should I leave my first job if I’m not learning hard skills?

A reader writes:

I’m a recent grad who got my first professional job a few months ago as an assistant at a start-up company. I was hesitant at first about taking the job because the company is a start-up and didn’t seem very professional. I had some trouble, but things are getting smoother now.

However, I still feel that I should find another job and leave. I like this job, but I don’t think my boss or the company is right for me. But I am just a recent grad with no professional work experience. I didn’t do an internship in school (something I really regret now), so I don’t have any hard skills to market (I have a liberal arts degree). I’m treating my stint here as kind of a paid internship where I can learn skills like how to maneuver the workplace and communicate with your boss. But I’m actually not learning hard skills at this company and I’m worried that my experience here won’t help launch my career. Because it’s a start-up company, everything is very unstructured and they’re not equipped to train people. However, as a recent liberal arts grad, it’s really hard for me to find a job that’s not making lattes or waiting tables.

What do you think I should do? Continue to work here even though I don’t feel I’m advancing anywhere or gaining new skills, or leave this company and try to find another suitable entry-level job (which is extremely unlikely)? I wanted to work here for a few months to gain some experience, but I’m worried that I’m not learning any new skills to put on my resume so it’s just wasted time.

Hmmm. I’m not sure I’m seeing your logic here.

If I’m understanding correctly, you’ve been there a few months, realize that you’re lucky to have found a job without any experience in this economy, think it’s extremely unlikely that you’d be able to find a better position, and yet still want to leave because you feel you’re not learning anything. But where’s the logic in wanting to leave a job because you’re not learning anything if you’re confident that you’ll end up in another job where you’re also not learning anything?

But that aside, this might be the more important point to think about: You’re no longer in school. It’s not your employer’s responsibility to ensure that you’re learning things; you’re there to get a job done for them. Most people’s jobs actually aren’t about learning hard skills, per se. They’re about earning a living.

That said, it’s true that in the best jobs, you’ll also be growing professionally, and good employers do make sure that good employees get professional development opportunities. But those usually come after you’ve worked a lot longer than a few months. In fact, a few months is nothing. You can start complaining about lacking professional development after a year, at the earliest.

Plus, because you didn’t do any internships in school, this job is actually serving a very helpful purpose in your professional development. You are learning things in this job — as you pointed out, you’re learning how to operate in a workplace. That’s an enormously important and crucial skill. It’s also one of the main things (if not the main thing) that most people learn in their first year of work. So I’d guess that you’re actually learning plenty here. It might not match up with the type of learning you were used to in school, but that’s going to be true in most jobs … and in fact, I wonder if your idea of what you should learn in a job is off-base because you’re expecting it to be like school, when it almost never will be from this point forward.

One more thing to realize: You’re getting work experience to put on your resume, which is essential — especially since you don’t yet have any there. Leave now, and you’ll have no work experience except a three-month stay at a job that you left early. On the other hand, stay for a couple of years, learn more about how your organization works, start contributing at higher levels (which will generally happen over time — but it does take time), and you’ll be a much more competitive candidate at the end of it.

Look at it as work, not as school, and see if you don’t feel differently about it.

{ 91 comments… read them below }

  1. Anon*

    +1 to Alison’s answer. Also, a start-up is a GREAT place to develop skills because they need jack-of-all-trades – you’d probably learn a lot if you can reach out to new people at your company and ask how you can help.

    1. EM*

      +1 to this. Small, flexible companies are great places to develop skills outside your formal role and find out what you are interested in. Offer to pitch in on projects, or if the company is new and still getting its footing, it’s a good time to contribute: offer to set up a newsletter, or assist with social media, or do something else that you’re interested to learn about.

      1. HAnon*

        If you’re a go-getter who’s not afraid of tacking on some additional responsibility on occasion, use the fact that you’re working in an unstructured (start-up) to your advantage. Start taking part in company initiatives (volunteer for projects), get noticed, keep track of things you’re participating in or spear-heading so you can put this information on a resume — or at least discuss it in an interview. “Here’s how I went above and beyond the job description to make a real solid contribution to the company in my current role” is much more compelling for future interviewers than “Here’s how I did the bare minimum to earn a paycheck every day.” It’s much easier to identify these kinds of opportunities in a start-up because they’re growing so fast, it’s easy to find opportunities to shine.

        1. HAnon*

          Adding to this…taking part in initiatives = don’t be annoying about it by pointing out everything that can be “improved” at the company to your manager…it can be as simple as devising a new way of keeping track of information or making that info accessible, etc. You’ll be able to identify opportunities as they present themselves.

      2. johhny*

        Well it depends

        I work for a small bio supply company and i am their west coast rep(head office is on the east coast). I was originally hired to do admin work half the month while I was in the head office and the other half of the month i was visiting our customers.

        The problem I have with the work is the large amount of travel. I travel 2 weeks out of the month(at least) with weekends spent away. Also since I started, i manged to pick up the sales and now I do not do the admin portion of the work. Whenever I am back in the home office, all i do is perform cold calls and set up meetings for my following sales trip.

        I feel that i am pigeonholed and that with the unscheduled travel I cant take classes or volunteer in order to learn new skills.

        I thought about moving to the west coast, but i would still be going around to different cities 2 weeks out of the month.

    2. COT*

      Exactly. A small workplace with a lot of unmet needs is a great place to make yourself indispensable. Given your description of the culture, there is probably a lot of freedom to take risks, try new initiatives, and take on tasks outside of your job description. With that kind of outlook, you may find all sorts of learning opportunities. Start keeping track of those above-and-beyond accomplishments and you’ll have an impressive list for future job hunts. This is your chance to shine–so do it!

      Now, perhaps you’ve discovered that you prefer a more structured, consistent workplace with clear guidance and expectations. Start-ups aren’t for everyone, not even close. I’d still stick it out for at least a year before you start looking elsewhere. In the meantime try to be grateful for the learning opportunity and chance to find out what kind of workplace culture you prefer.

