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The Road Ahead : People joining the job market today face a much different career path than did their parents. Experts say mastering multiple skills is key.


Alex Manzo graduated from UCLA with a degree in business economics earlier this month. This fall, the 23-year-old will head to New York to begin work as an analyst at the venerable Wall Street firm of J.P. Morgan & Co. to the tune of $36,000 a year.

Sounds like Manzo is set for life, right? Wrong.

Unlike his parents or grandparents, who could have expected to go to work for a company after graduation and receive a gold watch upon retirement from the same company 40 years later, Manzo's stint with J.P. Morgan probably will last only three years, and he likely will work for several companies before he is 30 years old.

Compared with previous generations, people joining the job market today are far more likely to work for a small firm or be self-employed. Instead of retiring to Florida at age 65, they will probably ease into some kind of part-time consulting work in their golden years.

That is what career experts say will be a typical career path for members of the class of 1996. Although each worker's career is as unique as a fingerprint, there are broad trends that will set today's graduates apart from their predecessors.

For example, various studies indicate that twentysomethings will hold an average of six to 10 different jobs in their lifetimes, including five before age 40; that they will work for at least five different companies; and that they will change careers two or three times before retirement, which will be later in life.

All of that means workers must be self-reliant.

"The days when an employer is going to take care of you are gone," said Lesley Mallow Wendell, director of client services at Options Inc., a career advice and human resources consulting firm in Philadelphia. "Employers can turn around and downsize you or lay you off. The more flexible you can be and the more skills you have, the better."

To protect themselves, graduates should embark on what experts are calling "portfolio careers" and master as many different skills as possible, said Rhea Nagle, information director for the National Assn. for Colleges and Employers.

"The idea is, if you're not going to be at one company for your entire working life, you should take advantage of learning all the skills that you can because when you're looking for another job, you can take those skills with you," Nagle said.

Because skills are considered paramount, many recent grads start their careers in unpaid or low-paying internships that last only three to six months but provide valuable hands-on experience.

Manzo spent his summers working as an intern at a law firm and in the finance department of a broadcast company.

"A lot of employers are looking for experience, and you can't just say, 'I worked for a supermarket for a couple of summers,' " he said. "I wanted to build my qualitative and quantitative skills."

Those skills also can be acquired during short-term stints in community service positions or by taking a temporary job. UCLA's Career Center even sponsors a job fair called the Temporary Connection, which features temp agencies that specialize in fields such as biotechnology and accounting.

When it comes to that first full-time job, today's graduates may have to settle for something less than their dream job. They may have to put up with longer hours, less pay and less prestige than they expected, but they can still learn a lot.

"You can get some pretty good skills in some of those opportunities that college students typically turn their noses at," Wendell said.

Besides, "even if it's a less-than-perfect position, you don't have to look at it as if you're going to stay there forever," said Betsy Collard, program director at the Career Action Center in Palo Alto, which counsels 250 job seekers a day. "As long as you keep an eye on learning and growth, you are really building your employability."

That first job can last as little as a year and rarely extends past five years. When the learning curve starts to flatten, it's time to start looking for a new opportunity, either in the same company or elsewhere.

After the first couple of jobs in the first five years or so, workers should have a good idea about what they are looking for in a job and what their long-term career goals are. For many, the five-year mark is the time to consider a return to graduate school for specialized training in business, law or another field.

Moving into a position with more responsibility is likely to mean a stint with a small company, experts say. Working for a small company used to carry a stigma, and being part of a small firm may require licking some envelopes and taking out the trash. But with opportunities to participate in more parts of the business, their appeal among today's graduates is growing.

"They learn all facets of the business rather than just a narrow job, and that's good for the employee," said Wade Hawley, director of the Career Development Center at Cal State Long Beach, where about 3,500 students have graduated this spring.

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