Don’t Underearn By Overstaying

If I could offer one piece of career advice to new grads, it would be to avoid becoming an eternal intern. In other words, don’t under-earn by staying too long at the same job, especially your first real job. Neil almost committed this common career faux pas before getting a wake-up call and changing jobs. We finally realized why staying in one place for your whole career is thing of the past: it’s often the best way to stunt your career and income growth.

Like many of his engineering classmates, Neil worked an internship full- or part-time throughout the second half of his education. A year before graduation, he was offered a full-time position. He didn’t even have to interview. The salary and benefits were good. It was a Fortune 500 company and he’d continue working in the same department he was already familiar with.

The only problem? “I almost became an eternal intern,” he says. In other words, he felt like he could not shake the new hire status at his first company.

The Most Dangerous Job

While his pay increased significantly post-degree, his job was boring and under-utilized his engineering skills. We continued to view the position as a good job because it paid well and was low-stress. There was a sense of security in working at a big company.

Despite being a great employee with plenty of initiative, he reached a plateau in his career. He studied hard and passed a rigorous eight-hour exam to earn a Professional Engineering license. He talked to his boss about opportunities for advancement, but that required relocation. There was no way he was going to move our family for a job he didn’t love.

That’s when he realized this job wasn’t safe and secure at all. In fact, staying there was the most dangerous career choice he could make. He was going to be viewed as an intern forever. The most successful people in his group had been hired from the outside. He wasn’t gaining marketable skills and being bored at work didn’t signal job security. It was time to make his move.

Learning Your Market Value

He started reading up on the area he wanted to get into, and applyied for jobs.  When he found the right position a few months later, he was astonished at the difference. He was hired at their highest level for engineers. Because he changed industries, he expected a learning curve, but feels a new momentum in his career. In the year and a half that he’s been there, his salary has increased over 20% compared to his last job. He finds the work much more interesting, and his boss is discussing career growth opportunities with him.

He’s noticed that the new grads his company hires have perpetual intern status, too. Even though they are very knowledgeable and hard-working, they aren’t always treated with equal respect and professionalism. He allowed his previous employer to continue viewing him as an intern simply by staying there too long.

Neil shared these new insights with a friend whom he believed was under-earning. With two weeks of beginning his job search, his friend was offered a job and asked to name his price! He secured a 40% raise. His skill set didn’t change; he simply found a company willing to pay his market value.

I’m so glad we realized the dangers of becoming an eternal intern and moved on. This is one of the reasons Millennials don’t stay at the same job for 30 years—and shouldn’t. Here are some lessons we’ve learned:

  1. Your company cares about the bottom line, not you. No one else is going to look out for you and your career.
  2. In many careers, staying in one place is the best way to under-earn. Every move you make is a chance to make a jump in salary and build your skills.
  3. The problem with your job may not be your company or boss, but your inherent status as a former intern or new hire. Changing jobs may be the only way to change this status.
  4. We should be more scared of the status quo than of change. We don’t grow when things stay the same, and we should be terrified to stop growing.
  5. Making the bold move to take a new job communicates a degree of confidence and initiative that is valuable to employers, and your career.

Neil enjoys work more than ever, but he doesn’t plan to stay at the same company until retirement. We’ve learned our lesson and won’t settle for stagnation ever again.

Have you grown your career through a job change? What is your top career advice for new grads?


42 Responses to “Don’t Underearn By Overstaying”

  1. Our Next Life says :

    Good for you guys for recognizing this trend early and not settling for perma-intern status! I find this super interesting, and think it must vary by company and industry. In both of our companies, Mr. ONL and I feel that our long tenure is valued and makes us more trusted for a lot of tasks than people who came in more recently or at a more senior level (we both started in entry-level jobs). That said, it’s entirely possible and probably likely that we earn less than people who’ve job-hopped more, but it’s been satisfying for us to stay put and feel like family within our companies. But we also know how lucky we are to have found our particular companies, and we know it’s not so positive in most places! 🙂

    • Kalie says :

      I’m sure it does vary. As a teacher, I had a fixed salary schedule based almost entirely on tenure. I’ve also known teachers to move to a better paying district, or one with better health insurance. Neil’s move was initially less about increasing income directly, and more about finding a job that was more interesting and with more opportunities for the future. That’s wonderful you’ve both found awesome jobs and are grateful for them, too!

