Why are there so few entry level roles?
This is, unsurprisingly, a very popular question I get asked regularly.
What are some reasons companies like Apple and other FAANGs can't/won't hire and support junior career transitioning talent at scale? I mean beyond the very few internships and college / diversity hiring pipelines? (55 likes)
There is something I don't understand about this situation. There are so many entry-level designers ready for unpaid work to get some experience with real life projects. Why companies do not take them as interns allowing to participate in the projects, contribute with fresh ideas, small tasks, etc. ? It's a win-win situation! However we see that even unpaid internship is so hard to get even with startups. Every company or a startup project will only win from accepting interns. Correct me if I am wrong (2 likes)
Why do Entry-level UX jobs require 3-5 years of experience? It's so frustrating because we need experience to get the job and no one is offering that.
I was planning on answering this one first because it’s such a regular ask, but it turns out it’s taken me a few weeks to really even come up with an answer.
Honestly, you shouldn’t consider what I’m about to say definitive. Every team and every company are different. I know it often feels like “UX” is a cohesive well organized thing, but the reality is it’s a messy, uneven, disorganized thing that is just a little bit different everywhere it’s practiced. That’s important to keep in mind for almost any answer you get to questions about this field, but it’s especially important to keep in mind on this topic. There isn’t a single answer that is going to apply to every situation out there. You’re going to see a lot of “(usually)” sprinkled throughout this one, and that’s because I want to make it clear that while I have seen or heard whatever it is a lot, that does not mean it’s always that way. These answers might be uncomfortable for some people because they are in a situation I have flagged as “bad” but things are working for them. If that’s you please remember that I am not talking about you, I don’t even know who you are. Remember though, just because it’s working for you doesn’t mean it’s working for everyone. With that in mind, here’s what I think and what I’ve heard from others in my position.
The team isn’t set up for it
I can hear the angry comments being typed already. Sometimes this often repeated explanation is actually true for a few different reasons. The one you probably hear the most often is “We don’t have the team/time to give entry level folks the attention they need.” Sometimes that’s actually true because of one of the following:
Embedded teams are particularly bad places for entry level folks to be, and this model is still very popular. In an embedded team (usually) a single designer is assigned to a product manager or two and a group of engineers. That team acts as a single unit and most of the time the product manager is the de facto head of the team. This model is very popular with product managers because they get to be the mini-head of design and engineering for whatever the team’s scope is. ( This is where all the “CEO of the feature/product” nonsense comes from.) The engineers are mostly unaffected here, because there are usually at least 3 or 4 of them, but almost always more than one, so they can form their own small community of practice and get all the benefits of being a functional team. Designers on embedded teams are pretty much on their own. This can be fine for more experienced folks, although imo even the best designers in the world do worse work when they’re forced to work in isolation. I’ve had many gigs where I was the only designer and I simply won’t do it anymore at a company that has more than 3 employees, but a lot of people are really into it. Working without a community of practice is just really hard, and usually leads to worse work than you’d get working with one. There is a lot of pressure from the people on the team who (usually) don’t understand what goes into the work of a professional designer to just do it the way they think it should go. Companies with good leaders won’t hire entry level folks into this kind of environment because they know it will be bad for them. Companies with not so good leaders won’t hire entry level folks because they are afraid they won’t be as productive as a more experienced person. It turns out the first one is the reason for the second one but a lot of companies never realize this. Peter Merholz has written more on this particular reason and I very much agree with Peter on this: “’Agile’ is eating design’s young; or, Yet Another Reason why ‘embedding’ designers doesn’t work.
No Design Leader
Believe it or not there are a lot of companies that have design teams that are all just mid-level ICs reporting to an engineering manager or a product manager. These teams (usually) boil down to a very expensive art production team that the company doesn’t realize it’s over paying for. The designers on these teams (usually) spend a lot of time “drawing screens/wires/mocks” and not a lot of time discovering or exploring or solving a lot of things. They’re also very likely to be asked to design the t-shirt for the next company outing, a logo for the new product, and do some art work and graphic clean-up on a presentation someone else has written and will be presenting. These teams (usually) don’t hire entry level designers because they don’t think their work will be good enough, or sometimes because they pride themselves of being “a very senior team” and their egos keep them looking for anyone “too junior.” There are a surprising number of these jobs and honestly, you’re probably better off not working on a team like this, although I acknowledge everyone has to pay the bills so no judgement if you do work on a team like this. I hope you find a better job soon though.
