Is Your Job a Gateway to What You Really Want to Do?

businessman with notebook about dream job

With a majority of business authors, bloggers, and career strategists touting the advantages of being an entrepreneur, why would anyone try to create a successful and rewarding career by working for someone else? It’s just the opposite of the popular argument that preaches self-employment as the ideal way to wealth, independence, and happiness.

But just like the current rhetoric surrounding corporate employment–the inherent politics, hidden agendas, and adherence to the herd mentality–are often inaccurate generalizations, the benefits associated with entrepreneurship – freedom with your time, autonomy in your work, and an unrestricted income – are not guaranteed. In fact, there are sobering disadvantages to striking out on your own. One of them is facing the need to gain experience, skills, and credibility while trying to sell your services in a very competitive marketplace.

For example, if you’ve always wanted to be a software developer, the opportunity to spend two or three years at a large software company learning the business could be the best way to begin your career. The alternative of setting up shop in your spare bedroom would certainly provide the option of showing up to work in your underwear, but it comes at the cost of immediate income, health insurance, and a structured 401K investment plan—benefits that are difficult to ignore.

But there’s more to consider than just money.

In discounting the idea of working for someone else, there’s a tendency to overlook the advantages of choosing a “gateway” job—working in a profession that puts you as close as possible to your dream career and the people you need to meet who can help put you there.

So, the real question isn’t how much independence you’ll have to sacrifice as an employee of an established and successful firm, but rather, would working for a recognized leader in the industry provide the ideal first step toward the career you really want?

Quick story: As electrical engineering majors in our senior year, we were given the opportunity to visit local companies to better acquaint ourselves with “real world” engineering jobs. We toured a dozen different facilities, including the Palo Verde Nuclear Power plant, Allied Chemical in Idaho, and the Motorola semiconductor division in Phoenix.

But the most exciting visit was a trip to a large recording studio, where we saw an Ampex sixteen-track recorder (state of the art at the time), a million-dollar sound-mixing board, and a large, walk-in echo chamber. The engineer talked about working with some of the more well-known artists, including Alice Cooper and Glen Campbell. He ended his talk with an admonition:

“I know there’s probably a few of you who would like to work in this business, but please don’t submit your resume or ask to fill out an application. We’re swamped with a back-log of entry-level people who want a job here. Occasionally, we have an opening for an experienced night-shift engineer, but we don’t look at anyone with less than five years of experience in a high-end studio.”

The engineer was right; several of my classmates were hoping to work in the recording industry and had been looking forward to the tour, hoping it would offer a short-cut to getting a job in the business.

They were obviously disappointed.

Except for one.

Thomas began asking the engineer questions: “What microphones do you like better, Shure or Electro-Voice? Does the 3-M Tape hold up under repeated passes as well as Ampex or do you recommend another brand?”

We thought he was trying to flaunt his limited knowledge of studio operations.

But while it may have sounded like he was showing off, he wasn’t. He was asking intelligent questions that could only be answered by an experienced recording engineer.

As soon as we returned to campus, Thomas began writing letters of application. The first one went to the Shure Company—because a prominent studio engineer had recommended Shure mikes during their recent conversation, and to 3-M, because they made recording tape that had the reputation of standing up to repeated passes with fewer drop-outs. He added it was a fact he’d learned at XYZ studios in Phoenix, Arizona.

Did it work?

Thomas ended up working as a sales rep for Shure, calling on recording studios. He was great at his job because he had the technical expertise to talk about audio specifications and recording techniques at the same technical level as his customers. Not only did he sell a lot of microphones, he offered his engineering capabilities to solve problems with feedback, distortion, vibration dampening, and signal-to-noise concerns.

Four years later, Thomas left Shure and went to work in Los Angeles, doing on-site recordings of concerts and musical events. He had six employees and two sound trucks, both equipped with sixteen-track recorders, full effects, and a mixing board. And because he kept his overhead low, he was able to compete with the more established studios.

Thomas’ success was the direct result of his decision to pursue a job at Shure. He used his position as a gateway to move closer to his ultimate goal of working in the recording business. And in this particular industry—where there were far more capable applicants than openings—he knew a “back-door” approach would be more effective than trying to convince a studio owner or manager to hire him right out of school.

There are lots of ways to arrive at your career destination. And one of them could involve working for a company with a back-door that opens into an industry, a position, or a career that is exactly where you want to be.

If you’re struggling between pursuing your future career as an employee or entrepreneur, add a third choice: A short term (less than five years) transitional job option that will provide you with an effective route to your ultimate dream job. Even if you’re a mid-life career changer, you can use this approach to make strategic career moves with an eye toward where it can take you, not necessarily where you’ll start in your new position.