School Didn’t Teach Me: Does Your First Job Matter That Much?

Emma Lam

Emma Lam

Last updated 01 November, 2022


Formal education may give us a leg up in life and career, but less so on managing money. School Didn’t Teach Me, a SingSaver series, is your informal education in personal finance.


Just graduated and commencing your first day on the job soon? How important is it in establishing our career and does it really matter in the long run?

Bright-eyed and fresh out of school, everyone’s on the rat race to find employment as soon as possible — to the extent that some undergrads secure their first job even before graduating. 

As with any milestone in life, we love to emphasise the “firsts” of everything: first birthday, first relationship, first graduation, and first job. So much pressure is placed on landing a dream first job that it culminates in unhealthy expectations.

Conversely, there’s also a handful of graduates that feel like the initial job doesn’t matter that much. As long as you’re employed, that’s most important, right? They potentially “settle for less” and might not even be working in the industry that they want to be in. 

In some cases, due to lack of experience, job offers, and fear of a mid-career switch, they end up building their careers in these unideal roles.

See also: How to Financially Prepare For a Career Change in Singapore 

So how important exactly is our first job in determining our career trajectory? Does a bad first job really set you up for failure? If your first job’s in a dispreferred industry, how difficult is it to attempt a job shift thereafter?

Table of contents


 

Why your first job matters

Proponents of the “first job matters” believe that your initial job acts as a barometer for future roles. It serves as the basis of comparison in developing your professional career. 

#1 Getting exposure within your preferred industry

For many fresh grads, they might not necessarily land their preferred job, but chances are, they’re still employed within their preferred industry or field. Because of this, they’re still able to yield relevant exposure, and thereby experience, contributing to their next job opportunity.

For example, thousands of applicants send in their resumes to big tech firms like Google, Facebook, Netflix, etc. in a bid to become software developers or engineers in these prestigious companies.

But what if you can’t land a role as a software developer just yet? Maybe you’d be successful as a web developer for the time being instead. Although not the same, these roles are adjacent enough to overlap in certain abilities and experiences involved.

Over time, you’ll naturally gain more knowledge and broad expertise relevant to your field of interest across the industry.

#2 Growing relevant skillsets

That said, your first job is significant in honing the right skillset for your career path. 

Acquiring a relevant pool of skills allows you to finetune your craft and work towards becoming specialised in your field.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a “jack of all trades, master of none”, possessing breadth of knowledge and abilities rather than depth might not progress you as far ahead in your career as your other colleagues.

Knowing how to make the perfect cappuccino isn’t going to clinch you a job as a video producer, but knowing how to record and edit feature-length productions will.

#3 Establishing networking connections

Your first job is less so about what you do but about whom you know and do it with. Building meaningful interpersonal relationships with your co-workers can make or break your work experience. 

By extension, these colleagues will be your touchpoint or link to other connections within the organisation. This acts as a leeway for more promotion and job advancement opportunities. 

Even if you or they do depart from the company, it’s easier to find new job opportunities through mutual word-of-mouth referrals or recommendations. 

💡 Pro-tip: Unless the company has enough funds or capital, job listings might not necessarily be advertised on paid job boards or alumni boards/newsletters.


#4 Avoiding the
underemployment trap

We’re all aware of what unemployment is, but might not be familiar with underemployment.

Basically, underemployment refers to being employed for a role that doesn’t fully utilise your capabilities or teach you new skills. You’re not being pushed to your fullest potential.

According to The Strada Institute, employees being underemployed in their first job are five times more likely to stay underemployed across a five-year period. Unless you intend to stagnate in an unfulfilling job scope, engaging in the right working environment is critical in nurturing your talents and skills to excel as an effective employee.

In turn, being able to perform optimally enables you to build and progress naturally through your career.

 

Why your first job doesn’t matter

#1 It’s more about soft skills than hard skills

Crucial soft skills like interpersonal communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving can be learnt on any job. It is not unique to one job alone. 

During job interviews, many recruiters and managers aren’t merely looking out for applicants’ capabilities. Instead, they’re usually more interested in your ability to view challenges, solve problems, and provide creative or effective solutions.

But of course, this heavily depends on the nature of the job — whether it demands a more rigorous or technical application of hard skills or not. For instance, roles like business consultants and software engineers would require several rounds of interviews comprising both questions and written assessments.

#2 Focus on the experience rather than the job itself

By now, it’s clear that experience is probably the most beneficial aspect of the first job. It’s an avenue for you to learn more about your working self in terms of mindset, attitude, abilities, strengths, weaknesses, and values.

Because remember, your personal self versus professional self might be two separate personas with their respective sets of goals you wish to achieve. 

In your personal life, you might want to learn how to be a better cook or get married in the next year. On the other hand in your professional life, you might want to hit better KPIs or set a benchmark salary to negotiate during the next promotion. 