    3. Chinook*

      I agree that you need to stick around this company. Start ups are a great place to learn skills becausethey truly need a jack-of-all-trades. In fact, I wonder what it is that you are doing there if you are not learning anything, especially since you are new to the work world. I always learn something new in a job and it usually is in the first few months.

      Maybe the difference between you and me is that you are expecting someone to teach you? In any job, you are responsible for your own learning. If you don’t know how to do something, ask or google it. If you feel like you are not doing anything productive, ask your supervisor if what you are doing is important and, if not, what else you can help out with (and if you are, even if you aren’t learning anythign new, keep doing it because you never know when they will see you as a hardworker and they are willing to move you on to bigger and better things.)

      Even if all you are doing is running errands or making coffee, you can still find ways to make yourself more efficient so that you are available to take on more.

    4. FreeThinkerTX*

      +1000 My first job out of college was at a startup. I was hired as “just” a front-desk receptionist. In the three years I was there, however, I ended up doing the jobs of Office Manager, Executive Assistant, Accounts Payable Clerk, Event Coordinator, and IT Systems Manager (which I learned to do by reading stacks of user & admin manuals). I just kept looking around to see what needed to be done next. . . and then did it.

      When I eventually quit to move back to my home state, they had to hire three people to replace me and I was given a very thick, very expensive, 18K gold necklace as a going-away gift. Twenty years later, I still miss that “unstructured” environment! Semi-organized chaos is a great place to define yourself.

    5. Riki*

      Exactly! I work at a start up now and worked at another start-up a few years ago. Disorganized? Yes! Open, creative atmosphere? Also yes! In my experience, start-ups are great places to expand your horizons. The business is new and chances are the founders are really open to new suggestions and ideas. If the company lacks structure or proper on-boarding/training for new hires and you have some idea on how to change that, then speak up. Are you interested in a area of the business that you’re currently not involved in? Offer to help out with that department’s projects. Make the lack of structure work for you!

  2. Ruffingit*

    “…and good employers do make sure that good employers get professional development opportunities” should be “make sure that good EMPLOYEES get professional development opportunities.”

  3. Forrest*

    The hardest thing about transiting from college to a job is learning how to play the long game. In college, five months is long enough to learn about American History or art history or whatever. Point is, your goal is achieved fairly quickly.

    But at a job, you’re committing to several years before you can achieve your goal. Its hard to get used too.

    1. Lynn*

      Add me to the chorus of “hang on”. It’s normal even for experienced people to still feel a bit at sea at the 3-month mark with a new company (ask me how I know). Work is more long-term and more about getting things done than school, which is broken into semesters and is focused entirely on keeping you maximally challenged.

      Look around for things you can help with at work, or ask your manager for other things you can take on, if you really can’t fill your days. At a start-up, there ought to be plenty to do. At this stage, any experience in your industry = good experience, even if some of it isn’t hugely intellectually challenging. It is normal, though, for work to be less learning learning learning all the time than school was.

  4. Ruffingit*

    Alison’s advice is spot on. I’d also say that if you want to be learning “hard skills,” consider finding a volunteer opportunity you can do on weekends or at night that will contribute to your professional growth. If there’s a field you’re wanting to enter, join the professional organizations for that field, take seminars in that field, get a certificate in that field, etc.

    You can make your own opportunities for professional growth, those don’t have to come from your paid employment.

    1. VictoriaHR*

      This is what I was going to suggest also. For example, I’m in HR so I attend all of the conferences and seminars offered locally by my local SHRM chapter. And I will be volunteering for them at some point also. I’ve taught resume workshops with the local unemployment division, and will be doing a veteran career fair volunteer gig next month also. It’s up to me to make sure my career keeps moving forward, not my company.

  5. AB*

    Yes, I agree that the advice was spot on.

    The lack of logic of the question also jumped at me.

    “But I’m actually not learning hard skills at this company and I’m worried that my experience here won’t help launch my career. ”

    ” However, as a recent liberal arts grad, it’s really hard for me to find a job that’s not making lattes or waiting tables.”

    So, how would leaving this job after a few months, with no other experience, and almost no chance of landing a “career launching job”, help your situation?

  6. Joey*

    In most professional environments you’re expected to figure most things out on your own. People who wait to be formally trained on everything get left behind.

    Pay attention to what’s going on around you, figure out how to do the things you don’t know how to do by watching people, asking sme’s, and finding resources on your own and you’ll learn a ton.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      Yes to this! I was part of a startup and I used to think not having a formal training program was a downside, but 12 years later (we’re still here!) I see the huge value in having to figure out most stuff on my own. Part of my job back then was to write the procedures we still use today and, BOY, was that a valuable experience!

    2. Mike C.*

      Yes, having people self train on safety compliance, industry regulations, US export controls and so on sounds like an amazingly bad idea. Nothing worse than some jerk who thinks s/he’s a “go-getter” fail miserably and expose the company to significant liability or get someone hurt.

      1. Meg*

        It didn’t seem like that was the type of job the OP has, though. I’ve seen you make multiple references to these types of jobs, where people’s lives and well-being are on the line. That may be your field, but my guess is that’s not the OP’s, and in fact, she does have the kind of job where she can self-train on different systems and take it upon herself to develop her “hard” skills.

        Speaking as an admin (and the OP’s post and subsequent comments lead me to believe this is an administrative job), taking it upon yourself to tackle projects or work on new ways to streamline existing processes can immensely increase your value to a company.

      2. Jamie*

        That’s where it’s incumbent upon the company to make sure people have the required formalized training when required.

        Sure, I expect the receptionist to try to figure out how to make the copy machine staple and collate before asking for training – but for bigger stuff like ISO procedures, lock out/tag out, other safety procedures…there had better be training before you’re even allowed to attempt things on your own. And training according to clearly defined protocols which is documents on the training form with dates and sigs in HR.

        So in the things you mentioned, Mike, I’m completely with you and I’ve asked to see training records for new employees. I’d even expand it to the ERP and file libraries, etc. I don’t want someone “self-training” on the system and making a mess I need to clean.

        But there are some instances where people can try to learn on their own. The rule of thumb is that it only applies to those instances where if they really screw up it’s easily fixed and no one gets hurt.

