What does ‘entry-level’ actually mean? Job-level hierarchy explained

Key takeaway: An entry-level job is the lowest-level position in a given discipline, company, or industry. In other words, it’s the first step in a particular career path.

Fast Facts:

  • While some entry-level positions don’t require a specialized education and relevant experience, most do.
  • Entry-level jobs are at the bottom of the job-level hierarchy. They can lead to intermediate or senior associate-level positions, which can feed into managerial and then director-level roles.
  • Historically, entry-level jobs have been open to recent graduates in a particular discipline, but in the modern day, increased competition has led many of these positions to require a year or more of related experience from candidates.
  • For many in-demand career fields, particularly those related to technology, “boot camps” that provide both specialized education and relevant work experience exist to prepare candidates for entry-level jobs in a particular career field. 

Entry-level jobs are the bread and butter of recent graduates, those switching careers, and anyone else in the workforce eager to build a foundation and become more specialized in a given field. But for a term that gets thrown around so much in job postings, career forums, and discussions about employment, its exact definition has become somewhat muddled.

Does “entry-level” actually have a common meaning across companies and industries? Here’s what job seekers need to know about the compound adjective carved into the first step of every career path.

What does entry-level actually mean? Definitions vary …

What “entry-level” means seems to depend on who you ask, with some answers describing a very narrow range of positions and others offering a far broader (and more realistic) conceptualization of the job category., a UK-based jobs board, defines entry-level jobs as “permanent roles that are open to anyone and don’t require extensive relevant experience or a degree.” This definition, while nice and clear-cut, is unrealistically narrow in practice, as it excludes any job that requires formal education or significant experience, and as most job-seekers know, very few entry-level positions actually meet these criteria. 

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Indeed’s career guide offers a slightly more nuanced definition, stating that an entry-level job is one that “typically requires minimal education, training and experience,” in which those hired receive “on-the-job training to gain valuable industry knowledge and experience.” This definition gets a little closer to the way the term is used by some employers, but it still doesn’t capture the reality of what “entry-level” means in practice.

Zippia, a job board and career data company, states that entry-level positions are “the lowest level jobs at a company.” This short and simple definition may actually be the most accurate — the only thing most real entry-level jobs have in common across all industries and companies is that they are at the bottom of the corporate ladder, so to speak. They are the first job someone might get along a specific career path within an industry.

Put another way, entry-level jobs are those within a particular company or industry that pay the least and require the least-specialized education and previous experience. What this means can look very different between employers and industries.

In the real world, entry-level positions in one industry (say, retail) might not require more than a GED and an outgoing attitude, while entry-level jobs in another industry (like cybersecurity) might require a college degree, relevant experience, and a specialized certification.

What all entry-level jobs have in common is that they are the first stepping stone in a career path that leads deeper into a given company or industry.

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Why do so many entry-level jobs require experience (and how are applicants supposed to get it)?

I can’t get a job without experience, and I can’t get experience without a job is a classic catch-22 faced by many job seekers who have grown frustrated with the difficulty of landing an entry-level position in their field of choice.

What’s the point of paying tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a secondary education if doing so doesn’t even qualify you for an entry-level job? How are newer candidates supposed to get a foot in the door? There’s no one simple answer to this, but most career experts recommend networking, internships, relevant coursework, volunteer positions — and luck.

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How much experience do entry-level jobs require?

According to Zippia, “Many entry-level jobs require 1–3 years of experience because the market has become so competitive.”

In fact, according to a LinkedIn study of job postings on the site between 2017 and 2021, an average of 35% of all entry-level positions advertised on LinkedIn required at least three years of “relevant experience.” In software and IT-related fields, this number jumped to over 60%.

Of course, “experience” doesn’t always have to mean work done in a similar position with another company. Coursework, internships, volunteer experience, and self-directed projects could all qualify, depending on how well a candidate is able to leverage and apply the knowledge and skills they’ve gained — but sometimes, even this isn’t enough.

A proven history of applicable work experience does go a long way when it comes to outshining other candidates for a position — even an entry-level one. Providing candidates with this sort of experience has actually turned into an industry of its own. Enter the career “boot camp.”