  2. Brian says :

    There is really no guarantee when you work for someone else. It is always in your best interest to stay active in the job search. Leverage your network, family, friends, colleagues, etc. A recent grad should have a number of connections who are landing jobs at different companies. Also a good idea to stay in touch to see how they are doing. What positions are available, what salaries are being offered, etc. This is a great way for you to evaluate your position and company.

    • Kalie says :

      I agree that it’s always wise to have your eyes open and be “job hunting” in some capacity. You never know when a better opportunity may come along. I think we fell out of touch with some of our classmates after a few years, but you’re right that they can offer some really helpful information about the market.

  3. Amanda says :

    Great advice! My husband has been with the same company for 20 years, and we know he’s passed up the opportunity to expand his skills and earn significantly more money. I’m certain he could make at least 50% more if he went elsewhere. Our reasoning for him staying is freedom, though. He has tons of vacation time (6+ weeks), he literally works 40-45 hour weeks and has the flexibility to take our daughter to school or leave in the middle of the day whenever he needs to. He’s home by 5:30 each evening. Plus the benefits are outstanding (not just insurance, but retirement/pension). But you definitely got me thinking that maybe he should just take a look at other opportunities out there!

    • Kalie says :

      There are absolutely more important aspects of a job than the pay. We value flexibility and vacation time a lot. That’s amazing your husband has 6 weeks! I’ve also seen people boldly negotiate perks like that when moving–like vacation, flex time, or work-from-home. Neil’s current job is busier, which he likes, but is also more flexible and he doesn’t work any more hours than before. It’s also hard to assess some of this before you work at a company, so I understand your hesitancy to leave a great place.

  4. Mr. PIE says :

    It gets harder to leave a job after staying with one company for a long career as I have done. I was fortunate to have a great set of leaders, mentors who helped me navigate change and work through the good times and the difficult times. But it’s not so common to have this. I often wonder how I would have handled a truly awful job situation while being paid a high salary.

    Kudos to Neil for taking the leap of faith to make a change early in his career path.

    • Kalie says :

      I’m sure it does get harder to leave, and perhaps less strategic. That’s wonderful that you’ve had a great set of mentors at your workplace. Thanks for your encouraging words.

  5. Millennial Moola says :

    Best advice I ever received was from my granddad. ‘If they haven’t given you a decent raise after your first year, that means they don’t value you as an employee and you should seek another position elsewhere’

    • Kalie says :

      I love your grandfather’s advice. I think one problem with younger employees is that they really don’t know their value in the market. I think we were just so thrilled to get full-time jobs in our fields!

  6. Abigail says :

    I was surprised to find out how many people regularly change workplaces. I guess norms have changed. Given my weird job history thanks to disability, I haven’t hopped around except to try and find work I could do. Now that i have my current company… Well, I’m the only person answering emails during the day. So I don’t have to struggle with new hire status. Just another one of the ways I lucked out big time with my job.

    • Kalie says :

      I always heard people moved around more now but didn’t fully understand why.

      It sounds like your job is a good fit for your situation and that you are valued there. I’m so glad because I’m sure chronic fatigue would make an inflexible job schedule very challenging.

  7. Hannah says :

    The start of your job is the time you have the greatest leverage. I negotiated raises twice (plus annual raises) to stay competitive, but I would have gone elsewhere if needed.

    • Kalie says :

      Great advice, Hannah! We definitely could have been more aggressive with this off the bat but were just so thrilled to get jobs out of college that we didn’t. Negotiating later is definitely harder because they feel like they already “have” you.

  8. NZ Muse says :

    Yep, every single time. No way could I be where I am in terms of pay, experience, employability without moving around. In my industry it is absolutely normal to move around. My current manager even shared with me her career plan and encourages me to think about where I want to go and what I want to do in the future, acknowledging nobody stays forever nor should we pretend they do.

    • Kalie says :

      I’m glad to hear others have had a similar experience. Way to go for moving around and growing your career this way. I’m glad that your workplace environment is open about this topic.

