Grads: A lame job is better than no job

April 18, 2012, 3:17 PM UTC

FORTUNE — With the economy slowly emerging from the muck, the job market is looking up for recent grads. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the median starting salary for class of 2012 grads is up 4.5% (to $42,569) from that of the class of 2011.

As job offers become more frequent, it’s raising a question for the mortarboard set: should you take a sub-optimal offer, or hold out for something better?

Holding out has become more of a possibility for today’s younger set than those in previous generations. With the average age of first marriage up in the late 20s, few new grads have families to support. During the Great Recession, moving back home with mom and dad lost much of the stigma it previously had and, thanks to health care reform, young adults can stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26 — reducing the pressure to find full-time employment with benefits. Many graduates have student loans, but with income-based repayment schemes in place for federal loans, young people with no income may be able to avoid steep payments for a while.

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So should you wait and keep looking for the perfect job? The advice from career experts boils down to one word: No.

“You should definitely start working as soon as possible,” says Alexandra Levit, author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success. Here are a few reasons.

First, what exactly is this “perfect job”? Recent statistics find that the median tenure in a job for U.S. workers is just north of four years. Both men and women can expect to have double-digit numbers of jobs in their lifetimes. One informal analysis of Princeton alumni, conducted by the university’s Alumni Council’s Committee on Careers, found that only about 6% of graduates celebrating their 25th reunions were in the same job they’d gotten after college or graduate school. “All you can really ask of yourself in a first job — suboptimal or otherwise — is the opportunity to learn transferrable skills,” says Levit.

Fortunately, “there is something to be learned from every job,” she says. “Even working at McDonalds.” If you’re waitressing, learn how you can increase your tabs. If you’re tutoring, you can gain know-how on customer relations and bringing in new prospects. If you’re in an office job — even if not in your preferred field or company — you can survey what other types of jobs seem interesting to you, and participate in volunteer initiatives your company might sponsor to meet new people. You can participate in conferences and network with people who can help you find job leads in the future.

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All this helps build a track record — evidence that you’ve shown initiative — which will help you land your next job (which, ideally, will be closer to what you’d like to do).

Second, while you’ll probably get a grace period in employers’ eyes for a while post-graduation, “The reality is that any gap longer than six months has to be explained,” says Caroline Ceniza-Levine, a career coach and co-founder of SixFigureStart. “The question becomes why didn’t you take anything? It’s hard to justify.” Saying you were holding out for the perfect job isn’t particularly helpful because “anyone with experience knows there’s no such thing as the perfect thing.”

Even if you’re working a just-pay-the-bills job, you can spend time outside the grind freelancing or otherwise trying to dabble in your desired field. Lauren Berger, who now runs the website, always had part-time jobs during college, in part to support the 15 unpaid internships she took. She did several internships in the entertainment industry, and after college, was able to make a few calls and get a job at the Creative Artists Agency in a few weeks. Even working for free “definitely got me off the couch and got me thinking like a professional,” she says. “I was challenged in a way I’d never been challenged inside the classroom.”


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