For college students looking for experience, working for the family business might seem like a no brainer. But, is it a good idea? Can family members be objective enough to provide honest feedback? And will recruiters or hiring managers view working for your family as “real” experience?
Less than half of college seniors feel very prepared for a career, and if you’re considering this type of work arrangement to bolster your resume, consider the following factors:
When the goal is to gain experience
According to Helene Cruz, director of career counseling at Pace University, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, so the school advises students on a case-by-case basis.
“At Pace, we have many students whose families own businesses both in the U.S. and overseas.”
Cruz believes that working in the family business can help students develop and practice the types of skills needed to succeed in a career.
Monique Frost, associate director of career and professional development at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University, believes that it can be beneficial to work for the family, but she also thinks it would be helpful to work for someone who might fire them.
“It is best if a student interns or volunteers with their family business early in their career exploration journey if possible.” She explains, “This will allow students to gain insight and knowledge about that particular industry, as well as the dynamics surrounding working with family members.”
However, Frost also thinks students can benefit from interning/working at other companies.
“Learning from others can add tremendous value to a student’s or new grad’s ability to collaborate with constituents outside of their current network, receive open and honest feedback – without family bias – and gain insights and perspectives from a diverse range of people.”
One person who is firmly against working for the family is Jonathan Pellegrin, formerly chairman and CEO of Johnson Hill Press, a retired University of Wisconsin-Madison business professor, and the author of “The Art of Selling the Family Business.” According to Pellegrin, “If it’s the college student’s own family business, I don’t think it’s a good idea, because early experience is extremely important.”
Pellegrin says hiring managers are looking for certain traits in job applicants – especially with entry-level jobs.
“I believe the first test for a college student to prove his/her commitment and competence is to get a job – a good job, doing real work.”
He says this demonstrates a commitment to building a successful career.
When the goal is to work for the family
Some students might only work for the family to gain experience, and others might work there until they can find a job in their field. However, many students plan on making a career working for the family.
Pellegrin believes these individuals still need to work for another company first.
“The best experience you can get if you are planning to join the family company is working in a similar sized company that operates a similar type of business.”
And, he believes another family business would be ideal.
However, he warns against taking a job that does not have a meaningful function.
“It’s important that your work assignment is real—an assignment where you are actually making a contribution,” Pellegrin says. “I would be inclined to make less money in exchange for solid experience,” he says.
On the other hand, some people believe that staying within the family’s company can provide all of the experience a student or graduate would need. For example, Shiv Khera, founder and CEO of Qualified Learning Systems, Inc, and the author of “You Can Win: A Step-by-Step Tool for Top Achievers,” believes this environment provides an excellent training experience.
“What one learns under the tutelage of family heads is invaluable and what family heads teach cannot be substituted with any teaching in the world.” Khera explains, “The family heads teach and train without any ulterior motive – they don’t feel insecure of their positons; in fact, they are the happiest to see their kids rise and even surpass them.”
Regarding honest feedback, Khera says that would depend on several factors, such as the familial relationship and the student’s maturity level.
“Most likely, the feedback is going to be honest because both of them have a vested interest in the give-over and the take-over, and stakes are too high.” In fact, Khera believes this is a win-win situation. “The top guy (parent) has a great opportunity to do succession planning, and the successor can transition in smoothly.”
One person with first-hand experience is Jessica Hawthorne, CEO of Hawthorne Direct, a technology-based advertising agency specializing in analytics and accountable brand campaigns. It is a 30-year-old family company, but Jessica says that initially, she did not want to work there.
“Out of college, I trained as a talent agent and eventually was promoted to agent and represented some of the top TV talent in Hollywood.” However, her father had other plans. “He thought our destiny would be that he eventually drop this agency business and I would represent him as a big Hollywood director.” She says it took seven years for her to eventually join the company. “And, it wasn’t at my father’s insistence – it was based on the encouragement of his other staff members, who wanted to see a second iteration of the agency and its rebirth.”
Hawthorne says it was a happy surprise to both her and her father that she actually liked working in the ad business.
“It ended up being the best decision, but likely because I never fell back on my family business and literally never thought I would work in it.”
She believes that it’s best to work somewhere else before joining the family business.
“I would also say, work at the biggest company possible to see how a large corporation operates, and if you end up going to work in the family business, you can apply the best and worst of those learnings.”