  9. Harmony says :

    I have actually been with my current employer for almost seven years, and plan to stay here for the forseeable future. The main reason? Flexibility. They like me and want me to stay. I might be able to increase my pay a bit by going elsewhere, but establishing myself with a new company would be very demanding. We hope to have a fourth child in 2017, so we need as much flexibility as we can get.

    All of that being said, I have looked around and compared options. Everyone should do that. Otherwise, any career decisions are uniformed.

    • Kalie says :

      Flexibility is worth a lot, especially with a family and plans to add to it! It definitely depends on the person, company, and situation. That’s great you’ve compared options; that’s very wise.

  10. Apathy Ends says :

    I have been at my first job for just over 5 years and been thinking about this a lot lately.

    I can copy paste the experience from above as my own! Low stress, decent money but still underpaid when compared to the broader market.

    I am in the process of getting a raise, if it doesn’t get approved then I will have to expedite my search (I made my boss aware of that as well)

    • Kalie says :

      Your situation sounds very similar! I hope your raise goes through, and also that you’ll know if/when it’s time to move on. I know Neil wanted to wait till he had five years experience in his company. In retrospect I’m not sure if that was necessary, but he did earn a small pension this way as well.

  11. Brian says :

    There is no such thing as a secure job any more. Believing that is also dangerous.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, I agree that no job is truly secure. I think working at a big company gave the illusion of being *relatively* secure, but ultimately anyone could get canned any day. And failing to grow your career is also a dangerous place to be.

  12. DC YAM says :

    I’ve struggled with this the past few years. I am still at the same company I interned at, granted I work for such a huge corporation that you could argue I “switched” businesses (while still staying under the umbrella). But honestly with all your earning history HR has so much power of you and your pay. I think it’s widely known that switching companies can increase the amount you make. I’m very conflicted with this and I’m trying to be more open to change.

    • Kalie says :

      Neil definitely considered moving within the company, but there weren’t a lot of opportunities at the time. Plus his part of the company was one of the better-paying areas to begin with. I hope you get some clarity about what is the best path for you; I know it can be hard to make those decisions!

  13. The Green Swan says :

    Great post and I agree, switching jobs can provide a good background and plenty of learning opportunities. I think folks need to be careful jumping around too much because that doesn’t look great on resumes. I’ve managed to switch groups within my Company three times to advance my career and responsibilities. It’s nice to be able to stay with the same Corp the whole time, although advancement has come with geographic moves. Now that I’m in a more senior position it’s easier to compare across the industry to validate my pay.

    • Kalie says :

      I agree that one could probably move too much or too quickly. On the other hand, Neil maybe didn’t move soon enough! But I’m glad he did either way. He was definitely open to moving with his company but it just wasn’t as favorable as going elsewhere in his situation. I’m glad you’ve found success through internal and geographic moves, and understand your value well.

  14. Jack says :

    Definitely best advice to follow for new graduates, and especially for technical jobs like computer programming, but can be dangerous later in your career.

    When you’re young, you’re underpaid. I got a 20% raise at my first job first year by demonstrating my market value, but I found I was still underpaid when I switched companies the following year.

    It’s easy to get large increases when you’re starting out. But once you’ve climbed your way to the middle / high end of the earning curve, you can maximize your earnings by staying at one company for many years. Those single digit annual increases can quickly put you above market rate, making switching companies a very expensive proposition.

    As always, do your salary research, and don’t be afraid to ask for what you’re worth as long as you have the data to back it up – be it market rates, or your clear dollar value to the company.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for adding this point, Jack. I’m sure moving around later on may be less advisable, and hopefully less necessary as you’ve already built a solid salary.

  15. Mr Crazy Kicks says :

    Going out and seeking new jobs can be useful even if you want to stay with your current company. Early in my career I almost switched jobs just because of the pay. When I explained why I was leaving and presented my new offer letter they promptly gave me a raise to match it. That way you salary does not stagnate even if you want to stay.

    • Kalie says :

      Absolutely; it is one of the best ways to see what’s out there and know your value. And it can be a great tool to leverage when negotiating salary at your existing position.