If you’re new to this field this news may come as a surprise to you: for all the talk most companies talk about how important UX is, most UX teams are amazingly under funded. Teams that are drowning (usually) believe that they have to hire more senior talent in the rare instances they get to hire anyone, because they think that’s the only way they’re going to be able to keep their heads above water. This is a fallacy, but it feels very true to a lot of struggling leaders. I have been guilty of falling into this trap before, it’s easy to do.
A lot of companies take pride in having “very senior” teams, across all areas of the company but especially when it comes to the Product Development functions (Product Management, Engineering, Product Design & Research). They (usually) have a lot of different stories about why this is actually an asset for them, but most of them boil down to the egos being inflated by having “very senior” people working for them. Please send all your angry comments about this paragraph to email@example.com
Misunderstanding Entry Level Employee Needs
I have to credit Pavel A. Samsonov for raising this one (and Rob Jones for sharing the Tweet thread with me because I am not on Twitter much at all these days.) There is an idea that entry level folks require a lot more support than senior level folks. This is just simply not true. Paval’s view is that companies aren’t really looking for senior designers, they’re looking for “self-managing designers” and I absolutely agree. Where I, respectfully, disagree with Pavel is when he says “If anything, a senior designer is far more demanding on the org…” While he’s absolutely right that senior designers have needs and put demands on a manager, I don’t think it’s more. I think it’s just different. Companies are just looking for designers that they don’t have to manage and that is absolutely true in a lot of cases. Entry level people are not successful in those roles and frankly most people are not successful in these types of roles because they’re being setup to fail, it just takes longer to happen to more experienced people.
Let’s talk about internships and unpaid work for a sec
There is a widely held belief that internships are a great way to get cheap labor, and it’s mostly not true. Any company that is hosting a real internship experience should be paying you, not to mention most of the work they have you do are projects they’ve come up with that mostly are about giving you opportunities to learn while working along side more experienced people and maybe getting to work on something adjacent. A lot of internship projects are siloed pockets of work because the work is mostly about getting the intern some experience, and at bigger companies it’s like a 4 months paid job interview for a job when you graduate.
If you choose to do unpaid design work that is up to you, but you should be doing that because you believe you’re getting something of value out of it other than money. Only shady for-profit companies will let people work on something without paying them for it, it’s simply not an option for a lot of companies to just let you come in and work for free (for legal reasons as well as ethical ones.) But also you shouldn’t have to work for free if your skills are up to the level where those companies could use your work in their business. Working for free is not a part of any reputable internship, and it’s absolutely not at all part of an apprenticeship, so don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
So what can you do about it?
Unfortunately this isn’t really a “you” problem, dear designer, it’s an us problem. Please believe me when I say that we are the ones losing by keeping so many of you out of the industry. The reason so many of you haven’t received a satisfying answer to this question is because there isn’t one. I don’t feel any better after writing out all of the reasons above and I expect you don’t feel much better after reading them. What you can do is remember this: Entry level jobs don’t require 3-5 year experience, those are just cheapskates trying to underpay experienced folks. Also please remember it’s not you, it’s us.
Keep working on personal projects while you’re looking for your first gig. A lot of times your portfolio can override expectations of experience if you do something that really resonates with the hiring manager. A lot of the time your portfolio is the reason you’re not getting callbacks, not your lack of experience.
Consider looking into contract and freelance roles. These aren’t as stable, but they are a good way to get your foot in the door and make some connections, and the account managers who are trying to place you get paid only when you get placed, so they’re a good partner to have in your job search.
Keep networking. Who you know really matters. A note on this: Sending a blank request to connect on LinkedIn to people you’ve never met is not networking. Cold messaging people to ask for a job or if they can connect you with a hiring manager for a job is not the best networking strategy. Try this: “Hey there, [person], I see you do [thing they do] and I’m really interested in that. I know you’re really busy but I was wondering if you maybe had some time to message with me about [some specific aspect of the thing they do.]” Be specific. Don’t ask questions you could have just Googled the answer to. Most of the time when you start a conversation this way, the person you’re reaching out to will offer you help you never even asked for but totally wanted. I started my career by cold calling/emailing creative directors and asking them for “informational meetings” to just learn more about what their agencies did. Almost all of them offered to consider me for a job or pass my portfolio on to someone they know who was looking and I never asked them to. If nothing else you’ll stand out from everyone else who is doing those other things I just told you not to do.
I’m sorry I don’t have better answers for you on this one. This is a systemic problem our industry has and those of us in charge haven’t figured out how to clean it up yet, but a lot of us are trying really hard to. Hang in there, keep practicing, keep meeting people and you’ll find your way in. It’s just going to take longer than it should, and I’m really sorry that is the case.
Until next time 🤙
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