Pay your dues, but be sure to get change

Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC

I paid my dues. Time after time.

Freddie Mercury sang about paying dues in Queen’s classic song “We Are the Champions.” But do you really have to pay up to become the champion of your career?

Once upon a time paying dues was expected from almost anybody in any profession. It was just conventional wisdom that you would have to do things like get your manager a cup of coffee or take on crummy job assignments to prove your mettle to the higher-ups.

Today, it’s not that clear-cut. 

Loyalty in the workplace is scarce, meaning a company where you put in a lot of sweat equity might end up laying you off before you reap your dues-paying benefits. Moreover employees, both right out of school or embarking on new careers, don’t want to wait years before they see the big job and the big money.

So, workplace experts advise, you’ve got to evaluate for yourself whether putting in time in a not-so-great gig is going to pay off with either the job of your dreams or a fat paycheck.

Take Maria Plantilla, 30, of New York City.

She graduated from the prestigious Williams College with a BA in psychology and had dreams of a management job in human resources. She ended up as a floating office assistant for a headhunting firm getting people coffee and filling in for the receptionist when she went to the bathroom.

“There were times when I thought: ‘Is this always going to be my career? Is this what people will always see me as, an office assistant?’” she recalls.

Today she is human resources manager for, an online recruitment service for $100,000 plus jobs. “I love my job,” she raves.

Looking back, Plantilla made some smart career moves while in the dues-paying trenches. Before taking the assistant job, she made sure there were other people in the organization who had moved up from the assistant ranks. And she took initiative, approaching a manager in recruitment about giving her a chance to show what she could do.

“I said, ‘If you want to test me out for a while I could do both jobs for a couple of months.’” She got no extra money for the added work, but it landed her her first real job in HR doing recruitment research.

Norjon Hedman, national manager of rap promotions at Sony BMG’s Jive Records, started out at age 24 as an unpaid intern at Arista Records after deciding to get into the music biz rather than pursue a career in environmental engineering.

He put in long hours, got people coffee, delivered packages and glued up music posters at clubs. His drive ended up getting him noticed by higher-ups. “It was a tough job, but there I was living the life,” he says. “Everything is a stepping stone.”

But choose your stones wisely. The wrong lowly job could end up hurting you down the line and even hamper your earnings potential.

Paul Oyer, associate professor of the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, surveyed investment bankers and found that those who got good, high-paying jobs right out of business school ended up years later making fatter paychecks than their counterparts who started on lower rungs.

“You can do well without paying your dues, if you get lucky,” he says, “but I think it is a bit misleading to say that paying dues does not pay off in the long run. It just suggests that that may not be the ONLY thing that matters.”

There are careers that involve starting out on bottom with a meager salary — medicine, law, a host of apprenticeships in the trades — where you’re investing in building skills, but beware of doing too much hard time. Austan Goolsbee, economist at the University of Chicago, warns: “You get on the crummy job track. And the only way to get off is find a new job that pays better.”

The bottom line, Goolsbee adds: “You’re a little bit screwed if you can’t get the big job early on. It’s always possible to become a CEO of a major corporation from the mailroom, but is it probable? No.”

But CEOs just don’t glide to the top on a smooth-riding corporate career jet. I interviewed more than 50 CEOs and leaders from all walks of life on their journey up the ladder for a forthcoming book, and I found the majority of them paid dues big time.

Early in his career Spencer Lee, CEO of Cincinnati-based Roto Rooter Inc., actually took a step down to work for a district office. On a few occasions, he had to clean toilets. “I felt I needed to pay dues in order to learn the ropes and move up,” he told me recently. “Hey, if I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t have, trust me.”

So in most cases, it turns out, you should be prepared to pay at least some dues and hope you end up singing it like Freddie: I've had my share of sand kicked in my face, but I've come through.