  7. A nony cat*

    This could have been me a few years ago. Although, I actually did graduate college with some experience–I did one career-related internship, had a part time office job, and did lots of (loosely) career-related volunteer work.

    It’s true that it’s not your employers responsibly to teach you like in school. But that said, in a good first job, you will be learning a lot. An advantage of working at a start up is that you might get to take on more responsibility sooner than you otherwise would. But the downside is that you might end up working at a place that it incapable of teaching you about the norms for your industry (because they don’t necessarily follow these norms).

    Keep your eyes open for other positions. If you see something that looks like a good fit, apply! There’s no reason that having a job should keep you from looking for better opportunities. But continue to put most of your energy into your current job, and try to find ways to create opportunities to learn (still if your company would be willing to send you to free/cheap training in your area, for example). When you start closing in on a year at your current company, if you still fee that you aren’t learning as much as you could be elsewhere, start putting more energy into your job search.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The problem, though, is that given what’s in the letter, I don’t think the OP is able to judge if she’s learning an appropriate amount or not — I’d say she should stick it out there for 2 years, period, to get some job history, unless there are truly serious problems there (which, again, I’m not sure she’s equipped to assess at this stage). I think that will serve her better than having to explain no internships in college and already looking to leave after only a short term at her first post-college job.

      1. AB*

        Not to mention, the OP could eventually find another job and, not having much experience to evaluate the opportunity, take it only to realize it’s a dead-end job with terrible management. *Then* she would be in big trouble, having to explain wanting to leave after only a short term in a second job, or getting stuck with a bad job for 2+ years just to avoid looking like a job hopper.

      2. The IT Manager*

        There is a lack of specifics in the letter, but I get the impression the LW doesn’t actually understand what to expect from a job. Unanswered questions : what kind of start up? what kind of “hard skills” are you looking for? What kind of career are you trying to be launched into?

        Not to offend assistants everywhere, but I don’t think of an assistant position (as in office assistant) as needing a lot of hard skills. There are a ton of soft/office/people skills you can learn, though, that are probably relevent to to any professional enviroment.

        Hard fact: If you are trying to move into a career that has specific hard skillset that you didn’t learn in school, you may be out of luck in this hiring enviroment with so many more applicants than opening. Depending on these “hard skills” you may need to pick these up on your own to make yourself marketable.

        Frankly a start-up with an informal atmosphere offers you a much better chance of getting stretch experience than a more formal, structured work enviroment.

        1. NutellaNutterson*

          I don’t know what hard skills the OP is looking for, either. But for my money, admin work takes a lot of skills that can really only be learned on the job. 40 line main phone that can NEVER go to voicemail? check! Negotiating the takeout lunch location for eight execs that all want to feel that their choice was best? Check!

          A few years in to the “real world” and I realized that the lower you are on the ladder, the harder the job is on a day-to-day basis. The higher you are on that ladder, the harder the job gets in terms of long-term planning and managing. And it IS a ladder – you have to have learned those lower ‘rungs’ in order to have a solid footing as you move up.

          1. Stephanie*

            “A few years in to the “real world” and I realized that the lower you are on the ladder, the harder the job is on a day-to-day basis. The higher you are on that ladder, the harder the job gets in terms of long-term planning and managing.”

            This is an excellent description!

            1. Jessa*

              Not to mention the longer you are on the job the more they ‘ll give you /teach you. They don’t do that right away. They wait til you’ve proven yourself to them also.

              1. Anonymous*

                I am a seasoned employee – depending on the company, it’s all about the company. I work in the mortgage world and if I had gotten out of college and found myself worried so soon after starting I would have jumped ship and depended on my own strengths to make a happy living – it’s not the employer- they would as soon pop u off than keep u- lesson to the wise- ethics, knowledge and belief in yourself is needed at the start gate.

  8. Sascha*

    It would be helpful to know what sort of hard skills the OP has in mind.

    Also, in my experience in hiring, I am far more attracted to demonstrated soft skills than I am to hard skills. Soft skills like professionalism, the ability to think creatively, being efficient with in communication, taking initiative, willingness to adapt, etc. I can teach anyone the tools I’m using in a short time, so I don’t really care if you know my tools or not. I’ve hired people who have less experience in my line of work because I saw that they were intelligent and capable, over people who had more years of hard skills, but did not give me the impression they were professional or adaptable.

    1. LMW*

      I’m with Sascha on this. Soft skills are so important and this early time in your career, when you have less responsibility and less riding on the line (i.e., you’re newer, and it’s more acceptable for you to make mistakes and learn), now is when you should really get those soft skills down. Things like developing the habit of a solid work ethic (you don’t just do the bare minimum and sit there, you actively seek out ways to do more and use your work time most completely), time management, prioritization — now’s the time to get those down, so when you move up from entry level and the work is more intense, you can make a better transition

    2. fposte*

      That was my question too–what specific hard skills are we talking about? Or are we talking a general feeling that there should have been more hard skills involved at this point? If it’s specific hard skills, then see if you can launch yourself at them–learn Excel, do a test run on InDesign, ask if you can be involved on the next proposal, whatever. If it’s not specific hard skills, then I think it’s an expectation problem rather than a workplace problem. Barista is a job rich with hard skills, after all, but it sounds like those aren’t the skills you want. And as Sascha notes, most growth is soft-skills stuff–developing, managing, creating, curbing, delivering. Pay attention to those and make sure you’re moving along your learning curve there; if so, realize that those are the skills that will benefit you even after a software upgrade kills your mad skillz.

      1. Anonymous*

        Exactly what I was thinking too. The OP should identify what exact skills she thinks she is lacking, and then (as someone mentioned upthread), try to volunteer or otherwise develop them. A lot of the skills and capabilities you will need at particular jobs are taught when you’re trained there – how their quarterly reports are done, etc. If you have more general competences in writing and analysis, then you should be able to pick up what you need to know for a specific job once you are hired there. But if you think you need particular software skills or something, then seek out a way to obtain them.

