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3 reasons your first job is the most important one you’ll ever have

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Before you jump at the first job offer that comes your way after college, consider this: your first job will probably be the most important decision you will ever make in your career. Seriously.

Whether you’re a part-time barista desperate to get ahead of her student loan bills or you’re slumming it at an unpaid internship and eating ramen five nights a week, your first year in the workforce — wherever that may be and however much you may hate your gig (and, let’s face it, you probably will) —can have an extraordinary impact on your future earnings and career opportunities.

“You learn so much in your first job about what you want for your career future and you don’t want to get complacent,” says Nicole Williams, founder of WORKS, a career consultancy firm based in New York City.  “It may be your instinct to say, oh, [screw] this job at Starbucks, but that’s the worse thing you can do.”

The people you meet are often more important than your paycheck

Consider your first job as the ultimate networking seminar, without all the nametags and awkward happy hours.

You may have found your first job by searching online listings, but as you aim higher in your career, you’ll find that the really juicy opportunities come from human connections you make along the way.

“You want to meet as many people as possible,” Williams says. “You want to impress your boss. You want to do everything in your power to make this job a great opportunity for you.”

Making your manager’s job easier is a good way to earn their favor, but they shouldn’t be your only ally. The people sitting next to you may wind up being your boss someday or, even better, they may know someone who knows someone who might want to hire you in a field you actually want to work in. Those office allies are also vital sources of inside information. When you are ready to negotiate your next pay raise or promotion, you will want to lean on co-workers who have been in your shoes and may have insights on salary expectations or perks you should be asking for.

Your first job will make you better for your second, third and fourth jobs  

Your first job is the ultimate opportunity to take chances, make mistakes, ask “dumb” questions and still come out smelling like roses.

“You have so much leverage in your first job because no one is expecting you to be stellar straight out of college,” Williams says. “If you aren’t afraid to learn, then you’re going to be in a position for more success in your second, third, and fourth jobs.”

But while you’re trying things out and messing up along the way, be conscious about what you have learned and how you can apply it later, when the stakes are higher. Even if you haven’t landed a job in your desired industry, you should be able to come up with a list of at least three to five valuable skills you’ve picked up that will impress a future employer. Hiring managers are much more forgiving of millennials who had to do some job-hopping to get to where they wanted to be — in this economy, who could blame you? — but they’re still going to want to know that you can get the job done.

“Identify what skills you need in your next job and ask yourself ‘what can I do in this job to acquire those skills?’” Williams says.

Negotiating your salary early in your career can boost your lifetime earnings — by a lot

Remember what we said about practicing? Your first job can be a great testing ground for your negotiation skills. True, you may not have much leverage when you’re applying for an entry-level gig and all you’ve got going for you is a degree and a couple of summer internships. But don’t let that stop you. The worst thing that can happen is you’ll hear no. Trust us, no hiring manager will dock you points for having the confidence to ask for the salary you believe you deserve so long as you do it right.

“Think of your first salary as an investment in your future career,” Williams says. “The more you make, the more you can save and the longer you’re going to have to find the right job later.”

And like most long-term investments, the earlier you get started, the better your potential gains will be.

In 2010, a team of George Mason University and Temple University researchers found that an employee who was offered $50,000 and was able to negotiate for $55,000 would earn an additional $600,000 over the course of her 40-year career— just by asking for 10% more early on. 

There’s another reason to start negotiating as early as possible: It is much easier to ask for a 10% salary bump from an employer early in your career and repeat that process every time you switch jobs, than to try extracting a 30% or 40% increase from one employer when you finally realize just how far behind you are.

“Chances are you’re going to have to leave that company in order to make that big of a salary leap,” Williams says. “Most companies won’t be able to validate that kind of [raise].”

The bottom line: Maybe your first job won’t be your dream job, but it can absolutely be the first step toward getting you to where you want to be. Make connections, maximize opportunities to  learn new skills, and don’t expect success to come overnight.

“No, this probably isn’t going to be where you spend the rest of your life,” Williams says. “But if you’re thinking about your corner office all day, then you’re not thinking about your performance [today].”

Check out more money tips from Mandi:

3 ways to stop feeling broke all the time 

5 benefits you can ask for if you don't get a raise

What do you do when your coworker earns more than you?

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