At 24, Rachel Burger was working in advertising research, and like many Millennials, living in her parents’ basement. Her job paid $32,500, and half of every paycheck went towards paying back her student loans.
Her company promised her a “huge raise” after six months—but after finding out that “huge” meant only a $2,000 yearly increase, Burger started shopping around. She searched Glassdoor for highly rated companies in her area and zoomed in on those with favorable employee reviews, sending a targeted resume to each one. She also posted a resume on Monster, and a recruiter who saw it sent her to a software company, which had a writing job available at $45,000/year.
Burger did not have professional writing experience, but she had published some op-ed pieces on politics in Forbes and the Washington Times without payment, and she included them on her resume. The software company offered her the job.
It was already a big step up, but by this time, some of the other employers Burger had contacted were offering her $50,000 or more. She used this information to push the software company up to $52,000, then accepted the job,and finally moved into a place of her own. She plans to stay on the job a few years to hone her skills, then repeat the job-search process if a higher-level position with her current employer isn’t available when she wants it.
Burger exemplifies the Millennial version of the career ladder. It’s not the standard hardware-store model of the Baby Boomer generation, but rather a DIY contraption that involves building your own skills as a framework and searching the Internet for the next rung.
Another way to describe it is a lattice, suggests Joanne Cleaver, author of The Career Lattice.
“The prevailing metaphor for career moves is the ladder. It’s very vertical and you can only be on one rung at a time. You can only move up if the person above you also moves up,” Cleaver says. “A lattice is like a jungle gym. You have diagonals that go over as well as up, and at any point, you have several moves you can make.”
Why are Millennials climbing on jungle gyms and DIY contraptions instead of using the ladder that served previous generations so well?
Though government statistics show that young workers have always bounced from job to job, search methods have changed. It’s harder to wait for a promotion to become available at your own company when the Internet displays a kaleidoscope of attractive offers at the click of a mouse.
Also, many employers have given up pension plans and other benefits that were once a tried-and-true way of commanding employee loyalty, says Ryan Hunt, senior advisor at Career Builder. For hot technology skills such as cutting-edge programming languages, employers race to outbid competitors in a cutthroat search for talent that often results in young workers swiftly hopscotching from one company to the next to get ahead.
Another factor: the traditional ladder has fewer rungs. During the recession, many companies cut out middle-management positions and never replaced them, Cleaver says. And Baby Boomers who were knocked off their financial retirement targets decided to hold onto their jobs, leaving fewer chances for newer workers to take their place.
According to Cleaver, Millennials who feel stuck in their jobs need to develop three “buckets” of skills to build their own career lattices:
1. Technical Skills. If you want to move into operations or management, learning how to run a budget is a must. Take an accounting class on your own if your employer won’t pay for it. Just knowing how to read a spreadsheet and showing that you understand financial terms without asking for definitions will go a long way at meetings.
Even non-technical people should learn technical skills, Cleaver says. Someone who works at a tech company should learn the basics of software development to gain insight into the work going on around them. It builds credibility, both within your company and at interviews for your next job.
2. Leadership. This is another important quality employers want to see for promotions. That can be frustrating for Millennials who haven’t been given oversight responsibility yet. The solution is to volunteer, Cleaver says. Ask to lead a team at work. If that fails, look outside. Take over a fundraising marathon for your church, or join a volunteer committee where you might become a board member. It’s not just resume fodder—you can learn valuable skills.
3. Business Skills. Instead of waiting for the promotional tap that never comes, develop your own business skills. Learn how your company makes money and what its drivers are. If it’s a large company, go to its website and read the investor relations section to find out what the company wants the world to know about it. Read the trade press to see how the company is viewed by outsiders. Find out where your company presents at conferences. It may be way above your pay grade to attend them, but you can download presentations.
Once you have deep knowledge of a company’s goals, design a rung for yourself by helping them to achieve one, or at least get closer to it. And be sure you let managers know what you’ve accomplished.
“It’s not a passive process,” Cleaver says. “Hiring managers will notice you if you identify opportunities, develop the skills and experience you need, and get results. You need to equip yourself with early success stories.”
Then, if your current company doesn’t buy them, find one that will.