Sometime last year, when my program was just getting off the ground, just about all of my work sites were going through the normal growing pains.  If you’ve never been part of a start-up venture, let me tell you that it can really be a frustrating process!  First priority is always to get enough butts placed in seats, but after that the employees will often find their roles and responsibilities being redefined in order to better meet the needs of the contract.

                One of my most vivid memories of this frustration was when one of my vehicle inspectors basically refused to cross-train in another area.  With just a hint of attitude, the guy told me that working access control wasn’t in his job description.  And just to reinforce his point, the guy actually whipped out a printed copy of the vacancy announcement that he had applied to, with the “Job Duties” section highlighted!     

                Now I figure that a guy must be pretty disgruntled if he gets to the point where he’s carrying around a job description in his shirt pocket.  I’m not sure where this dude came from or who might have urinated in his Cheerios at some point, but it’s a given that you’ll find at least a couple of people determined to do only the bare minimum in pretty much any job.  When I was working in Iraq, we had a group of contractors who didn’t ever want to go outside the wire.  They used a similar argument, claiming that running missions with MP units wasn’t in their job description.  You can find these guys in almost any military unit as well.  Just ask for the local “barracks lawyer”.

 I’ve never been one to get my feelings hurt if an employee is having a bad day and needs to blow off some steam.  Everybody gripes about their work, so I expect to hear a little of that.  But see, here’s the thing:  By telling me that he didn’t want to do any work outside of his narrow job description, this employee was basically saying that he wasn’t ready for any type of additional responsibilities.  In an instant, I had mentally crossed him off the list for any advancement opportunities.

                But let me contrast that disgruntled guy by describing an unpaid intern I worked with last month.  This kid was a senior at one of the local colleges and just happened to be a whiz with computers.  His major project during his time with us was to redesign our staffing database, working to sync it up with our training rosters and equipment issue records.  It might not sound very exciting, but in a program with over 800 employees the time spent on data entry for little stuff like this really adds up.  But what really blows my mind is that this kid put his little project together in only a couple of days!  A mouth-breather like me could have been pounding away at the keyboard for years and never have gotten the same results.  To make a long story short, after the kid made his presentation our Program Manager was so impressed that he basically begged our Director to cut loose enough funding to hire the kid on a part-time basis!

                See, that’s the Golden Rule of Hiring:  It’s your experience counts the most.  Sure, all that training or education is great, but what really counts is what you can do for a company.  A hiring manager needs to know that you’re capable of doing the job you applied for, and the best way for you to prove that is to have already done the work.  I know, I know, unpaid internships are great if you’re a full-time college student and no better way to kill time while you’re waiting around for Happy Hour to kick off.  But here’s the thing:  even if you’re working full-time, you can make an unpaid internship work for you, and you won’t even have to look for another company or set up any kind of formal arrangement.  Basically, it’s as simple as:

                -Expressing your interest in the work.  It might sound crazy, but if you act like you actually care about your job then you’ll probably stand out from the good majority of the “clock-punchers”.  Asking questions like “How does this work?”  or “How can I learn more about this?”  Show that you’re committed to improving yourself and making your project succeed.

                -Next, once your boss knows that you exist, look for ways to leverage your interest into opportunity.  If your manager appears overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to offer your assistance.  Even taking on a simple chore like putting together the guardmount schedule or conducting the equipment inventories will be greatly appreciated by an overloaded manager.  More importantly, you’re picking up experience doing these new duties, which looks great on your resume.

                -Keep in mind that in any job, people are going to come and go and advancement opportunities are usually just a matter of waiting for the billet to come open.  Over the years I’ve worked with plenty of supervisors who’ve been promoted not for their skills, but because they were available when the opening came up!  But when these slots do come open, remember that the easiest transition will be to fill the position with the guy who’s already been doing the job.  This is where an unofficial, unpaid internship can really pay off for you.

                -Last, keep in mind that security contracting is a portable career, and it’s a certainty that you’ll change positions and companies several times.  If you’re the type of person who takes on additional challenges and never lets work go undone, you’re sure to get a good referral from your former boss.  When I make my calls to an applicant’s references, I love to hear phrases like “hard worker”, “dependable”, “shows initiative” and “gets things done”.  When I hear those key words I know that this is someone who I can train, and I’m not so focused on acquiring a specific MOS-based skill set.

                Hey, I wouldn’t be recommending a course of action for your career development if I wasn’t actually putting it into practice myself.  I’ve really become interested in learning more about the recruiting and hiring process, so I’ve picked that field for my own personal internship.  I frequently bother our recruiters to learn more about our company’s hiring practices.  I’m always sending some good referrals their way, even if it’s for other work regions or a completely different program.  The way I see it, working as a full-time recruiter might be a fun duty if I ever get tired of the baby mama drama that comes with operations management.  In the meantime, it can’t hurt any to let people know that I’m interested in that kind of work, and fully capable of doing it.

                Basically, I guess your willingness to take on an unpaid internship role is just one more example of what type of employee you are, a hard-charging go getter or Mister Good Enough.  That’s your call, but keep in mind that managers and employees usually only remember two types of co-workers:  the stellar performers and the complete sandbags.

                Which one do you want to be remembered as?