice versa, so it may be best to get some commercial experience under your belt first. Likewise it can be more difficult to move from the public to the private sector in the early stages of your career.

Remember, building flexible career capital should be your goal in the early years.

Start building career capital now!

Don’t wait until you leave Uni to start building your career capital. Think about how you  can  demonstrate key skills from your current experiences ( volunteer work, internships, part-time jobs, etc) and how you can further develop these in your next internship or job. Start  building your professional network now by attending events on and off campus with the aim of meeting as many people as possible who can add to your knowledge and skills.

If you’re a recent graduate whose found the perfect first job for building career capital and you would be willing to share your experience with others,  we would love to leave from you.

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