Skip to Content

Underemployed? 3 ways to move up

ladderladder

Dear Annie: How do you get people to listen to your ideas when your title is so lowly that no one takes you seriously? I graduated from college last spring and got a job at my dream company after just a short search. The not-so-great part is, I’m working as an administrative assistant, which in this organization is one step above janitor. I took this position as a way to get a foot in the door here, with the idea of proving myself and eventually moving up but then discovered that there really is no career path for that. So I seem to be stuck. Other than looking for a better job somewhere else, do you or your readers have any suggestions for me? — Dead End Debbie

Dear D.E.D.: Small consolation though it may be, your situation is more the rule than the exception these days. While the economy keeps generating jobs, and new unemployment claims are at a 14-year low, hiring at the entry level seems to have stalled. So far this year, 51% of new college grads are working at jobs that don’t require a college degree. That’s an improvement over the 54% that prevailed throughout the recession (a 20-year record high, by the way), but not by much.

Still, it’s way too soon to feel “stuck.” Since there is no beaten path leading upward from an admin position at your company, you’ll have to create your own. It’s been done before. Consider Susan Lombardo, who started at Enterprise Holdings (parent of the world’s largest car rental company) as a receptionist in 1986, fresh out of college with a B.S. in psychology.

She’s since worked her way up to vice president of vehicle acquisitions. Among other things, the job requires buying about 900,000 new cars a year. Says Lombardo, “It’s a blend of building relationships, negotiating, and marketing. Some analytics are involved too, which I love, because I’m a little bit geeky.” How did Lombardo get from the front desk to the executive suite? She offers these three tips:

Look around for other opportunities within the company. When she had been in her receptionist job only a few weeks, Lombardo started seeing “a stream of young guys coming in to apply for an entry-level management training job opening, in what would now be called the logistics department here,” she recalls. “I asked my boss why the job seemed to be only for men, and was told it wasn’t.”

Lombardo put in her own application, and got hired despite the fact that, in the late 1980s, moving from the reception desk to a management-track job was almost unheard of. So don’t let the lack of a similar career path at your company now stand in your way.

Keep going after jobs where you believe you could add value. “It takes self-confidence and the belief that, no matter what your title or your position is now, you’re as good as anyone else who’s applying,” she says. “I’ve done this several times throughout my career. No one ever offered me a bigger job or asked me to try for one—but then, no one ever does. You have to do it for yourself.”

Interviews with hiring managers for positions that interest you are an ideal chance to bring up the ideas you say aren’t being heard by higher-ups right now. At the same time, as with any job interview, Lombardo suggests expressing enthusiasm and a willingness to learn whatever new skills the role requires. “If a young person now asked me, ‘What are you looking for? How can I be the ideal candidate for this?’ I would want to give him or her a chance,” she says.

Be willing to go to another company if you have to. You mention that you’re already working for your dream company, but it’s possible that you’d fare better, and be less frustrated, elsewhere. Lombardo says she’s lucky to have landed, all those years ago, at a company with a long history of promoting from within. Your employer may have no such tradition. Do your best for another year or two to find a stepping stone to a position where you can make a bigger contribution and, if you still get nowhere, think about leaving.

You have at least one big job-hunting advantage that didn’t exist in 1986: The Internet. Sites like Glassdoor and Vault.com are a font of insights from current employees about how well (or not) a given employer develops and promotes people. Asking around among friends, LinkedIn connections, and fellow 2014 alumni could be enlightening, too. “Some companies value internal candidates for promotion much more than others,” notes Lombardo. “You need to be in a place that does.” Good luck.

Talkback: Does your company promote from within, or do you think you’d have to leave to get a bigger job? Leave a comment below.

Have a career question for Anne Fisher? Email askannie@fortune.com.