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If you’re about to finish high school, or have been out for some time but haven’t quite figured out your next move, a tall stack of college brochures and student loan applications may be crowding out a wealth of other information about the myriad alternative educational options for next September. That may because your guidance counselor – like the majority of today’s guidance counselors – has recommended college as your next step after high school graduation – without stopping to consider if it’s the option that’s best for you. Or it might be because your parents are convinced – wrongly – that a four-year degree is all that stands between you and a life of low-income, dead-end work. Or maybe it’s simply because the societal myth of “college for everyone” is so pervasive, pursuing another alternative has never even occurred to you. That’s a shame because with the serious financial investment a four-year college degree requires, it’s a decision that should not be made lightly. And in truth there are many ways to begin building a resume and jumpstart a career without necessarily heading straight to college. A liberal arts degree is the perfect choice for some people, but if it is just a default choice because you aren’t sure of what to do next, it may be a big investment that doesn’t deliver on its return.
In today’s job market, gaining hands-on experience is often the far better way to build a resume. Moreover, work experience can also inform career decisions so that if you do decide to continue with school, you have a better sense of exactly what path you want to pursue, ensuring that no investment made in your education is wasted.
Transferable workplace skills like problem-solving, team-building and critical thinking are a huge commodity in today’s job market. Here are some ways to get these skills and build up a great resume, instead of simply hitting the default button and going straight to college
1. Take a “gap year” and make the most of it
For people who know exactly why they are going to college and what they have to gain from their degree, college is a great choice. But many young people are uncertain about what they want to study, or how relevant their course of study might actually be in the job market. In this case, taking a year off school to explore other opportunities can be invaluable. The key is using the gap year to gain self-knowledge, as well as some practical experience.
Use this time to try out different things. Travel if possible, but see if you can do more than just go backpacking. There are numerous opportunities to do volunteer work overseas, building houses or libraries, working with children, cultivating land, language tutoring—you name it. Many apprenticeships and traineeships offer these kinds of opportunities as well, along with a paycheck. Structured travel is a great way to not only build confidence, but all the soft skills that come with working in a professional environment as well.
2. Follow your passions, not just a paycheck
For some, the gap year might turn into three or four years, or more. A life-changing apprenticeship could lead to rewarding work in a particular field for several years before deciding to pursue a degree, as it did for me. It’s important to see one’s career as constantly evolving, and take advantage of the many opportunities to acquire stackable credentials. By choosing opportunities that genuinely reflect your interests, you’ll add experience, knowledge and skills to your resume naturally.
3. Pursue online courses and certifications
Offered at many local community colleges, these can be an inexpensive way to explore an interest without making a huge commitment. Many are offered evenings and weekends, so you can work and earn a living while gaining practical skills to add to your resume.
4. Try out an entry-level jobs related to your field
Often, a year or two of experience on the ground floor of a career or field can be a huge competitive advantage – and accelerate your ascension up the ladder. For someone interested in hospitality or customer relations, a job in a restaurant or café would be a great place to start. For someone with an affinity for architecture or design, work on a construction or painting crew would make more sense. Seek out entry-level job opportunities in your field of interest and use the experience as a springboard.
5. Take your online reputation seriously
In a world where technology has increased our ability to connect and be visible, the use of online platforms can work to our advantage…or disadvantage. Every day, we are building or damaging our online reputation. Hiring managers and employers will notice, so it’s important to be deliberate with the use of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other platforms. Consider them part of your resume, and be as careful to manage the image they project.
These platforms can also be a big help in building a network of potential employers or clients. Create a sharp, well-written LinkedIn profile that demonstrates your practical, real world skills and experience, and update it regularly. Be sure to list all your specific unique skills and abilities –whether they be a certification in mixology, the knowledge of HTML or a programming language, or the ability to wire a circuit board – not just your work history or educational experience. And remember that thoughtful, diligent network building with other skilled professionals can lead to job opportunities you might not hear of otherwise.