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.

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