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Career Advice: Learn to Pivot

When you select an employer, I hope you are looking at all the potential benefits.  While the FI family is currently well compensated at this point in our careers, it wasn’t always that way. Over the years we learned there’s more to choosing an employer than just the salary offer.

History lesson: Both FI Girl and I went to a business school and selected a degree mostly on the propaganda our school marketed regarding the average starting salary of graduating students.  We started college in 1999 when anything computer related was super-hot.  While the starting salary for an Accountant was around $30K, the starting salary for a Computer Information Systems (CIS) Analyst was closer to $75K. The latter was the highest starting salary of all the degrees offered at our school at that time.

We didn’t subscribe to the whole “follow your passion” thing. We went for what the market was willing to pay for at that time. We both selected CIS as our degree. 

In addition to the school marketing the average starting salaries, they also marketed the correlation of starting salary to GPA.  Students with the best degrees with near perfect GPAs were coming out with $100K starting salaries.  So naturally we did not have the typical college “work hard, play hard” experience.  It was more like:

“Work hard, work harder”

Then there was the Master’s program propaganda filling our heads.  “A Masters is the new Bachelor’s degree” they said.  So we signed up for their dual degree program, and you guessed it, we went with the combo with the greatest marketability.

The problem with this is that when you are making these selections, you are assuming that the market is going to be the same in FOUR YEARS.  Many of you know how all of this ends…  The dot com bubble burst and IT folks that were recently “downsized” or “outsourced” with 5 to 10 year’s experience were willing to take the entry level positions of newly graduated students; the same jobs we were going for as new graduates.  It was a fiercely competitive market which drove down salaries for the few positions that were available.

So there we were in 2003, a fresh new degree in CIS, new bills racking up for our master’s program, extremely high GPAs and no prospects after sending out several hundred customized resumes and cover letters.

So what did we do? We took internships.  The other intern in the Financial Services Company I landed at was 27 and hustling his way back into the industry after losing his last job. All the while I was still applying non-stop to find a permanent IT job with benefits and FI Girl was networking and marketing herself internally at the firm she was working for (She literally carried resumes and handed them out).  I had tunnel vision though, only thinking of using my IT degree to get an IT job.  It wasn’t until a meeting with my mentor at school that things changed for me.

He said “You are more versatile than your degree.  You went to a BUSINESS school; apply for work in a BUSINESS capacity.  There is this thing called Sarbanes Oxley that is creating a huge demand for Finance and Accounting folks…”

Oh and the best advice he gave me was the day he told me to…

“Get in the back door if the front door is closed.”

So I started casting my net towards other types of business related jobs and landed myself an Accounting job at a Defense company.  Ugh…. and only making $40K a year (my high GPA got me an above average starting salary for the time).  The only reason I was able to negotiate that high was that my hourly rate as an intern in IT converted to that base.

BUT I didn’t focus on just the base.  This company had a benefit that was extremely attractive to me.  They offered generous education reimbursement which I qualified for.  They paid $15K a year of my master’s program, effectively giving me a starting salary of $55K.  In addition they also had 401K matching and decent health insurance.

Increasing debt is terrible, avoiding it is amazing.

If I stuck to IT during I would have been eating the graduate degree costs myself and paying for my own health insurance and not getting matching of a 401K plan (aka Free Money!).  Sure I’d be in my “field” but once again I only selected CIS based on the potential earning potential and had no true attachment to it.

In both of our cases, we took a risks and went in to fields outside our domain for the chance of working towards a better future. Had we not looked outside the box and been open to different possibilities, we would have taken on a lot more debt. Instead of only looking at the salary offer, we took in to consideration all benefits the companies and positions had to offer. 

So what’s the lesson in all of this? The market changes. Don’t let past choices dictate how you fit into that new market.  Even if you work hard and are driven you also need to be able to adapt to changes; Learn to pivot. When looking at a job opportunity don’t solely base your decision on the salary offer. Look at the big picture. There might be more there than you ever expected.

Has there ever been a time where it took you longer to realize there were more opportunities than you were allowing yourself to see?

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