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Millennials shouldn’t treat their careers like lottery tickets

Bram Belzberg started his career at Goldman Sachs, before earning an MBA from Harvard Business School. He became CEO and chairman of education software maker KEV Group in 2009 at 29 years old.

When I graduated from McGill University with a degree in psychology, I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I think the vast majority of new grads are in the same position.

For millennials, the choice can be even tougher. The job market is changing, and employment is uncertain. Startups are offering big perks to attract young, cheap talent. Stock options, a laidback culture, a flat organizational structure, and a clear path to upper management. These jobs are everywhere, especially in big cities.

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If you're in your early 20s and just starting your career, you probably shouldn't take them.

I get why joining a startup is attractive. They can be exciting, and the pay can be pretty good. A small percentage of people will pick the right opportunity, collect stock options, and become millionaires before they're 30. It's like winning the lottery.

But, like the real lottery, most people don't win, and they end up worse off than they were before.

The majority of startups are going to go bust. That's a fact. And if you've invested everything in a company that no longer exists, you may find yourself un-hirable when you start looking for your second job.

The first reason is that your résumé is worthless. When you come out of school, you have a little bit of cachet, even if you don't have any experience. You're educated! You're idealistic! You work hard! This is your chance to get your foot in the door and start building your résumé. If you spend the next two years at a startup that goes bankrupt, all you'll have on your résumé is a company that no one has ever heard of, with phone numbers and e-mail addresses that no longer exist.

You'll also miss out on important experience. Large companies – such as banks and consulting firms and established tech outfits – understand how to bring along new graduates. They've been developing the best way to do so for decades. They have full-time employees who only think about developing young staff into future managers. Their programs work. They teach you important skills, they teach you how the professional world operates, and they teach you how to network. It takes a lot of time, energy, and focus to create these programs.

The startup you're considering probably doesn't have an human resources department, let alone a training program. You'll end up doing grunt work, whatever falls to the bottom of the pile. And when you go in to your next interview, you'll have no relevant experience, a skewed sense of the business world, and salary expectations well beyond what you're worth. You've not only wasted a couple of years of your career, you're now in a worse position than you were before.

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So most startups won't make you rich, they won't teach you what you need to know, and they won't help you further your career. But what if you want to start your own company one day?

Generally, successful startups need three things: a great idea, a reliable funding network, and strong leadership. Most startups don't have a full management team, and the managers they do have probably won't have time to mentor you. You also won't be building a network of peers who can help finance your startup one day. If you have a great idea, it will still be there when you've learned how to develop it into a business. If you really want to get the experience of working at a startup, do it when you've developed your career and built a safety net in case it fails.

Some people come out of school knowing exactly what they want to do. That's great. Work hard, put in your time, and achieve your goals. But there aren't any shortcuts in building a career. When you're ready to move on from your first job, you should have a clear idea of what you want to do next, with a foundation of skills and experience in place. You don't want to be left holding only a losing lottery ticket.

Executives, employees, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

Gordon Moore’s idea was that the power of the microprocessor would double every two years Special to Globe and Mail Update
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