Not too long ago, one of the best ways to break into a company was through the mailroom. In fact, Hollywood power players Michael Ovitz (a top talent manager in the business), Barry Diller (uber-mogel), and David Geffen (one of the founders of Dreamworks) all began their careers in the mailroom of the William Morris agency. The mailroom phenomenon became a staple of American work culture in the 1950s with Shepherd Mead’s book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a satire instructing how a young professional could start in the mailroom and work his way up to CEO.

Of course, times have changed since then, and there are more substantial opportunities for new graduates. Surprisingly, though, while options for young professionals have increased, some people are still choosing to start their career in the mailroom and work their way up, Horatio Alger-style.

The incentives
“I thought I was above [the mailroom],” says Oliver Roy, now 28, who began his career with the Seattle Mariners as a mailroom assistant. Roy took the job because it was the only one available, and despite his initial protestations, he soon realized the benefits of his choice. “In that position you get to work with basically every department. If you know the right people in the organization and work hard for them, you can advance,” he says. Those internal connections have paid off for Roy; in five years he has been promoted five times. He is now in charge of retail systems and telecommunications for the team.

In Hollywood, most talent agencies still require their trainees to start in the mailroom. The experience is a kind of competitive hazing ritual to determine who has the tenacity to make it in such a tough business, and it also orients new employees to the different departments. In essence, the mailroom is the closest thing many companies have to a proving ground for new employees before they are trusted with “real” responsibilities.

Despite having experience at his college newspaper, Nicholas Johnston had to settle for a copy aide position to break in at the Washington Post, where his job description was 85 percent sorting and distributing mail. The remaining part was filling in where needed and making a good impression on the editors, who he hoped would promote him to a more substantial position (a plan that worked). “It was a matter of showing up and working hard, so people noticed that you were good and could do the job,” he says.

Know your limits
Of course, you don’t always have to take a mailroom position to break into a desirable company. “In the past, when people took these kinds of positions, they didn’t require specific skills to advance,” explains Greg Hutchings, associate dean of the John M. Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis. “Now the nature of work has changed such that you do need specific technology skills and there are fewer gopher-type positions that can lead to advancement.”

In many companies, temping has replaced the mailroom job. Companies like to use staffing agencies as recruitment tools, and often will offer attractive candidates temporary employment doing filing or data entry until a permanent job opens up. Some staffing agencies, like Manpower, will even train their candidates in computer programs and other skills so they can seek a higher position on the corporate ladder. “In today’s tight labor market, people don’t need to start at the bottom. They can move up very easily because the jobs are there,” says Patty Murphy, Manpower’s information coordinator.

If you know you want to work for a choice company no matter what, you may have to be patient for a time, even if you’re overqualified for the job you start with. Johnston calls his stint in the mailroom “the most demeaning, degrading thing I’d ever done in my life. I couldn’t believe I was doing it with my college degree.” But Johnston knew that better positions would become available, and after five months – and after positioning himself strategically – he landed one for himself.

It comes down to a question of your own individual priorities. The better the company, the less prestigious the opportunity may be. Says Johnston, “That’s the trade-off. You can be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond. I chose the latter.”