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Learn Like It’s Your Job: 18 Portable Skills Every Recent College Graduate Should Have

Hoboken, NJ (June 2012)—The slowly recovering economy has taken a toll on all Americans. But for many recent college graduates, it has made that first step into the “real” world a real doozy. In fact, the Associated Press’s analysis of recent government data shows that 53 percent of recent college grads (those under 25) are either jobless or underemployed. Many have had to accept “survival jobs”—jobs not within their preferred profession or at a level below their training—to simply get by. But all is not lost, says Vickie Milazzo. She says that college grads with a “buck up” attitude can use this time to develop portable skills that will bring them great success as their career develops.

“Now is not the time to focus on finding a job that will pay a lot of money or give you a fancy title,” says Milazzo, author of the New York Times bestseller, Wicked Success Is Inside Every Woman (Wiley, 2011, ISBN: 978-1-1181-0052-3, $21.95, “The bottom line is that many grads are lucky to find any job. Let alone a job that pays what they hoped they’d be making right out of college. Instead, these graduates should focus on personal growth and developing the portable skills that can be formed in any job but which will serve them throughout their careers.”

Portable skills are the job skills that can serve you no matter where you work or what position you hold. These skills include relationship-building, communication, entrepreneurial thinking, etc. Almost all of them can be developed inside “survival jobs,” and that’s why they should become a key focus for recent college graduates who haven’t yet landed their dream job.

“The portable skills you develop now will shape the professional you become and will help you develop your voice as a professional at a time when you still have a lot to learn,” says Milazzo. “When you focus on building a portable skill set, you’re using this not-exactly-ideal time in your working life much more wisely. With this skill set, you’ll be able to transition more smoothly and create success more quickly when you do land your dream job.”

Read on to learn what portable skills you should put in your tool box and how to perfect them.

Develop a nose for (your) business. Take this time to really study up on your industry. Read industry magazines and attend events if you can. “Being able to talk intelligently about the state of your industry will be a huge selling point for you,” says Milazzo. “The more you know, the more dots you can connect. Knowing where your industry is going will help you decide what other areas of knowledge are important for you to focus on.”

Let your creative flag fly. Don’t be afraid to be creative. “This is not about reinventing the wheel,” notes Milazzo. “You don’t have to stress yourself out trying to think of the next, great outside the box idea for your company or industry. Often, it’s about taking ideas from other industries or companies and adapting them to fit your own. Also, understand that it’s highly likely that your idea will be simply that, an idea. You probably won’t have the resources or the authority to put it immediately into action. However, showing your leaders that you have the ability to think creatively about their business and the level of understanding to know what’s important and what’s not will be a great way to earn more responsibility.”

Be your own problem-solver. Great employees don’t passively wait for the boss to tell them what to do. They figure out solutions on their own. “When we find our own solutions, we grow stronger,” says Milazzo. “Excessive reliance on others for our success weakens us. Soon we shy away from challenges we once might have conquered with relish and ease. One key aspect of becoming a good problem solver is taking swift action. Don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis. Learn to trust your initial feelings and thoughts about an issue.”

Go big or go home. We tend to want to check the small, easy things off our list and avoid the tough stuff. Break the feel-good addiction. Remember, where you engage and focus is where you will get results. “Going after larger accomplishments—an addiction to momentum—is a far more lasting high than the transitory feel-good of checking off trivial tasks,” says Milazzo. “Once you’re engaged in accomplishing what I call the ‘Big Things,’ you’ll approach routine matters with laser-sharp focus, quickly deleting, delegating, and experiencing fewer distractions. More importantly, your creativity and productivity catch fire, and the momentum keeps you pumped. You’ll glide through your day full of confidence and satisfaction from achieving significant milestones. You’ll stay focused on bigger goals and that will be a huge boost when you aren’t being completely fulfilled in your day job.”