    3. Rindle*

      Agreed. I heard Gail McGovern (American Red Cross) speak about the importance of hiring the right people, and one thing she said really stuck with me. She said she looks for candidates who are “smart and nice.” Other skills, excepting the most technical skills, can be taught and learned on the job. But you can’t teach someone to be smart or nice. It’s obviously a bit reductive, but it’s a good sound byte and it made a lot of sense to me.

      1. AP*

        I once heard the head of hiring at Nordstrom say – “We can teach a nice person how to sell, but we can’t teach a great sales person how to be nice. Their parents train them, we just hire them.” (or something to that effect)

        I loved that because it’s so true, but overlooked. But especially in public-facing jobs – there are so many soft skills that you have hire for and it’s very hard to train people on.

        1. The gold digger*

          In “Good to Great,” the author asked a steel mill company why it was locating its new factory in a small farm town instead of Pittsburgh or another steeltown.

          The company said that farmers get up early and work hard and don’t complain and that it’s a lot easier to teach people to make steel than to teach them a good work ethic.

          A Marine drill instructor said much the same thing: that it wasn’t the Marine training that created a good Marine but that the Marines picked good people and trained them.

    4. tcookson*

      Yes, soft skills are so important in keeping people happy that they hired you. Our front desk receptionist recently left to go to seminary; her “hard” work skills were fine, but her “soft” skills were of the kind that simply cannot be replaced. People loved her. Our new receptionist is actually better at the actual work part of the job, she has some personality quirks that rub a lot of people the wrong way. I’m not saying that good soft skills can replace doing a great job, but most people would rather work with someone pleasant who does a fairly good job than with someone annoying who does a somewhat better job.

      1. Sascha*

        It’s good to point out the balance. Obviously I’m not going to hire anyone that has great soft skills but a terrible dearth of hard skills (like can’t send an email). You want that balance. A great employee has both, but the reason I hire someone with better soft skills is because they are so much harder to develop. Also, soft skills are usually developed on your own. Not many people can or will train for soft skills. A good mentor (whether a coworker, a boss, or someone outside the job) is wonderful for this.

        1. The IT Manager*

          I’m am now confused by what you mean by hard and soft skills. Sending an email is a soft skill. Anyone should be able to do it. It’s something you can learn on your own or as a child growing up. The same goes for basic word processor and power point skills. You pick those up creating documents and presentations in elementary school, high school, and college the same way anyone in the work force is expected to able to read and write and do basic math. If someone lacks those skills, they can find a job but a they have a much smaller set to choose from.

          Hard skills – job/industry specific – writing code, developing marketing plan, designing web sites, database management, complicated Excel magic (like Pivot tables)

          1. FreeThinkerTX*

            I think people use “hard skills” to mean something that can be measured or quantified, and “soft skills” to mean things that are more nebulous and hard to define. So sending an email would be a hard skill, i.e., you can measure whether someone knows how to do it or not. But the *content* of the email – how someone says something and/or interacts with other people – is a soft skill because the writer of the email needs to understand her audience and know how best to phrase something for the reader of that specific email. What works for a co-worker might not work for a customer. But the actual typing and sending of the email? Yeah, that’s a measurable hard skill.

          2. Jamie*

            They are using hard in the sense of concrete – measurable – it’s not about degree of difficulty.

            Sending an email is a hard skill in that you can objectively measure whether or not someone is capable of doing it and you can ask them to do it in an interview and they can prove it.

            The soft skills (which have a lot of overlap but will vary by position somewhat) are the things you can’t really train for and aren’t easily measurable. How likable you are, how easy you are to work with, how gracefully you handle conflicting priorities, the ability to diffuse tension and keep everyone on track.

            Can you get stuff done, keep people on task, hold them to high standards without alienating people? Can you manage people properly so business needs are being met while still treating them like people and not losing your compassion even when the hard conversations must be had?

            Those are some of the invaluable soft skills people need, but employers can’t train for.

            Hire for that which can’t be taught is a good rule of thumb for entry level positions.

      2. Cassie*

        For the faculty that I work with, I think it’s the opposite. Everyone (especially faculty) has their little quirks – as long as the work gets done, they don’t care if the person is super friendly and nice.

        This is opposite from what I’ve heard from some of the staff members (including supervisors/managers) – they want friendly people who stop by for a five-minute chat each morning and ask how their weekend was. Anything less than that gets the subordinate in question labeled as “weird” and “anti-social”.

        So for me – professionalism is super important. “Friendly” is not, because it is more subjective (yes, professionalism is also a subjective term but I think it’s less so…?).

        1. Jamie*

          I agree with this – people absolutely have very different ideas of what the minimum level of friendly is for an office.

          It also really depends on the position. I spend 90% of my job sitting alone in my office at my keyboard. As long as I’m pleasant when I do see people it doesn’t matter if I’m perky all day long. A receptionist needs different soft skills, they need to be sunny most of the time – to everyone from co-workers to customers to vendors. If it’s your main job to make people feel welcome, either via phone or front desk, you need to be able to handle interruptions with a smile more than say an IT who is holed up in her cave and I can absolutely expect people to wait until I’m done with whatever I’m doing that’s making me frowny – until I look up.

          1. CEMgr*

            We once had a very glum receptionist who would sit at the front desk with her head hanging down most of the time. Or whispering darkly with what sounded like her boyfriend. She did not have enough work to keep her busy since our company was quite small at the time. The area was also shadowy and the overall impression was: Gloom and Doom Central.

            She was smart and did a great job on small projects….I’ve never seen that high level of Excel skill in a receptionist before or since. Almost as good as me and overall, very organized too.

  9. SCW*

    I think what the OP needs is just some perspective on what she is learning and how this can help her down the line. I think it is hard when we are in a situation to see how it might eventually work in a longer term perspective of a career–particularly when you are starting out. I started out with part time jobs in my field, took various paraprofessional jobs, and took my first professional job across the country in a job where I felt like I had taken a big step backwards from where I was–I didn’t think I was learning what I needed, and felt the place was kind of crazy. But when I look back, I did learn a lot, and was able to use the job to move on to bigger and better things. It took me three years at my first job to learn, even though I didn’t feel I was learning enough.

