Moving up in a down economy

For the ambitious, entry-level jobs are far from a dead end

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / September 12, 2010

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When Heather Callahan started working for the Transportation Security Administration screening passengers at Logan International Airport in 2002, she looked at the airport’s deputy federal security director and thought: “I wonder why I can’t have his job?’’

Six years later, she did.

Getting there meant going above and beyond what the job description called for, Callahan said, including “volunteering for less desirable shifts, volunteering for new assignments — anything that you can do to show that you’re willing to try something new or willing to be somebody that can be depended on.’’

With the unemployment rate continuing to push the 10 percent mark and jobs still scarce, more people are looking at entry-level positions they once might have shunned as a way to jump back into the workforce. But ground-level positions that don’t require a college degree aren’t necessarily dead-end jobs: By combining on-the-job training with a willingness to learn new skills and take on additional work, analysts say, ambitious workers can parlay lower-level jobs into high-powered careers.

Diving into a brand-new field in an entry-level position is always a big leap of faith, but the fact that the job market is so up in the air now can actually work to job seekers’ advantage, said Aaron Green, president of Professional Staffing Group.

“There’s just so much resetting that’s going on,’’ he said. “You’re probably better off resetting with the rest of the world.’’

Many companies offer training programs to help eager entry-level employees move up. Logan TSA employees have more opportunities for advancement than those at other airports because of all the programs that are tested in Boston, said George Naccara, the TSA’S federal security director at Logan. The TSA also offers free college-level homeland security classes to officers who screen passengers.

“It’s very competitive to try and move up,’’ Naccara said, “so you’ve got to make some kind of distinction.’’

Up through the ranks
Hundreds of transportation security officers have moved through the ranks at Logan; in fact, almost every one of the 24 security managers — who oversee the terminals and make between $56,000 and $110,000 a year — started off as an officer looking through bags and frisking passengers — a $32,000-a-year job that doesn’t require a college degree or security background.

For her part, Callahan, 43, had been negotiating contracts for engineering construction companies when she decided to apply for a TSA job, which meant making a third of what she used to but having more time with her then-12-year-old son. “I’m probably somebody who watches too much Court TV and reads too many mystery novels. So I thought ‘Oh, this could be an interesting change,’ ’’ she said.

It didn’t take long before Callahan moved from searching passengers and screening bags in a TSA-issued uniform — sometimes volunteering to come in at 1:30 a.m. to start up the equipment — to wearing a suit and overseeing an entire terminal as a screening manager. After a stint with Logan’s behavior detection pilot program and a transfer to Arlington, Va., to execute the program nationwide, Callahan moved back to Boston in 2008 to become the number two TSA employee at Logan, making almost $100,000 more a year than when she started six years before.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the state’s largest employer with 6,100 employees, now is offering assistance to employees who want to move up the ladder. The MBTA is piloting a 10-month-old mentoring program called Lifting As We Climb. Currently, 23 employees from plumbers to garage superintendents are matched with mentors who spend a minimum of two hours a month exposing them to higher-level jobs — showing them the ropes, taking them to meetings, and encouraging them to get additional training and take college classes.

A substantial portion of the MBTA workforce is eligible to retire, and this program — which officials hope to open up to the entire workforce next year — will help prepare new employees for a long career, officials say. “Hopefully they’ll be the future of the T,’’ said Bill Perez, deputy general manager of employee and labor relations.

Burgers to boardroom
McDonald’s is known for turning its cashiers and sandwich makers into supervisors and managers. Everyone from aspiring store managers to suppliers and owner-operator hopefuls can enroll in leadership and restaurant operations courses at the college-accredited Hamburger University — there’s even a drive-through simulation class where managers can practice handling a busy lunch hour with a broken machine or a short staff. The classes last from two days to a week and can result in up to three college credits.

About a third of the company’s senior managers started out as restaurant crew members, including Maura Havenga, who began her McDonald’s career in 1976 at a fry station in Chicago and today is senior vice president in charge of worldwide operations, equipment, training, and standards.

In her 34 years with the company, Havenga worked her way from store manager to area supervisor to franchise consultant, taught at Hamburger University, and directed real estate development.

In 1998, she became a vice president, overseeing 5,000 restaurants on the East Coast and handling the $10 billion North America supply chain before stepping into her current global role in 2005.

Moving through the ranks is all about knowing where you want to go, what you need to get there, and who you need to know, Havenga said. “Am I still making fries? I am,’’ she said, only now she’s in charge of making sure they are the best fries they can be.

Mark McBee also knows a thing or two about how to move up. He started out grilling hamburgers as a 16-year-old at a Seattle-area McDonald’s, worked his way through the ranks, and bought his first store 12 years later. On his way up, he learned every job, from making fries to managing a restaurant to overseeing several stores; he took classes at Hamburger University and saved money for a down payment all the while. Today, he and his wife, who also started out as a McDonald’s crew member, own 13 restaurants on the South Shore and Cape Cod.

His initial success, he said, was all about going the extra mile to impress his manager. “If she told me to be there at 4, I’d always be there at 3:30,’’ McBee said. “If she would assign me to clean the baseboards in the lobby, I’d do everything I could to make sure they were the cleanest baseboards she’d ever seen.’’

Where to start?
Of course, not every company has ample opportunities for career advancement, and employment specialists advise job seekers to look into internships or volunteer in the field they’re interested in before they apply for a job. Using the networking website LinkedIn is also a good way to find employees who have successfully risen through the ranks, they say. And they advise that people don’t discount jobs at call centers and in customer service departments; these positions are a good way to learn a company and figure out if its goals match your own.

But employees don’t have to focus their entry-level searches on large companies, job specialists say. Bigger institutions may have more jobs to be promoted into, but smaller firms call on their employees to perform a wide range of tasks, which translates into experience necessary for higher-level jobs.

“You can wear a million hats,’’ said Jeanine Hamilton, president of Hire Partnership, a Boston staffing firm.

Career professionals say employees looking to get ahead should take their career progression into their own hands: meeting with department heads and asking them how they got where they are, taking on challenging assignments, and looking into getting extra training.

“Treat your current job as an interview for your next job,’’ said Alp Perahya, New England area vice president for the staffing firm Randstad.

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at