If you don’t know how to maximise your experience at work, here are some guiding questions:

  • What are your strengths and weaknesses? Where can you improve?
  • Does the job allow you to excel in your capabilities? 
  • What are you most interested in? Is the industry, field, and job scope fulfilling so far?
  • What types of experiences are you looking for in a job or company? How can they better provide you with that?
  • Can the job or company assist you in building new skills? How will your accomplishments be measured?
  • What are your personal and professional goals?

#3 Your first job as a compass towards your second job

Just to be clear, we’re in no way undermining the value and significance of your first job. In fact, your first job is still important, just not in the way you think.

Contrary to popular belief, the main purpose of your first job isn’t to define your career but rather, set you on the right path towards attaining your second job — the job that you really want.

To reiterate, your first job is not a fixed destination; it’s a guide towards the next checkpoint which is your second job. 

Hopefully, throughout your tenure, you’re able to learn from both positive experiences and pain points to identify what you like and what you won’t tolerate.

By then, you’d have a better picture of what you want your work to be — whether it’s workplace environment, the scope of work, company beliefs and values, work-life balance etc. 

These reflections will grow you into a better employee and person overall. 

Don’t just settle for the first job you see

That said, it doesn’t mean that your first job is completely unimportant.

Your first job doesn’t need to be your definition of a perfect job, but at the same time, it shouldn’t be any random opportunity you come across. It should still be meaningful and beneficial to you. What do we mean by that?

It means your first job needs to value-add and provide you with experience that’ll be applicable to your future job applications. Simply hopping from job to job at random won’t benefit your resume insomuch as paints you as a listless job-hopper to employers.

As seen from Jane Horowitz’ Linkedin sharing, she spoke of a recent grad who hopped aimlessly across jobs without seeking purposeful or relevant experiences. Thus, he was on his fourth job in less than two and a half years despite gathering ample, but somewhat aimless experiences. In spite of knowing what he wants to do now and what he was capable of, he struggled to get interviews.

But, job-hopping isn’t necessarily bad.

Compare this approach with another fresh grad who enters their first job with specific learning goals in mind, picking up new (possibly cross-transferrable) skills, and building upon their current skillsets, it makes a world of a difference in getting hired for your desired position in future.

In order to achieve longevity in whatever you do, it needs to bring satisfaction or fulfilment to you in some way.

Read more:
Here are 7 Stable Jobs That Pay Surprisingly Well in Singapore 2022
Highest Paying Jobs in Singapore 2022
Guide to Starting Salaries in Singapore
Jobs Growth Incentive (JGI): The Complete Guide (2022)

How soon is too soon to leave your first job?

For some, it's one or two years but for others, it might be a matter of a few months (even before their probation is up). While there's no concrete timeline to discern when's a good time to quit your first job, there are some telltale signs.

  • Your growth has stagnated in the company
  • You no longer have a work-life balance
  • Your job has taken a toll on your physical and mental health
  • Your company is undergoing a retrenchment
  • Your skills are undervalued and you're underpaid

Nevertheless, a general rule of thumb is to always ensure you have a backup plan upon resigning.

Whether it's taking a break for a few months or receiving another job offer elsewhere, quitting your first job mindlessly without a contingency plan might be a recipe for disaster, especially if you don't have an emergency fund to tide you through unemployment.

If you're still not entirely ready to quit or want to give your job another go, refer to our resignation article for tips on negotiating within your job.

Building capital and earnings elsewhere

Earning money and doing what you love don’t always intersect. But, money is a tool (or means to an end) to support other passions in the meantime.

Just because you have a main job, doesn’t mean you can’t pursue something else on the side. Set up a small business or side hustle to generate alternative revenue streams

Relying solely on your main job to bring home the moneybags puts you in a vulnerable position. Especially in times of inflation, retrenchment and recession, it’s even more pertinent to diversify your income channels (just like a diversified portfolio).

Hence, these extra earnings not only provide you with a better peace of mind but also a greater avenue to fund your passion pursuits. Of course, the best case scenario would be if your passions are monetised and fund themselves.

Read more:
23 Best Business Ideas to Start in Singapore For Your Entrepreneur’s Journey
How to Prepare For a Recession: 11 Things You Shouldn’t Do
6 Alternative Investments to Diversify Your Portfolio

One job, one experience, and one career at a time

Where you go is not who you’ll be. Drown the noise outside and tune in to what’s resonating on the inside. Just because a job looks outstanding on paper, doesn’t mean it’ll make an ideal career for you. 

Experiences open new career possibilities and pathways for you, facilitating you with options in the long run. 

And don’t worry if you feel underqualified for job roles, more often than not, workplaces tend to value experience over defined skillsets. Why? Because skills can be taught and developed over time whereas experience is invaluable.


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School Didn’t Teach Me: Which is More Important — Education vs. Experience?
School Didn’t Teach Me: How to Talk Money When Talking About Career Aspirations
School Didn’t Teach Me: How to Negotiate Salary in 2022

With a minor problem of ‘itchy fingers’ when it comes to checking out at flash deals and sales, Emma is on a lifelong journey to understand what being financially independent in adulthood means. That said, her inner child is still very much alive… with animals and gaming (especially Pokémon) being her weak spot.