    OP, one thing I’ve done before in jobs is to make a list of the things that I do or could do, and keep a list of any special projects. Sometimes I’ve felt like I don’t get much done, but when I sit down and list everything, it really helps. Also look out for projects going on at your workplace that you are interested in and see if you can get involved or at least learn more. An assistant is well placed to get involved in a lot of things, which can help you figure out what direction you want to go in!

    1. Sascha*

      That is a good idea, and it’s also helpful for when you are working on your resume.

  10. FSP*

    If you want to learn and develop many skills that will launch your career, a start-up is ideal, especially a disorganized start-up. Why don’t you figure out where and how you can best help them get organized and become an invaluable employee. Ultimately it will likely lead to meeting others in the industry that become your network for future jobs.

  11. JaneJ*

    The fact that this company is unstructured can be a big plus. If you work hard and focus on demonstrating solid skills, it may be easy for you to move up (in a year or two). In more established companies departments can be saturated and positions full. I started after school in an unstructured company and was able to be promoted, essentially to a job I created for myself. Focus on doing your job to the best of your ability, go above and beyond when you can, and keep an eye out for un-met needs in the organization.

  12. Interviewer*

    Years ago I had a job as a receptionist for very quiet accounting firm, and I spent my down time teaching myself WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3. Came in pretty handy for my next 3 jobs! In my uptime, I also figured out how to show up on time every day, talk to clients on the phone, deal with co-workers, change the toner, use an adding machine, etc. Good times.

    Soft skills, I would beg you to consider, are ones that they NEVER teach in school, and ultimately make you a well-rounded employee. Get those down pat now, so they form a great foundation later on.

    The hard skills, especially with a liberal arts degree, come on a much longer timeline than you may realize. It’s not going to be there in 3 months. If you are bored, or not learning anything, maybe you can figure out how to expand your workload, how you can offer more to the company. Ask people if you can help them in your spare time, or ask them to train you on a particular task that seems to be swamping others. Be proactive in developing your role, rather than being reactive to assigned tasks. Don’t ever assume that your job is the only thing you can do at work.

    Good luck!

    1. Jamie*

      I am self-taught on tons of software gleaned from my early days of temping. Sitting at reception bored I learned whatever I could. It’s a great way to kill the time when you’re at a job without a lot going on.

  13. B*

    The first few months at the first job out of college you will think you are not learning a thing. I remember being stuck with mailing things and wondering how this would help me. So I tried to figure out why it needed to be done a certain way and also asked in a can you explain why this way (professionally to better grasp). At the time, it seemed ridiculous but when I was in charge and having to show someone else how to do it you bet I new every which way.

    My point is this. Sometimes you do not understand how something will be used down the road but in a bit of time you may.

  14. Sydney*

    Startups are a special type of company (similar to a non-profit),and not everyone is meant to be a part of one. You have a smaller budget, a smaller team and [usually] more responsibility. You get general directions from the boss(es) and you figure out how to make it happen. There’s no time for an in-depth walkthrough of every task, and there’s no time for professional development for professional development’s sake. The end goal of a startup is to hit the threshold where you aren’t a startup – the startup team is literally building a company from the ground up. That means the entire focus is to grow the company and make money. And you, as an entry-level Chocolate Teacup Designer, are vital because you are often an entire department (or two or three).

    You will learn A TON of things at this job, OP. But YOU have to take the initiative to learn things outside your immediate role. No one is going to hold your hand like they do in college, guiding you to professional development. There’s not enough time and resources to do that in a startup environment. If you want to learn hard skills (not sure what you mean by that, honestly), you need to learn them yourself or ask your boss for her help on a specific topic. She spends every working moment thinking about how to make her company grow…she is not thinking about ways to help you grow professionally. It’s your job to worry about your own professional development.

    Personally, I LOVE the startup environment because I am what you’d call a go-getter. I want to be presented with a problem, find a solution and be able to implement it and watch my project succeed (or fail, which sometimes happens and that’s [usually] okay). I am someone who wants to know everything about everything, which is impossible so I’ll settle for knowing as much as I can about as much as I can.

  15. Anonymous*

    My first very job there was actually no work for me to do. The employer even acknowledged that. There were no computers back then, so I couldn’t teach myself software and I was not allowed to reorganize the filing cabinets. I didn’t even have a desk. I was told to read a book until suitable work was found for me.

    OP, is this what you mean by not learning any skills? Or is it something different?

    1. Ruffingit*

      Wow, that is bizarre. What job was this that they hired someone for whom they had no work?

      1. Anonymous*


        I’m dead serious. I left after 11 months and the company eventually went bankrupt. The sad thing is, I believed this was how most engineering jobs were, so I left the field completely. I know now that I was wrong.

        1. Ruffingit*

          I’ll say it again – WOW!! But then, I can believe this because I once had a job that really should have been part-time. They made it full-time and would not change that even though there really wasn’t enough work on a daily basis for it to be 8 hours. It’s such a hassle to have to find things to do while you’re just sitting there, but they won’t allow you to read.

          The fact that the company you speak of went bankrupt is no surprise at all. They clearly were unable to plan long-term for hiring or anything else.

          1. voluptuousfire*

            Oh, yes. My first “professional” job was like that. I was an admin for a tiny, failing marketing firm and after doing a few projects, I essentially just waited for the phone to ring so I could answer it.

            1. The gold digger*

              I used to temp at the World Bank. I would sub for secretaries who were on vacation. What I learned was

              1. Do not bookmark your porn sites on your work computer
              2. Secretaries are expected to wash the strawberries for the retirement parties held on WB premises with brand-name liquor
              3. There was about two hours of work a day and the rest of the time, I was screaming bored, making me resent every penny of my taxes that goes to support the World Bank

    2. Ann O'Nonymous*

      I’m sort of in a position like that right now–not enough to do for 8 hours a day. I’ve tried everything: asking for more duties, volunteering to do specific projects…and they reject my offers b/c quite honestly, I don’t think they want the Suits to know there isn’t enough work here or position(s) might be eliminated.

