Why Young Women Should Job Surf

People have often asked me what “career path” I took to becoming a management consultant to social justice organizations. Sometimes I give them my revisionist history, which makes it seem as though I consciously chose all my earlier jobs as building blocks toward this career. But more often I tell them the truth, which is that I simply took jobs that interested me, and where I ended up was mostly a function of serendipity.I know that young women today face much tougher economic conditions than I did when I graduated from college in 1962. Many are also saddled with significant debt, so I understand their concern about job security. Nonetheless, I think young women should use the years after they graduate to pursue a variety of interests, test out different jobs, and not rush into choosing a profession.businesswomanI, for one, had no idea in my twenties what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I suspect that many young women today find it just as hard as I did to see a clear path forward. In fact, 50% of over 10,000 young adults surveyed by MonsterTRAK and Michigan State University reported that their career-life plans were unfocused or only starting to take shape. Nearly 65% said they were probably going to engage in “job surfing,” moving from job to job in search of the right job.My own experience suggests that young people are well served by spending their twenties in this kind of experimentation and quest for personal identity.  Between 1962 and 1975, I zigzagged between no less than eight different jobs!First, I was an intern with Lou Harris, the political public opinion pollster. While most of my work—coding answers to polling questions—was boring, each week I met with Lou to learn what his polling was showing and what it meant for candidates’ election strategies. I left Lou Harris to work for a political newspaper columnist, Sam Lubell, interviewing voters and helping to analyze Congressional and Presidential elections.  In 1966 I got married, moved from New York to Washington, and became a reporter for BNA Publications, covering Congress, the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department on consumer protection and antitrust matters.  I quit that job to have a baby, but when my son was 8 months old, I went back to work part-time for the nation’s first public interest law firm, the Center for Law and Social Policy. CLASP’s strategy was to file a lawsuit challenging the government and then drum up such massive media attention that the government would be pressured into adopting the policy change CLASP wanted. My job was to get the media coverage. One of our first victories was getting DDT banned.In late 1969, four young attorneys connected to CLASP and I created the Project on Corporate Responsibility, the first organization to focus public attention on the major impact U.S. corporations have on vital public interests such as equal opportunity in employment, consumer safety, and environmental protection. The Project’s inaugural action was the Campaign to Make General Motors Responsible —a proxy campaign aimed at showing how GM, then the largest company in the world, was using its unchecked power to the detriment of Americans. After serving as press secretary for Campaign GM, I became the Project’s communications and development director.The Project was so successful that Nixon put us on his infamous Enemies List. That was a proud moment for us, but it resulted in the Internal Revenue Service revoking our tax exemption. We sued, charging that the IRS action was politically motivated. We eventually won, but not before the Project’s inability to get foundation grants put us out of business. I then went to work for the policy office of Consumers Union, investigating corporate abuses like the irresponsible promotion of infant formula to impoverished mothers in developing countries.It wasn’t until 1975, when I took a job with the Council for Public Interest Law, that the kind of career I wanted began to take shape. My job was to investigate what public interest advocacy organizations needed to do to strengthen their organizational muscle and ensure their long-term staying power. As a result of that study I became known as an expert on the organizational problems these groups faced. They began calling me for help and my career as a consultant to social justice organizations began.So my message to you is: Follow your interests and your hearts. Job surfing worked for me and it will probably work for you.