Just graduated and starting your first job? These workers have advice

Heather Overton wants recent grads to know to put money in their 401(k) accounts and take time to get to know their coworkers. She works for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Heather Overton wants recent grads to know to put money in their 401(k) accounts and take time to get to know their coworkers. She works for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Andrea Ashby

The job market for 2017 college graduates is finally as good as it was in 2007, before the Great Recession hit. Recent college grads’ average wages have risen to $19.18 an hour, and their unemployment rates have fallen to a relatively low 5.6 percent, according to The New York Times.

Now the Class of 2017 is entering the workforce to join workers like Cary native Stephen Pierce, 24, who had had an assortment of jobs but had never worked full-time before graduating from college in 2015.

“Every person who jumps into full-time work right after college is surprised,” he said. “Nine-to-five is a completely different ball game.”

Now Pierce has been working as a college admissions counselor for two years and has learned about things like navigating office drama and saving his paycheck. Here are six things that any recent college graduate should know as he or she starts work.

1. Don’t let Instagram distract you!

No matter what your job is, time management is an important skill. When you’re at work, being able to accomplish tasks quickly and efficiently means you are making every minute on the job count.

Pierce’s advice is simple: “Manage distractions, and know your No. 1 priority.”

Pierce, who majored in classical liberal arts with an emphasis on music, is now senior admissions counselor at Patrick Henry College, his alma mater, in Purcellville, Va. Pierce recommends cutting yourself off from social media while at work – and if social media is part of your job, stay on task. Don’t find yourself Facebook stalking your best friend’s aunt’s ex-boyfriend.

Pierce used the Forest app to resist wasting time on his phone during his first days at the office. If you download Forest and don’t use your phone for an allotted amount of time, a forest grows in the app. If you break down and scroll through Instagram, the trees wither and die. Forest also lets users compete with friends to see who’s the best at staying focused.

2. Get to know your coworkers.

“You will be spending more time with them than your friends and family,” pointed out Heather Overton, 40, who graduated from N.C. State University in 2000.

She counts her coworkers at the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services as some of her best friends. She made the effort to get to know them during her senior year of college, when she was an intern in the department’s Public Affairs division.

After graduating, she worked in a different part of the department and left in 2006, but she continued to get together with the Public Affairs team until she returned to work there in 2013.

Her office mates don’t limit their friendship to work hours. Concerts, movies and trips to Seagrove, “the pottery capital of North Carolina,” are a few of their favorite things to do together.

“It makes work a lot more enjoyable if you get along with the people you work with,” Overton said.

3. Don’t put off a 401(k).

If your employer offers a 401(k) plan, take advantage of it. A 401(k) account helps you save for retirement. Find out if your employer contributes to or matches what you put into the account. If you change jobs, don’t worry – you can keep your account, but some of the plan details might change with your change in employer.

“You think you’ll go back and set up your 401(k) one day, but you won’t,” Overton said. “You won’t miss the money if you put away some money right from the beginning.”

A lot of her friends procrastinated on starting their 401(k) accounts until their 30s, but Overton is glad she started putting in money right away, especially because her employer matched her contributions to a certain amount.

“If you invest earlier, you’ll have a bigger nest egg,” she said.

4. Pack a lunch.

Although you might feel more grade-school than glamorous strolling into the office with a lunchbox in hand, it’s worth it, Overton said.

“You are most likely at a desk all day long and have a lot of places you can go at lunchtime,” she said. “Just like it is easy to pack on a freshman 15, when you start to work and have a lunch break every day, it’s easy to pick up pounds.”

5. Network.

We all have that image in our heads of a slithery corporate ladder climber making rounds at an event, but networking is not just about trying to find a better job than the one you have, said Mary Tyler March.

“At networking events, you can make friends and meet connections that will help you later on,” she said. “Build connections no matter what field you’re in.”

March, 23, grew up in Salisbury, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2016 and works at Industry Dive, a D.C.-based company that writes business news for industry executives. She’s glad that she and a handful of friends go to UNC alumni events because she meets people with different experiences than her own.

“It’s nice to have another network of people out there who you can go to for advice,” March said.

6. Find a mentor.

Rachel Boyce, 23, has worked for Citrix ShareFile in downtown Raleigh since graduating from N.C. State in 2016. The Raleigh native studied biology in college but started an internship at Citrix in the summer of 2015 because she couldn’t envision herself working in a lab.

Boyce’s customer-care internship turned into a full-time job in product management once she graduated. After about a year in her job, she started to feel burned out.

“I was feeling like I had learned everything in my current role and wanted to know how I could continue to progress,” Boyce said.

In April, she asked a woman who had been at Citrix longer than she had to be her mentor. Boyce felt “empowered” after talking to her mentor and learning more about the company and why Boyce’s contributions mattered. She’s returned to her mentor for advice and encouragement since then.

“(Mentors) can bring a completely new perspective that you can’t see,” she said. Boyce recommends just asking someone you respect to get dinner with you and share your career struggles with them.

7. Remember, attitude is everything.

“I was lucky to land a job that was totally unrelated to my education,” said Ellen Bailey, 33, who studied history in college but now works in finance. “The main reason they hired me had to do with my willingness to learn.”

She grew up in Raleigh and graduated with a history degree from the UNC-Wilmington in 2006, but Bailey knew she didn’t want to go to graduate school or teach history. After graduating, she went to work for Scott & Stringfellow, an investment firm that’s now part of BB&T Bank.

She’s been at the firm for 10 years. Her positive attitude even when doing what she called “remedial” work got her managers’ attention, and Bailey worked her way up in the company and has been a certified financial planner since 2012.

“Your managers, company owners and co-workers will notice your attitude above all things,” she said. “Stay encouraged and positive.”

Evie Fordham: @eviefordham 919-829-4654