Trade “not”-working for real networking. Connecting with your friends on Facebook and tweeting your latest thoughts on life out to your Twitter followers is not networking. “Real, productive networking happens face-to-face,” explains Milazzo. “More importantly, it happens with people who are not your peers. In order for your networking to be successful, you must strive to connect with people who have more experience than you. It’s normal to gravitate toward people who are the same as you—but in business, one of the main reasons why people don’t get ahead is that they don’t get out of their social groups. Make every effort to meet people who are a rung or two higher than you on the professional ladder. If you impress someone who is more successful than you are, they’ll have a lot more influence than someone whose position is equivalent with yours.”

Build relationships (not just resumes). Why are relationships important? First and foremost, they’re a great way to harvest energy. “Spending time with those who inspire you, who make you laugh, who give you advice you can trust is essential,” says Milazzo. “In the bigger picture for your career, relationships are important because that’s where your opportunities will come from. In most industries, it really is about who you know. When you take the time to develop positive relationships with customers, vendors, the people you speak to frequently who work at other companies, etc., you’ll find that they’ll present you with opportunities organically and vice versa. The other great thing about relationships is that when they’re strong they’ll be with you no matter where you’re working.”

Partner up. Learn how to sniff out other people who have skills/insights that can be leveraged in unexpected ways. “Many people are treasure troves of untapped potential just waiting for the right person to recognize what they have to offer,” says Milazzo. “And always be willing to do some mentoring yourself. Sure, you’re new to the professional world, but many mature workers won’t have the same level of understanding you have when it comes to social media and technology. When you partner with these folks to show them what you know, they’ll partner with you right back. You’ll both learn a lot from each other and great relationships will form.”

Go offline to work on communication. Many recent college graduates are of the social media generation. They’re texters, tweeters, Facebookers. Often face-to-face communication and even written communication aren’t their strengths. “Work on developing your communication skills,” advises Milazzo. “You will not be respected at any company unless you can clearly communicate with people from all levels. Watch more experienced professionals to pick up on their techniques for quality communication. Re-read emails to make sure you’re using correct grammar and aren’t using shorthand. And listen. When you listen to the others, you can ask them more engaging questions and in turn, create better connections.”

Negotiate like you mean it. Negotiating skills are tough to develop and it’s even tougher when you don’t have the confidence or the leverage to go after what you want. Some young job applicants might also think that they’re doing their potential employers a favor by not pushing for more or that they’ll be more appealing if they don’t ask for what they’re worth.

“That’s not true,” notes Milazzo. “When I’m hiring, I actually weed out candidates who underprice themselves because I assume they won’t perform at the level I expect. In my eyes and in the eyes of many other CEOs, job candidates actually lose credibility when they underprice themselves. Learn to negotiate. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your bargaining power is weak just because you’re less experienced. Yes, this power imbalance might make negotiating more challenging, but you have a lot to offer, too. Remember that ultimately, you’re talking to another human being. Try not to become so overawed by rank or position that you forget that!”

Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. A great way to get answers you can trust is to seek out a mentor. Having a mentor will help you learn a lot, a lot more quickly than you might have on your own and will provide a relationship that can be hugely beneficial as you gain experience.

“But don’t be afraid to seek advice outside of a mentoring relationship either,” advises Milazzo. “Some of the best advice I received when I started my business was ‘Vickie, you will encounter many challenges you will not know how to handle. But there’s always someone out there who has already successfully handled that very challenge.’ Know what you don’t know and when to seek answers. Appreciate that what works today won’t necessarily work tomorrow, and understand that aggressive learning is a competitive advantage to achieving any desired goal.”

Trust your gut. Work on tuning into your gut and trusting what it has to say. Practice listening for—and listening TO—your inner voice. You’ll find that it rarely steers you wrong. “Learn to identify what your gut feelings truly are (as opposed to being influenced by your boss, mom, friends, etc.),” says Milazzo. “Then learn to interpret, trust, and act on those feelings—keeping in mind that it’s okay to be rerouted by circumstance.”

Be constructive with constructive criticism. Learn to view constructive criticism as a gift. “Remember, you’ve still got a lot to learn,” says Milazzo. “Don’t get defensive when someone gives you unwanted advice on how to do something. Develop a thick skin. Instead of reacting negatively to criticism, openly look for opportunities to put the advice into practice.”