  16. Latoya - Femme Frugality says :

    I’ve been at my current job for 9 years. I started the year after graduating. I think this depends on the company. In our company A LOT of people are known for staying at the company (not in their current roles) until retirement. It’s not unusual at all to have a department meeting and be celebrating 10 or more people celebrating 15, 20, and 25 year anniversaries. I have moved through several positions and still have room to grow in my area and other departments in the company as well both skillset wise and salary wise. I think it depends on the industry and the company. Some can get type casted into a new role identity fairly easily but I’ve never experienced it. I’m considered seasoned now, lol.

    • Kalie says :

      That’s wonderful that you’ve been able to grow you career within your company, and that your company has an overall ethos of that. I agree that it absolutely depends on the person, company, and situation. Neil always assumed he would be able to grow his career by switching within his company, but in the end that was not the best option for him. The main point is to find out what is best for your situation, and not settle for less.

  17. Andrew says :

    Great post. My advice to any new grad would be to always see yourself as self-employed. No matter where you go you are always the CEO of You Inc. Even if you find the dream gig it’s always good to know that you first and foremost work for yourself. When you start thinking this way you arrange all of your thinking and actions around it.

    • Kalie says :

      That is great advice that we are still trying to get our minds around, Andrew! It definitely is much more motivating to view yourself this way.

  18. DividendsDownUnder says :

    Hey Kalie, this is a fantastic post and something that I consider quite a lot, about whether when/at what point I should move on. With the added complication of our IVF plans, my employer has been good with that so far, it’s hard to know if a new employer would be sympathetic with that.


    • Kalie says :

      Sometimes it’s a tough call, especially in a situation like yours. I know people who have centered their employment choice around healthcare coverage for IVF. It’s really a huge benefit. I’m not sure if that’s what you’re referring to, but even just having a flexible place where you can leave for appointments would be very valuable.

  19. Prudence Debtfree says :

    I thought at first that this was a “for millennials only” post – but it’s not! I am guilty of not moving forward – or valuing a perceived “security” over all that can be gained by branching out into something new. I’m not talking about my job. For me, it’s about my writing. Hmmm… Thanks for this, Kalie.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for reading through the post and drawing out a wider application. I always enjoy your writing so I’d be excited to see where else you might take it!

  20. Revanche at A Gai Shan Life says :

    I’ve used both tactics – staying on longer, and leaving for a new job – to advance my career. They both have benefits as long as you are actively growing your skillset and your subject matter expertise. In fact, one feeds the other. I will negotiate hard for promotions and raises based on my accomplishments, and then parlay that into my next job a level up. This has worked well because (in my industry) your biggest raises are when you change companies. The increase in salary usually gets capped at 15% at most companies even when you take on a promotion because they don’t like to show that much change in one person’s salary. 15% is great when you’re in the same job, it’s not good enough if you’re essentially doubling your portfolio or responsibilities.

    • Kalie says :

      Great point that there is a synergy between making career moves and growing your skills & expertise. I’m glad to hear you’ve found success with both approaches and negotiated based on what you accomplished. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  21. Edward K. Motley says :

    There is a balancing point to benefits using this method. Like The Green Swan noted above, career “jumpers” have a disadvantage because the next employer will see a long list of 2-3 year stints and recognize that they are likely to be treated the same way. If there is any real competition for that role, then the job offer will likely go to other candidates first.

    That said, the average vesting schedule shows how employers’ expectations have shifted to shorter-term employ. Ten years ago, the average vesting schedule was 6-7 years but, nowadays, it seems to be closer to three years. Even the change from pensions to the more common 401(k)s showed when expectations shifted.

    As for my own advice to people starting out, I would weigh all the opportunities that a job presents before deciding what to take. When I re-careered into law recently, I took one job that paid less in a small firm than a better job in a big firm because I recognized that I’d get real-life, first-hand experience on a lot more cases with the small firm. At a large firm, I would only get to do what the supervisors allowed. Overall, I got about three years of work experience in one year at the small firm (which was then used to get a great paying job elsewhere). That said, I had the career experience already so the better job in a big firm may be the right choice to learn all avenues of the job culture.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for sharing your advice and experience, Edward. I agree that jumping too often can be unwise, for the reasons you stated. This advice is more geared for the person who is overstaying because it’s more comfortable to, instead of growing both their career and income. In all cases, considering overall career growth is important.

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