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The advent of career-specific “boot camps”

The increasingly competitive nature of the job market has created an environment in which more and more specific educational and experiential requisites are expected of candidates applying to entry-level roles, especially in higher-paying fields.

In many cases, a broadly relevant degree in a field like business or IT is no longer sufficient to qualify a graduate for an entry-level role in their target industry. In response to this, industry and career-specific “boot camps” have become increasingly popular.

These boot camps are essentially specialized education/training programs aimed at providing job seekers with a hyperspecific education — and work experience — in a very specific career field so that participants leave equipped to apply to their target job at any number of companies.

Graduates typically leave these programs with a portfolio of work they can use to demonstrate their aptitude in their chosen craft (e.g., user experience design, app development, etc.) to prospective employers. Many of these boot camps were created by industry professionals who have an established network of contacts within their field, so graduates often receive career placement help upon completion of the program as well.

For many job seekers who have struggled to find their place in the workforce using just a degree, these sorts of boot camps have become an unexpected and costly next step toward landing an entry-level position in an increasingly competitive field.

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Which entry-level jobs pay the most?

Many of the highest-paying entry-level positions are in tech, and these usually require a specialized education as well as some form of experience.

According to Payscale, entry-level data scientists can expect to make around $87,000 per year, while entry-level software developers average around $68,000. A cybersecurity analyst might start at around $70,000.

Higher-paying entry-level roles outside of tech include HR associate ($50,000), sales rep ($45,000), marketing associate ($48,000), and real estate agent ($47,000).

How do entry-level positions fit into the job-level hierarchy?

Entry-level: As mentioned above, entry-level jobs are the first stepping stone in a career path. Entry-level employees are usually expected to gain new skills through on-the-job training and then apply these skills through hands-on work. While doing so, they typically receive quite a bit of direction, instruction, and oversight from peers, team leads, managers, and other more senior members of their organization who regularly evaluate their work.

Intermediate/senior-level: Once someone’s training is complete and they have demonstrated their competency in their role, they are usually considered an intermediate or senior-level associate. These employees still take direction from a manager who assigns their tasks, but they may not receive feedback as often as a newer team member.

Task lead/assistant manager: In some situations, teams may include leads, or more experienced employees who assist the team manager by evaluating or assigning specific types of tasks or keeping track of a certain part of the team’s workflow.

Team manager: A team manager is an employee who is typically responsible for hiring team members, assigning their tasks, evaluating their performance, and ensuring that the team contributes to the overall success of the broader organization by meeting pre-determined goals. Managers usually have a wealth of experience in their field, having worked previously in the positions they now manage.

Department director: A director typically heads an entire department of an organization (e.g., marketing) and masterminds the strategy through which that department’s operations can contribute to the organization’s success in the long term. Directors usually oversee team managers and report to company executives.

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Job hierarchy example: From entry-level to director

The hierarchy outlined above isn’t universal. Different companies, fields, and industries have different norms, and career trajectories can vary. That being said, the entry-level-to-director pipeline usually looks something like the track above.

For example, the a job-level hierarchy in the market department of an online outdoor apparel sales company might look something like this:

Entry-level: Junior copywriter

A junior copywriter might train under senior copywriters to learn the brand’s voice and become familiar with the company style guide and branding conventions. They would complete copywriting tasks assigned by their manager, and their work would be edited and approved by more senior team members.

Intermediate/lead level: Senior copywriter

A more senior copywriter would regularly complete writing projects and collaborate with other marketing departments like graphic design to create customer-facing assets. They would be supervised and evaluated by their manager periodically but less often than a junior copywriter.

If assigned a lead position, they might edit the work of junior copywriters and provide them with constructive feedback to help them improve their craft.

Manager-level: Copywriting team manager

The manager of the copywriting team (likely a former copywriter with years of experience writing for the brand) would train and supervise the copywriting staff in best practices, assign their tasks, and evaluate their work based on strategy directives from the company’s director of marketing.

Director-level: Director of marketing

The company’s director of marketing would create an overall marketing strategy to increase the company’s sales and brand awareness. They would use this strategy to provide directives to the managers in charge of the different teams that fall under the marketing umbrella, including graphic design, copywriting, web development, and sales.

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