      I’m not sure I totally agree with what Alison and a lot of folks are saying here. I took my present position specifically for professional development in a field in which I have no previous experience. It’s vital that I DO gain the experience/learn something before I attain an expensive master’s (which is necessary if you want to get anywhere in this field). My boss spends a lot of time loafing and talking about his hobbies. I mentioned it to a close relative to not only has the advanced degree in this field, but many years of experience (and a Ph.D. in another field). She said, “Your boss should be helping you/mentoring you, not bending your ear about his private life.”

      So I’m not sure “one size fits all” in the replies here.

      1. Ruffingit*

        I agree with you. There are times where the exception applies, not the rule. I have done some things in my work life that people say you shouldn’t do. I left two jobs with no advanced notice at all because they were abusive work environments. Turns out in both cases that it was the best thing I could have done because both businesses soon went down the drain and in one case, clients successfully sued the small business owners I was working for. I was glad not to have been there to be involved in that, it would have ruined my professional reputation in my field to be associated with it.

        So yes, I agree that one size does not fit all. In your case, I’d say go ahead and start looking for another position. It may be that you don’t even need to put this current position on your resume if you’ve not been there that long and it won’t create a big gap.

        Advice is just that – advice. Doesn’t mean everyone has to buy it wholesale. Sometimes only a few pieces fits the puzzle you’re trying to make so to speak. Only you can know what is and isn’t appropriate for your personal situation.

  16. periwinkle*

    Startups can be a huge learning experience. Chaotic? Yes. But you have the opportunity to wear a variety of hats while you’re there because they don’t have an immoveable organizational structure in place. You can work on marketing projects, negotiate with vendors, set up databases, figure out technical requirements, write white papers, develop and evaluate processes, work on budgets, etc. It’s a fabulous opportunity to discover your strengths while developing a list of accomplishments.

    Startups take chances. They took a chance on you despite your lack of experience, right? Time for you to take some chances too.

    “I wanted to work here for a few months to gain some experience, but I’m worried that I’m not learning any new skills to put on my resume so it’s just wasted time.”

    A few *months*? Please stop thinking in semesters.

    In school, someone else develops the curriculum from which you are taught. In the working world you develop your own curriculum from which you learn. Passive vs active.

  17. Op Here*

    Thank you for all the responses. It’s assuring to know that other people had similar experiences with questioning if their first jobs are helpful to them and also that I will learn more with time.

    Yes, I thought at first that a start-up would be great because I can be really involved in the company, so that’s why I decided to take the job despite my reservations. It turned out that there’s only a couple of people in the company besides me (including the boss). Anyway, after a while, I still feel that the company and the boss aren’t a good fit for me. The biggest problem is lack of direction. Because it’s a start-up, things aren’t set and structured, and my boss is too busy to give me direction on what to do. It’s a very unprofessional workplace — my boss doesn’t even have enough for me to do and have to scrounge up tasks. It’s clear that my boss doesn’t have a clear business plan or direction either, so we’re just muddling along. (I also wonder if my boss can afford to meet payroll after a while knowing their circumstances and state of the company.)

    Anyway, I question whether I should stay here because I’m just “muddling along” doing what the boss assigns me. The workload is light, because the boss really doesn’t have very much to give me! People would think I shouldn’t complain since I’m paid for easy tasks, but I worry because there isn’t really anything I can put on as a skill on my resume, and it would be embarrassing when I can’t answer in an interview what exactly were my responsibilities. Then they would wonder what exactly I did for three months, let alone a year if I stayed that long.

    I also tried to be proactive and contribute suggestions, but the boss is just too busy to handle those now and can’t just give me the go ahead for that. I actually got in trouble for overstepping boundaries, and my boss has clarified to me that they want me to turn to them when I run out of work so they can give me more instead of me looking for work myself. I think my boss thought I was trying to take over control when I offered to make a schedule for deadlines just so we have a sense of our progress since our projects ended up taking twice as long (because the company is disorganized and because my boss is too busy to complete her part). Anyway, this is why I feel like I’m just muddling along, and while I do feel I am learning how to operate in a workplace, I also feel that I could be learning more in a larger structured, organized company that already has a set way of doing things — and actually have work for me to do.

    1. Chrissi*

      That’s rough. I had a 3-month stretch in my first job that I had literally nothing to do because of an error that our parent company had made on the timeline of a project. They sent us over to other departments to help with busy-work, but most of the time I just sat at my computer. It was awful, and it doesn’t really help you create good working habits either.

      It sounds like this may be more of a problem of how/when to ask your boss for work than anything. You say that he is too busy to assign you work, but when he felt you overstepped that he wants you to come to him asking for more work, so clearly you need to ask him what to do. Maybe you could schedule a weekly/montly meeting with him to go over your workload and assign new tasks? I know you can’t force him to do what you want him to do though. Good luck!

    2. TRB*

      OP, I totally understand and have been through exactly what you are describing. I’m a very organized person and I absolutely hate confusion and disorder in the workplace. But I took a job at a start-up and I’m still here :) I also did not feel like a good fit at first (I mean really really really not a good fit) but it’s an ever-changing environment and I personally love it now.

      I did have internship experience and a previous job experience but was still at the junior level. I finally felt like I had real work and wasn’t just paper-pushing or doodling at around 6 months. It just depends on the company. I would just keep asking for work and also creating work for yourself that is within their boundaries. Is there anything that the other employees are doing that you are interested in? Can you ask them to show you what they do? It’s all about absorbing at this point if they can’t give you actual work.

      The problem that I had (and maybe with you too) was that the founders are so busy and just knew they needed more hands but not sure with what so they hired without thinking. I’d try to stick it out for another three months. They are still getting used to you and vice versa.

      1. Op Here*

        That is exactly the issue! My boss knew they needed help but didn’t really know with what. That’s why I actually don’t have specified duties or responsibilities. The boss just thought they’ll figure it out later after they’ve hired help.

