Categorized | Job Hunting

Can Grunt Work Boost Your Career?

Posted on 22 October 2009

It felt like thick heavy oatmeal. My right foot was ankle deep in wet concrete as sweat poured down my face, my back burned and my shirt stuck to my skin. It was the height of the Mississippi summer and I was pouring the foundation for a hot tub. More accurately, I had to push wheelbarrows of concrete down a hill, under some trees, around a swimming pool, up another hill–and then pour the foundation.

This may strike you as an unusual chore for someone who works in an office — a cool, air-conditioned facility, no less, with comfortable chairs, a refrigerator full of soda and a radio.

But my employer, an urban and regional planning firm in Oxford, Miss., had been giving me these jobs since hiring me as the gopher/college kid/general lackey. The help-wanted ad for the position stated, “Clerical work-Comfortable environment-Great for students.” A word of advice — don’t believe want ads.

Each week, I picked up beer cans, paper bags and half-eaten potato logs from the yard and mowed the grass. I cleaned the swimming pool a few times. I removed heavy air conditioners from windows for repairs. And all 5 feet 10 inches, 160 pounds of me served as a security guard when we visited a psychotic tenant who thought her neighbors were running a brothel instead of hosting a prayer breakfast.

I did whatever dirty work needed to be done. I thought I was used to grunt work but pouring concrete was the worst yet. When my foot got stuck in the mess, I remembered the “Roadrunner” cartoon in which the coyote becomes instantly frozen in concrete. Feeling as if I were sinking in quicksand, I wrenched at my foot. At last, it came free with a loud sucking noise.

Why Did I Do It?

For an English major like me to put up with these assignments may seem crazy. However, this and other crummy positions I’ve held have enhanced my career options. The key to taking advantage of a bad job is to create experience you can use to further your career.

For instance, the planning firm that used me as office slave creates written reports and documents for city governments, the state Supreme Court and high-paying private clients. After I’d worked there a few months, I asked my boss if I could assist in writing them. After all, I had an English degree and the the engineers and geographers at the company didn’t.

He agreed and started me off typing reports and correcting a few grammatical errors. But while typing a poorly written market-research study, I asked if I could rewrite it.

“I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes, but this could be written better,” I said. I reminded him that I had done a substantial amount of writing. My arguments proved convincing, and I was allowed to redo the report. It turned out well, the client was pleased and I gained impressive experience for my resume.

Later, the boss asked me to tidy shelves used to store reports. After choking on the dust, I ventured another proposal.

“Could I organize the reports and build a database on the computer?” I asked. This was a somewhat self-serving request, since I was tired of being asked to huntdown documents for other staffers. “This way, we could search the database and locate reports immediately,” I said.

Once again, he gave me the OK and I gained more experience for my resume.

Easy to Persuade

You’d be surprised how easily you can convince employers to give you more responsibility. After all, they want work completed at the lowest possible cost. Assume you have a marketing degree but are waiting tables temporarily. Why not ask your manager if you can help write newspaper ads for the restaurant? “But I’m only a waitress,” you say, as though it’s a terminal illness.

So what. Do you think your employer will say, “No, I’d rather pay Megabucks Advertising huge amounts of money instead of giving you the chance”? All you have to do is ask. By recognizing and seizing opportunities, you can gain valuable career experience from the crummiest job.

If you’re a management major, ask to sit in on meetings and observe how the senior manager directs the discussion. If you’re an accounting student, request permission to help with the payroll.

Every job–no matter how heinous–offers ways to gain career experience. One summer I worked on a farm cleaning horse stalls. Each day, I shoveled horse manure into buckets and dumped them into a wagon. But my resume notes the experience I gained helping the farm with advertising and promotion. I gained the responsibility because I asked for it.

When I list my exhausting planning-firm job on my resume, I don’t say I poured concrete. Instead, I mention the market-research study and computer databases I created.

The Ultimate Reward

Through my campus recruiting program, I arranged to interview with American Management Systems Inc., an information-technology consulting firm based in Fairfax, Va. I was the only liberal arts major invited to interview, and as I sat in front of the recruiter’s desk and glanced down at my resume, I knew why. He’d highlighted the items describing the market-research study and computer databases. I might never have gotten to see him if I hadn’t created opportunities for myself at that rotten job.

Despite having an English degree, I was offered a consulting position with AMS, which I accepted. I’m convinced that I was hired because of the experiences I’d gained from a whole series of not-so-hot jobs.

If I’d simply taken out the trash and shoveled manure, I might still be doing grunt work. While my consulting role doesn’t require me to describe the properties of wet concrete, my gopher experience benefited my career. There’s no such thing as a crummy job if you know how to create opportunities to gain experience.

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- who has written 28 posts on Higher Education and Career Blog.


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