What Entry-level Workers Wish They'd Known When They Graduated

-- written by Leigh SN Huang

For many college students, taking the headlong plunge outside the safe, secure world of college life results in a rude awakening to some of the cold and cruel realities of the real-world rat race. We talked to some local graduates to see what they wish they had known about the real world when they graduated and what advice they would impart to those about to leave college. In addition, we also have the advice from a senior manager from a MNC, on what fresh graduates should be prepared for when joining the workforce.

Do an internship (professional / industrial attachment)

It is important to perform an internship to "give you a taste of what work is like and to let you experiment with different fields before it counts," one graduate observes. Emerald Bik, a 1999 Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Business graduate says, "It is a real eye opener as you actually get a feel of the working environment and the demands of your bosses. If you prove to be an exceptional worker, you might get a job offer which means you are guaranteed a job even before graduation." Emerald is now working at the Public Service Division, under the Prime Minister’s Office.

In addition, Adeline C., a senior manager from Sony advises that undergraduates should grab the internship opportunity to " gain valuable insights about the company operations by observing how work is being done in the organisation, learn something about organisation culture, behavior and management styles."

Start looking for a job as soon as possible?

" If you have time and energy, start looking when you are still in school," advises Sharon Lau, a Hong Kong business graduate, "The early bird catches the worms." Emerald agreed. "The main advantage of looking for a job while you are still in school is to get ahead of others, to secure a job with less competition."

Be prepared!

The real world is very different from college! "I am realising that college life is a breeze compared to working adult life," observes Sharon. "There is just a different set of responsibilities entirely!" Those serious responsibilities can be daunting. Another notes: "If you make a mistake in college, it's depressing, but you can take the course again. If you make a mistake at your job, you may never get another job in that area." The main difference between the real world and the college world, as agreed by many, is you are not accountable to yourself only (as in college, bad grades will only affect you.). In the working environment, you get paid for what you do, and your actions have several (sometimes major) implications. You need to be responsible and accountable as more people are depending on you and the decisions you make.

Another word of wisdom from Emerald, "Adjust your mindset." She cautions fresh graduates to be more realistic about your expectations, so that you won't be overwhelmed by the real world. Accept the fact that it is hard to form real friendships in your working place and to be more cautious about whom to trust. Be more flexible as there aren't any hard and fast rules in the "real" world; you have to adapt quickly and to learn new things everyday. No one can afford to be complacent.

Speaking from the other side of the coin, Adeline reminds fresh graduates not to take things for granted. "One pays to learn in college. On the contrary, in the "real world", one should not expect to be paid to learn. To put it bluntly, the company does not owe the employees a living. Even though there are some organisations that plan the career path of employees and provide good training, this should not be taken for granted and need not be the norm."

Learn to project a professional image in every respect, including business etiquette

Know how to dress, dine, and converse in a formal business setting. "Be professional . . . from your dressing to your diction," Sharon advises. She observes that "in today's workplace, image counts more than anything. An employer wants to be proud of the way you conduct yourself. You can have all the brains in the world, but if you cannot interact well with other professionals, you will only go so far."

What Adeline expects from her new workers: Professionalism - do what is expected at the highest standard of the profession. It includes observing simple work rules like not being late for appointments, dressing appropriately for the right occasion, and of course, being well-versed in your scope of work.

Take time to think about job offers

"Companies understand that you are looking for a position, and most of them are willing to let you think over their offer and other offers for a reasonable period of time," says one recent grad. Set YOUR own priorities, e.g. salary, future prospects, location, ideals, working environment and colleagues. As for Adeline, interest comes first. She says, "Love your job and you don't have to "work" for the rest of your life!"

Realise that you may have to take the initiative to learn on your own in your first job

"I think a lot of people get overwhelmed when they first get a new job," observes Adeline. "You're not going to be trained in every single thing you do. You'll have to learn as you go," noting that many of her organisation's new hires look lost.

Develop good communication skills, both in terms of written and oral skills

Most employers place a high premium on how well employees express themselves, so make good use what you learned in school with regard to writing and presentation techniques.

Make the most of the teamwork skills you learned through group projects and sports

"All the groups that we were required to work in [in college] were very helpful," notes Emerald. "Teamwork skills were stressed in almost every position now," she says. "Even in the interviews, they were always asking, 'Give me an example of a time when you were in a group and...'

Sharon spoke of one recruiter’s comment: Teamwork is essential no matter what area you're in. The recruiter didn't hire an extremely qualified man simply because of his 'not being a team player.'"

One point that graduates tend to overlook though is how to utilise what they have learned in school. What you learned is definitely valuable, but the usefulness of your knowledge will depend on your flexibility in using them. Some subjects we took in school are useful in a very indirect way. For example, Mathematics or programming helps us to think logically which is definitely a must in many workflow projects.