Recent graduates may think they’ve got the degree and that’s all there is to being a success, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Whether they like it or not, newcomers often find out that paying your dues is a real thing in the workplace.

Is paying your dues an outdated concept?

Nearly a decade ago, I was working with someone who felt the concept of “paying your dues” was outdated and irrelevant. I thought carefully before responding to his statement because I didn’t want to come off as arrogant or insensitive to his feelings. It’s often too easy for more mature and experienced colleagues to pontificate to younger, less experienced staff about how, “in my day we did things this way.” I have found this isn’t usually received well and can be counter-productive.

Education versus experience

Education is important, but I tried to explain when anyone is in a new environment, be it in a job or another pursuit, there are dues to be paid in the process of getting acquainted with the culture, setting, and environment. Education is the foundation for actually doing the job, but not the only thing it takes to be successful. The young person protested and told me that ideas, intellect, and talent matter more than experience, and there’s no reason a recent college graduate couldn’t be as successful, if not more, than a seasoned employee. In my opinion, that just isn’t the case in the real world – and particularly in the defense industry.

Paying your dues doesn’t have to be painful

This brings up some good points about what makes a person an ideal employee, and I have touched on this subject in previous articles, but the long and short of this argument is this – everyone has something to contribute to a workplace, and especially for government contractors who work alongside federal employees, there is a culture of being what the client needs at all times and being able to anticipate what is expected and required for the job. This isn’t something you will learn in college, no matter how smart you are. Education and degrees matter for technical work to be done, but in my experience, value in the workplace must be a combination of technical skill AND experience — and the kind of experience that is developed over time.

Pay attention and pay your dues for a successful transition to experienced worker

The most important part of paying your dues is to be open to learning and growing and appreciating guidance and mentorship. Everyone has to start somewhere, and no matter how bright, eager, talented, or special a person may be, nothing can fully prepare you for the workplace until you get there. Putting in the time and effort to pay attention, give ideas, and learn as you go can make the experience less awkward and more productive. Time goes by quickly, and dues will be paid. Then it’s upward and onward to more experience, knowledge, and understanding of what makes a truly valuable and employable person in the workforce.

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Diana M. Rodriguez is a native Washingtonian who works as a professional freelance writer, commentator, and blogger; as well as a public affairs, website content and social media manager for the Department of Defense.