        I’m looking forward to the point when I’ll have real work and not be “paper-pushing and doodling” like you say. :)

        1. Jane Doe*

          One other thing you can learn, aside from what people have mentioned about taking the time to learn new skills, is to watch out for environments like this during the interview (assuming you’re in a position where you have a choice) if you decide after sticking this out for a year or two that this still isn’t working for you.

        2. Chloe*

          That is very frustrating, to have nothing to do and the people around you are ‘too busy’ to tell you what to do. That is just bad management – there is no point hiring someone to keep a seat warm, and still not have time for a 30 minute conversation once a week. You need to be direct with your manager, to the point that you are saying “I need you to give me tasks to do, I have nothing to do”, or even, “yesterday I did not have anything at all to do”. But I’d personally also look for another job while you’re waiting for the current one to improve, because as much as its not great to job hop, there isn’t much point literally sitting around doing nothing, except for collecting a pay check. Its all very well to look at it as a job and not school, but if you are actually not doing anything at all, its not much of a job either.

    3. The IT Manager*

      Then I think the solution is not to quit, but start looking in case there is something better out there for you. And to be prepared if the company goes under shortly, which if it does, you a perfect explanation why your stay at the startup was so short.

      Also use that time with nothing to do to brush up on your resume and learn new skills which preferably may help your current company.

      I’ve been there. They weren’t ready for the new person. You can’t do anything without more training and they don;t have the time to train you so you feel like you’re killing time.

    4. LMW*

      That’s rough, when you’re stuck between running out of work and not being able to proactively pick up new tasks on your own. I’ve had a few of those types of jobs early in my career, and it’s annoying when you don’t actually have the power to be proactive. Have you talked to your boss about long-term goals and where he wants you to be 6-months in, 9 months in, a year in? Because even if that doesn’t result in you having more individual tasks to do, it might help provide a path for you to take on more, or at least give you some areas of online training you can pursue.

    5. Sydney*

      “I worry because there isn’t really anything I can put on as a skill on my resume, and it would be embarrassing when I can’t answer in an interview what exactly were my responsibilities. Then they would wonder what exactly I did for three months, let alone a year if I stayed that long.”

      What ARE you doing? What’s the position? Maybe we can help you come up with bullet points to explain your work a little better.

      I bet that your boss doesn’t quite trust you to handle your own projects and that’s why she hasn’t been keen on letting your leash out. When you finish your tasks, go back and ask for more. Rinse and repeat. You’ve only been there 3 months – you’re a smiling baby that can hold your head up. It’s not like you should be crawling and walking already.

      If you get to 6 months, you should have an increase in responsibilities – you should be able to do more work on your own than you were doing at 3 months. At 9 months, you should have more responsibilities. And so on.

      I work at a startup, and I just hired a recent communication grad to run our social media and blog. She’s been here for 2 months, and she doesn’t get to put ANYTHING out there without my approval first. She writes the content and sends it to me before it goes live. Once she’s established that she is capable of error-free work for a couple months, I’ll start to let the leash out a bit and she’ll get to post articles to our blog and social media profiles without running them through me first.

    6. Meg*

      I can completely understand your point, and it’s frustrating to have a boss that hinders you when you try to take initiative. I’ve dealt with similar situations and it’s not fun. However, considering the state of your resume right now (having one internship is barely enough these days, and none at all is something a hiring manager will definitely raise an eyebrow about), I’d still strongly recommend staying there for at least a year. It’s money in your pocket that can go to paying off that liberal arts degree, and it’s still work experience that helps fill out your resume and shows that you can hold a full-time job.

      Leaving a job because there’s no room for growth or not enough responsibility is completely understandable after a year or so. After three months, it comes across as being impatient and not understanding the concept of “paying your dues”. Take the free time you have and put it into creating an awesome resume, or other forms of professional development.

    7. Rana*

      Having had a few short-term jobs like this as a temp, you have my sympathy for the “not-enough-to-do” situation.

      However! This is an excellent opportunity for you to search out things to learn during the quiet times. So long as you make sure you always give full priority to the things your boss wants and needs you to do, you should be able to take advantage of having internet access and a computer and a dedicated workspace to learn other skills. Take an online course in Excel and learn about pivot tables, for example. Poke around in Word and test out every command it has and see what it does. Study foreign language vocabulary online. Research career fields and see what skills they do or do not need. And so on.

      Basically, treat the down times in your job as independent study, so that when you do move on, you leave with more skills and knowledge than you had going in, and can show future employers that even in a not-enough-work situation you’ll be productive and forward-thinking, rather than someone who just played video games the whole time.

    8. dejavu2*

      “I think my boss thought I was trying to take over control when I offered to make a schedule for deadlines….”

      This hurts my heart. If they’re not going to let you do stuff like that, then it makes it more difficult to make suggestions as to how to build your skill set. Still, I have a little advice. My first job out of college was a little bit as you’ve described this one: they never had enough work for me, the place was fairly disorganized, I got in trouble for taking initiative, etc. I spent a lot of my time teaching myself this horrific piece of software they had that no one understood. It was basically a database program. I eventually left that job to seek a position in an unrelated industry. Lucky for me, lots of industries use database software that no one understands. I also mastered everything in Microsoft Office, and Adobe Acrobat Pro. I ended up getting multiple job offers because I pitched myself as someone who can figure that stuff out, and who could help out the bewildered higher-ups. My BA was in something really only suited to living in a cardboard box, and had nothing to do with science or computers.

      My point is, learning software like that is a really good way to develop skills that will at least allow you to eventually move to, worst case scenario, a comparable position with an organized/functional employer that wants to invest in training you.

    9. SCW*

      One thing that Alison has previously suggested for the busy boss situation is to go to them with solutions. Say–I am out of work, but here are three projects that I can do that might help us, would you like me to work on one of these or something else? I find as a boss it can be tricky to be put on the spot with “do you have any projects right this very second I can do.”