Don’t burn bridges. When you enter the 9-5 working world, you’ll quickly find that you have to work side by side with people you do not like. People you certainly wouldn’t be spending much time with if they didn’t happen to be using the cubicle next to yours. “You must learn to get along with these people,” notes Milazzo. “Forgive them when they upset you. And forgive the personality ticks that get on your nerves. You never know when you’ll need them on your side. You never know when your paths will cross again later in your career.”

Develop an entrepreneurial spirit. Don’t wait for opportunities to come to you or for the boss to ask. “There is a lot of competition out there right now,” says Milazzo. “You won’t be given every opportunity. Quite often, you’ll have to create your own opportunities and that will require that you take the initiative on certain tasks. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas for how to improve the company with your boss. You never know, he might really like one and put you in charge of implementing it. Regardless, he’ll certainly see that you care about the company and want to make sure you’re a part of what’s going on there.

“Rather than looking only at your advancement, look for ways in which your knowledge and expertise can grow and benefit the company. As a business owner, I appreciate employees who apply enterprise and ingenuity to their jobs. They generally enjoy their jobs more and receive more advancements and pay raises.”

Go for the goal(s). Give yourself a goal and work toward it. When you achieve it, set another goal and work toward it. Repeat. “Goal-setting will be essential in keeping you motivated especially if your ‘survival’ job isn’t particularly stimulating,” notes Milazzo. “When you always have something important to work toward, whether it’s related to your job or not, it will keep you focused on improving and moving forward.”

Build your personal credibility. Meet your deadlines. Do what you say you’re going to do. Become known as a person who can be counted on. “Be the person your colleagues and bosses trust to get the job done,” advises Milazzo. “When you do everything you can to become someone people rely on, they won’t hesitate to move you up in the company or to recommend you to people in their networks.”

Fuel your fire. What are you passionate about? What fires you up? What drives you to succeed? Now is the time to really think about your answers to those questions. Now is the time to figure out how you can make those things your passionate about part of your long-term career. “Let your enthusiasm and excitement show,” says Milazzo. “It will attract people and opportunities your way. People will want to work with you. When you find the passion that drives you—whether it’s family, serving others in the medical field, using the law to help others, or reforming a broken aspect of your community, you’ll have tapped into a fuel source that won’t run dry in the middle of the race. That doesn’t mean that the going will always be easy…but passion will make your life richer.”

Remember, life is a marathon. Volunteer to work the extra shift when you can. Always give that little bit extra (in terms of time/energy/attention) that takes a project from “good” to “great.” Remember that no matter what job you have, you’re there to work—not to goof off on Facebook, text with your friends, or anything else. Engage 100 percent, no matter what your current job is. “Clock-watchers who go home exactly at quitting time are never around for promotions,” notes Milazzo. “Work as hard or harder than your boss. There is just no substitute for the willingness to work hard. And remember that fighting through this difficult start to your career is like getting into physical shape: you’re going to be sore and you’re going to want to quit, but that pain and discomfort are making you stronger and propelling you forward.”

“There’s no sugar-coating it,” says Milazzo. “As a new college graduate, making your way in this economy will not be easy. But when you use this time to develop the skills that will benefit you for the entirety of your career, it will become a very fulfilling time. With the right attitude and the right approach, you’ll be setting yourself up for the fast track to success once the market improves.”

Inc. Top 10 Entrepreneur Vickie L. Milazzo, RN, MSN, JD is the author of The New York Times Bestseller Wicked Success Is Inside Every Woman. In 1982 Vickie pioneered the field of legal nurse consulting for registered nurses. Vickie has appeared on national TV and radio as an expert on entrepreneurship, career advancement and legal nurse consulting. Vickie’s television appearances include ABC, CBS, FOX & Friends, NBC, Bloomberg TV and many others. She was also a contributor to the National Public Radio program, This I Believe®.

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