I can’t get out of low-level admin work — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I have a bachelor’s degree relevant to my field and seven years of work experience, about six years of which is in the same job function that I have now. I’m 29 and in my third job out of college.

I am in an entry level marketing job (as I also was before) and I am unsure of how, and when I should expect to, move forward in my career. Part of the challenge is just what jobs are available — relevant openings seem to be either entry level or require 10+ years of specialized experience, and not a lot in between.

That said, I’ve certainly never been afraid of doing the admin office work that comes with an entry-level job — managing people’s calendars, cleaning the office, ordering supplies, etc. — as long as I have the hope of eventually someday not being an admin-assistant-with-a-hint-of-marketing. Nothing against being an admin or executive assistant; it’s just not what I want to do in the long run. I eventually want to be a valued, seasoned marketing professional, and I thought I was on the right track for this. My managers know this. The classic problem is that the admin tasks will always need to be done by someone, so I end up getting stuck because that’s what the team needs and there’s no opportunities to move beyond my tasks. I understand that, truly, but I’ve been in my current job a year and I’m trending in the wrong direction. More and more admin tasks are getting added to my role rather than me growing into strategic tasks or learning new things. (Same thing at my last job as well.)

One of my managers has all but said that I am young and inexperienced and that’s why she thinks I’m great for admin work. (Probably worth noting that a previous manager hired me.) She often calls me her assistant and other people’s assistant, though that’s not my title or what I was hired for, so creating that assumption creates more admin tasks for me. One thing she said to me recently: “You’re young so you might not understand this yet, but something you need to get used to as a junior employee is taking lip sometimes from people above you.” (That told me a lot about her management philosophy…)

Again, this general experience is very similar to my last job. I’m disappointed, especially since both companies made a point to tell me during the interviews that they love nurturing younger employees and helping people find ways to tailor parts of the job to their specific skillsets. I understand that there’s only so much companies can do to nurture employees when the mundane tasks still have to be done, but I’ve had great managers before who “would if they could” and at least I knew they were in my corner. Right now, I don’t get the sense that my manager would recommend me for a relevant higher role if one was available because in her mind I am solidly “just an admin” with no experience.

I know you will tell it to me straight — am I trying to be “too big for my britches” in wanting more advanced work? I have great respect for my colleagues who have decades of experience, and I am aware that I don’t and that I’m young — though I admit I’m getting tired of having age thrown in my face at work. I can’t change my age anymore than my boss can change hers, but I do know that I am more skilled and knowledgeable than I was at 22 (thankfully, ha!) and I strive to do my best work. Is doing admin work because I’m young my only option right now? Do I need to temper expectations of climbing the ladder?

You’re not “too big for your britches.”

If you were 22 or 23 and in your first job right out of college, I’d say that yes, you need to temper your expectations — that this can be normal for a first job right out of school in this type of field.

But you’ve been out of school for seven years and are in your third job since graduating. You shouldn’t be in an entry-level position at all at this point … so I suspect the problem is the job itself, and maybe the jobs you’ve been applying for.

If I’m right and you’ve been aiming too low in the jobs you target, then it doesn’t really matter that companies tell you during interviews that they like to nurture younger employees or tailor people’s jobs to their skill sets. That may be the case, but if the job you’re hired into is one with a heavy component of admin work, then that’s the job.

That doesn’t necessarily explain why your manager has given you the sense that she wouldn’t recommend promoting you … but it’s really common for people to get pigeonholed into admin work once they’re doing a lot of it, and it can be hard to get out of that without changing companies.

I advise two things:

1. Have a very direct conversation with your boss where you ask exactly what you’d need to do to get promoted. Tell her your goal is for that to happen within the next year and you’d like to put together a plan that will position you well for that. Her reaction will tell you a lot — and her actions will tell you even more. Even if she gives lip service to the idea of helping you get promoted, pay attention to what she actually does. If she doesn’t take real action to help, assume it’s not happening at this company.

And regardless of the outcome of that discussion…

2. Job search, and this time target different positions. You shouldn’t be applying for entry-level positions at all, because you’re not entry-level. Aim for a level or two up. And to the extent you can, leave the admin work off your resume — focus as much as possible on the marketing work you’ve done, even though it’s not the largest part of your job currently. If you can’t avoid talking about the admin stuff because it’s so much of what you do, be sure you’re talking about it in terms that emphasize the marketing pieces of it (which you can often do by focusing on the outcomes your work achieved, not just the activities you engaged in).

I suspect the fact that you’ve ended up in three entry-level jobs means that you’re prone to underselling yourself — maybe in interviews, but definitely in the jobs you select to apply for in the first place. So try out applying for some jobs you don’t think you’re fully qualified for — not outrageous stretches, but jobs that feel a little beyond what you think you could get. People are often surprised when they do this; it’s not uncommon to end up getting interviews and even offers for jobs you otherwise would have assumed were out of reach.

The idea isn’t to take a job that you don’t feel you can handle; you don’t want to set yourself up to fail, of course. Instead, the idea is to test the theory that you’re qualified for higher-level jobs than the ones you’ve been targeting —  and to see if employers agree rather than screening yourself out before you’ve even applied.

Also, if you had particularly good rapport with any managers or more senior colleagues at previous jobs, now would be a good time to reach out to them. Explain what you’re trying to do and the obstacles you’re running into and ask if they have advice for you. A lot of people love to advise younger colleagues and, as people who know you and your work, they might have useful insights about moving up (or actual job leads that they’d be willing to recommend you for).

Since you wrote to ask if you’re aiming too high, I know it might be weird to hear that you’re aiming too low … but I think in fact you are.

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