Thanks for reading our Gen Y money blog, where a recent grad chronicles her real-life journey to becoming a financially independent adult.
Any recent college or university graduate will tell you that landing an entry-level job these days is a task and a half.
Running the downhill sprint to graduating with my English degree, a mound of student debt barrelling behind me, I succumbed to the "take what you can get" advice and pivoted in the "get a job fast" direction. During my final months of university, I registered on every corporate career portal on the Internet and fired off my resume in every direction in the hopes of hitting the "real job" target.
Disheartened and frustrated by a steady stream of generic corporate rejection emails – seriously, do they even look at the custom applications that take hours to put together? – you can imagine my relief when I managed to land an interview with a start-up marketing agency. The company, which promised unlimited games of Ping-Pong and (more importantly) free team lunches, sounded like it would be a great introduction to the marketing and communications industry.
Miraculously, I was hired on the spot.
I accepted the job with barely a blink. I didn't care that there would be a six-week unpaid "internship evaluation" period. I didn't care that my starting salary was barely over four figures. I didn't even care that I would be working alongside the COO's yappy office Chihuahua day in and day out. My classes ended on Friday and the position started the following Monday – I had become a rare breed, a new graduate with a real job!
I was in precarious financial territory, draining the last of my student funds to pay for the rent. But I figured that if I lived frugally, I could survive the unpaid six weeks. After all, what had university taught me if not how to live off of a $25-a-week grocery budget? In addition to the free lunches, the company also promised to pay for my monthly public transit pass. Justifying my lack of paycheque with my newfound wealth of work experience, I began the nine-to-five hustle.
As you've probably guessed, here's where the story turns sour. I quickly realized that this company was not a great place for a new grad trying to gain valuable industry experience.
Many of the client projects listed on the company's website had been done pro bono to build the company's reputation. Upper management continually used the "We're a start-up!" excuse for not paying their employees and breaking contracts. Moreover, instead of focusing on finding new clients and actually making a profit, they continued to grow their team of unpaid workers. They justified their expansion with empty promises of interested investors, saying that they'd need support when their first round of funding came in.
How did this company manage to attract any employees at all, you wonder? In retrospect, I've come to recognize a pattern with the company's growth strategy. Almost every new employee who walked through the door seemed to meet a set of unlisted requirements. They were either students or recent grads, had little professional experience and most discernibly, an uncanny air of desperation.
My daily tasks also distracted me from the company's overall dysfunctionality. I was primarily responsible for executing social media strategies for a small handful of clients, as well as assisting with the creation of sales decks for our CEO to pitch to potential partners and investors. With these sales decks came the hope of a large payout – in hindsight, I doubt many of them actually left the office.
I received a couple of partial payments that kept me hanging on, embarrassed that my entry into the workforce had turned into such a disaster. It didn't really sink in that I wasn't going to be receiving a full paycheque at all until about 10 weeks into the job, at which point, I put feelers back out into the job market again. After three and half months, I officially quit.
Recalling this situation still makes me feel like downing a double vodka martini. I willingly walked into that company's mess. It's easy to look back and see that I could have avoided it in the first place, but I was so blinded by post-grad anxiety and lack of experience that I didn't think I could find any better employment at the time – or at least any that would help kick-start my career.
As I moved forward from this experience – or rather, retreated back into the trenches of the job hunt – I learned that I needed a set of personal employment and salary standards.
I knew I couldn't afford an unpaid, full-time internship position. When asked in interviews about my salary expectations, I turned the question around and asked how much they anticipated paying for the position and then said I'd be comfortable in the higher end of that pay range. Most importantly, I ensured that I came out of interviews knowing whether or not I wanted to work for them, regardless of whether or not they wanted to hire me.
Job-hunting is brutal and discouraging. I can assure you, however, that working for a company that jeopardizes your financial situation is a lot worse.
I'm now happily employed at a digital marketing agency. I make enough to live in downtown Toronto and slowly hack away at my student debt. To my knowledge, the company that couldn't make payroll is no longer in business.