  18. Ed*

    Unstructured jobs are the best unless your boss is a d-bag. My favorite kind of job is where they say nobody really held this position before me. I have no doubt that I will blow away their expectations. It’s about your personal skills, not specific tasks you learn on the job. A trained monkey can probably do a few simple tasks but it takes someone with common sense to examine the desired outcome and say “if we reverse tasks A and B, then C isn’t even needed anymore” or “I found a way to combine A, B and C into a single task and then automated it so it runs before we get into the office”. Managers LOVE that kind of stuff. How do you think its possible for roadies to end up as tour managers and people in the mailroom to end up as CEOs?

    From what you’ve written, it sounds like you’re making the classic mistake of only asking what the company can do for you. If the description of your job is correct, it sounds like they could get rid of you tomorrow and not miss a beat. In that situation, I would seriously be trying to figure out what I can offer the company. I’ve never had a job where my manager wasn’t almost immediately happy she hired me because I made a clear impact. After I establish myself and prove what I can do, only then do I ask myself what the company is doing for me.

  19. MrsKDD*

    OP, I am a liberal arts graduate and I can assure you, I thought my first professional position after university was completely pointless for the first few months. However, once I was there for a few months and took every opportunity to develop and grow my role (read: taking on additional work, with the approval of my manager, that belonged to other departments), I met managers in other areas, and my position became more meaningful to both myself and the organization. Not only did this add to my resume, but it taught me the skills necessary to be successful in an office that weren’t necessarily taught in classes. You need that first job to bulk up your resume and make you a candidate worth considering. Stick it out for at least a year, and make it your goal to let this job lead to something else. As someone who now works in HR and sees the resumes first, when I see someone with only three months experience at a position and looking to move into something else, I wonder how committed you will be to my organization.

  20. AB*

    Just to add some perspective here, some time ago I was in a full time job at a Fortune 20 company, and the environment there was precisely what the OP describes, for new hires.

    I had a lot of independency because of my experience, so a MIA manager didn’t affect me much, but the new hires would come to me pleading for work because they weren’t allowed to make any decisions and there was complete lack of direction or structure. I ended up creating a coaching and mentoring program so I could delegate tasks and get them learning and doing stuff, because their manager was “too busy” to deal with her team.

    I also had to explain to some of these new hires that expecting training is unrealistic in most companies. You want to learn something? Find out an online course (there were plenty of them for free in the intranet), find free webinars, buy books. Just don’t expect your employer to take care of teaching you valuable skills that can help you get promoted or find a better job elsewhere. They all got the message and are in better places now (either moved to another department or another company).

    The point is, don’t expect things to be better in a larger company. There is plenty of dysfunctional workplaces out there, in companies of all sizes.

  21. Susan*

    I’m another vote in the “stick it out” camp. Thinking back to my first job(s) post-college, a majority of what I learned was soft skills. Everything from how to dress, how to take feedback, how to be on time, how to get noticed, how to go above and beyond, etc etc etc. You don’t always realize that you’re learning those sorts of things, which is why it might feel like you’re not learning hard-and-fast skills, but trust me, if your eyes and ears are open, you’re learning invaluable career lessons.

  22. Tiff*

    Sounds like OP is looking for a hand to hold. Time for more self-direction. An older, wiser person once told me that ANY job, no matter what the role, is what I can make of it. That kind of thinking has served me well. Pick some skills (hard or soft) that you want to develop and figure out some ways to get the experience.

    Go-getters have a way of rising to the top, and the rest….well, the rest have a lot of excuses as to why no one showed them the ladder, put grip tape on the rungs so they wouldn’t lose their footing or held their hands when they got scared of heights. It’s up to you to decide who you will be.

    1. Jane Doe*

      I think the OP should stay in the job and use the opportunity to learn new skills, but I also think it’s normal to want (and need) a little direction in your first professional job. It’s awfully hard to be “self-directed” when you aren’t sure what to be self-directed about.

    2. Chloe*

      Its a bit hard to be “go-getter” when you’ve been slapped down and told not to go beyond what you’re told to do. OP wants to know what their job actually is, thats not asking for a hand to hold, thats basically just getting a job description. Not too much to ask for.

      1. Ruffingit*

        +1!! It would be one thing if the OP could be self-directed and was choosing not to, but it would appear that every time she has tried, she is being told she’s overstepping. Not much you can do in the way of self-direction when all the roads are closed.

  23. Just a thought*

    My advice is stay for a at least a year but in the meanwhile:
    Read up on what interests you (industries, skills, other jobs, etc)
    Volunteer for projects
    If you are financially able to pursue school at night for something not liberal arts (while still working)
    Teach yourself how to use different computer programs that are avaliable at your job

    1. Chloe*

      Agree 100% with this. Find fulfillment outside work and the daily grind won’t seem so oppressive.

  24. Jessa*

    Without reading anyone’s responses but Alison’s “a few months?” It doesn’t matter if you learn nothing, and the job is boring and annoying. It’s your first job. Stay in it for at least a year or so before you even think of leaving it. Unless the place is completely impossible to work at (IE them asking you to do something illegal or crazy,) it does you no favour to look like a job hopper this early in your career. Right now even more than learning anything you want to look like a reliable person.

  25. Anonymous*

    I’m just a college student but I just went to a company information session where they described a 2 year program for new grads. The first year was described as orientation, on the job training, “how to pick up the phone”, and the 2nd year is technical skills

  26. Ann O'Nonymous*

    Me again. I should add that I am middle-aged and this is far from my first job. I have many other skills and was hoping this field would be my third career. I’m glad to see many posters saying that it won’t do anyone any good to be sitting around all day with nothing to do. I’m tired of being told that it’s “cool” to have a job where they pay you to warm the chair. Thanks for listening!

  27. Richard*

    Don’t believe the bullshit about being a job-hopper. If you have good skills, an employer is going to want you even if you keep changing jobs. And you get good skills by challenging yourself and being challenged. I’d say don’t leave right away but start looking for something else that you can be sure will give you a better opportunity for learning.

    A friend of mine was recently telling me about a data science course he went on. As part of this course he met loads of badass data scientists. He asked one of them about his career and found out that this guy had never stayed in one job longer than a year and 3 months – he kept hopping to keep himself challenged.

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