How to set a five-year career plan

Even in the recession brought on by COVID-19, says author Elana Lynn Gross, it’s possible to plan a great future.

How to set a five-year career plan

You can still make a five-year career plan, despite the down market.

These are grim times to be a new college graduate making a career plan. In the shakiest job market since the Great Depression, about half of U.S. employers have announced hiring freezes and put summer internships on hold. What’s more, COVID-19 has shut down so many local businesses that millions of old stand-by summer jobs—like your restaurant-server or golf-caddy gig from seasons past—just aren’t there this year.

Luckily, the situation is a not as hopeless than it might seem. “Right now, it’s important to accept that you might not be able to get the kind of job you ultimately want,” says Elana Lynn Gross, author of a new book, What Next? Your Five-Year Plan for Life After College.  “But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a career plan and start working toward it.”

One way to do that: “Concentrate your search on industries that are still doing lots of hiring, like tech, health care, and remote customer service.” It helps, too, to “keep an open mind and apply for all kinds of opportunities. Don’t overlook temp jobs and freelance work,” Gross says. “It’s all valuable experience.”

Monster asked Gross how the Class of 2020 can make a smart five-year career plan, in spite of the current recession.  

Monster: In this economy, with so much uncertainty, why does a five-year career plan still make sense?

Gross:  It’s really all about setting goals. You get much farther with a plan, like having a road map for a trip. And your plan can certainly change as circumstances change. You can always reset your goals as you go along.

A plan that will serve you well should follow the acronym SMART, for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound, and my book explains how to do that. Otherwise, it’s too easy to look back after a few years and wonder where the time went.

Monster: Why are “time-bound” goals important?

Gross:  Setting deadlines for reaching different stages helps you keep yourself accountable for staying on track. Five years is a long time, so you can break down your goals into short-term, medium-term, and long-term. This makes your goals more concrete, so you’re more likely to meet them, even if you need to make some changes as you go.

Monster: What if, in this beginning phase of a career, you don’t really know yet what you want to do, or you have several possibilities in mind?

Gross:  Choosing a path, even a tentative one at first, takes self-reflection. Hone in on what’s really important to you, without getting distracted by what other people expect of you. Write down the details, everything from the size of the employer, to the kind of culture where you’d be comfortable, to what kind of money you want or need to make.

One exercise in the book that works well is to divide your list into categories I call “Stop, Start, Continue.” The first one is what you know for sure you don’t want. Follow that with “Start,” which includes what you hope to find, including skills you want to learn. “Continue” is about looking for a job that will use and expand on the strengths and skills you already have.

If you’re not sure what those strengths are, I tell in the book how to get a clearer picture by asking 10 relatives, friends, and former bosses or coworkers from internships or part-time jobs. They may surprise you!

Monster: Suppose your experience isn’t directly relevant to the field you’d like to enter. What do you say to interviewers?

Gross: Always remember that, at this stage of your life, no one expects you to have hands-on experience in a particular area. For example, your only work experience so far may have been as a summer camp counselor, but you’re applying for jobs in accounting. That’s okay!

Especially at the entry level, employers are looking for people who will work hard and learn as they go. Those qualities are much more important than specific job skills that they can teach you later. Interviewers also look for forward or upward progress. If you got a promotion from cashier to assistant manager, for instance, be sure to highlight that. If you’ve been involved in extracurricular activities like sports, don’t forget to describe what you learned, and what goals you achieved. Those count, too.

Monster: Are there any essential details that new grads need to know right now?

Gross: Two things that are really important in this job market are, first, target each resume and application to a specific job opening. Use the exact keywords in each job description. It takes more time, but it’s worth it, because it will get you past the ATS [applicant tracking software] system to an actual human manager.

And second, use your network — your friends, parents, their friends, alumni associations from your school, and anyone else you know. Be positive and persistent. In this environment, it may take longer than it normally would, but you will find a job.

Stay connected

Could you use more help making professional connections during this time? Join Monster for free today. As a member, you can upload up to five versions of your resume—each tailored to the types of jobs that interest you. Recruiters search Monster every day looking to fill top jobs with qualified candidates, just like you. Additionally, you can get job alerts sent directly to your inbox to cut down on time spent looking through ads. Those are two quick and easy ways Monster can help your career continue to move forward.

Anne Fisher has been writing about career and workplace trends and topics since 1994. She is the author of If My Career’s on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map?