In the December 11, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a job hunter wants to know how to get past the college degree requirement when he’s sure he can do the job anyway.

I just discovered your blog and have purchased How Can I Change Careers? and Keep Your Salary Under Wraps. I have some questions regarding the job hunting process that keeps biting back at me.

How do you get past the stigma of not having a college degree? I am reading my way through your website and have taken in some of the information, such as networking to meet the people in charge of making the decision. However, I want to know how can I compete for jobs that require degrees when I am fully capable of meeting the job requirements as listed?

Many employers set this as a requirement and don’t even want to talk to you unless you have a degree, regardless of whether you can do the job. I appreciate your help.

Nick’s Reply

Success requires turning the job hunting process on its head. The way it normally works, you provide your credentials and they decide whether to talk to you. If your keywords (that is, college degrees) don’t match, they tell you to go pound salt.

But there is another way to approach this that can get you past the college requirement. Learn to talk shop before “credentials” dominate the transaction. ATH reader Thomas Lafferty explains it in the comments section of this blog posting: You can’t get a job because employers hire the wrong way. Tom basically wrote this column for me.

Take a look at his approach and, more important, his attitude. First, he dismisses his resume and avoids triggering the college credentials problem:

I’d also like to ring in on the discussion about the effectiveness of demonstrating your abilities in an interview: It works. If I had relied on my resume for the last 3 jobs I had, I would not have gotten them. I had neither the experience nor the education, so my resume definitely hid my ability.

Lafferty says he’s got no degree, but that didn’t stop him:

This [demonstrating his ability to win the job] worked so well that in the first job I’m talking about I was the only person on staff without a degree or experience.

Employers require degrees because the degree is considered a proxy for skills, knowledge, or ability. Managers don’t have time to vet every candidate thoroughly, so they depend on this institutional stand-in for a value judgment. It borders on irresponsible, but they do it. Some of the time, it works. But, understanding why they rely on degrees in the selection process should help you address what they really want: Proof you can do the work and proof that you have the sophistication to grow in the job.

Sometimes, as Lafferty points out, you have to take a lower level job so you have the opportunity to demonstrate what you can do over time:

The second job was created for me after I had already been hired at a lower level.

Most people would balk at a lesser job. Not Thomas. He capitalized on it and got more than most job hunters do in the end: a custom job. Not bad, eh?

In another case, he earned the job on the fly by doing the job in the interview:

The third company I’m talking about hired me without going through the traditional four-tier interview, and again I did not have the background or the education. In any case, what I did have was the skill to do the job and to prove it in an interview as well as a good dose of passion.

Resumes and degrees are not always valid indicators of ability to do a job. So, help employers by giving them other ways to judge you. No one says this is easy — sometimes you have to be clever. I know one guy who followed a manager to a professional conference, chatted him up, talked shop, and got an interview and an offer. This shared personal experience tops any formal credentials — but it’s a lot of work. It should be. Managers are sometimes foolish to hire based on a piece of paper, or on a sheepskin — because candidates who deliver credentials can’t always do the job.

Since you have a copy of How Can I Change Careers?, check the sidebar on page 9, “Create your next job.” Pretend you’re creating that job from scratch. Prepare a brief plan for how you will contribute to the business through your work — and through that job. Be as specific as possible. Once you’ve got your notes together, try to write a resume with a “Free Sample” in it — page 23.

Finally, and most important, check page 27. You must enter the “Circle of Friends” that the manager is part of. I know this seems daunting if you’re a bit shy or lack confidence, but it’s critical. (If you need more help, try a few Toastmasters meetings — learn to be more comfortable breaking the ice with others.) Make one phone call to an insider — and ask just one question. Get the info you need, politely say thanks and end it. Don’t push yourself. Try two and three questions on the next calls. It gets easier. The contacts you make turn into advice and referrals and gaIn you the credibility you need with the manager. And that renders the college degree (and other indirect judgments about you) less important.

You can compete for jobs that cite criteria you don’t meet, if you take an alternate approach that addresses what the employer really needs: proof that you can do the job.

(Special thanks to Thomas Lafferty for his candid and inspiring comments on the blog that served as the guts of this Q&A column!)

If you’re without a college degree, have you nonetheless won jobs that required a degree? How? Have you overcome other “requirements” to win a job? Tell us your story — give us some inspiration and alternate ways to prove you can “do the job.”

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  1. “Most people would balk at a lesser job. Not Thomas. He capitalized on it and got more than most job hunters do in the end: a custom job. Not bad, eh?” I did try this strategy and hit the glass ceiling at the lower position. My managers hands were tied and could not promote me despite steller reviews for years. Company policy dictates qualifications. Lots of luck.
    How do you get to see ths secret books (corporate policy manuals)before taking the job? I could only get to see them clandestinely.
    Lots of luck.

  2. @Eddy: You raise another serious employment bugaboo – the company policy. When you accept a job, you accept the policy, but they usually won’t show you the policy until after you’re on board, if ever. I’ve long advocated that employers provide a copy of the policy manual before a candidate decides to accept a job. It’s downright kooky.

  3. @Nick,
    This type of success is rare. I think it is worth cautioning the candidate that it is rare to find a job in this manner.

    Degrees are a proxy for job requirements. There is a lot of knowledge about the field packed into four years or more of studying and that is not to be denigrated.

    If the candidate has the skills and knowledge, he learned it somewhere. Some outside authority can vouch for his skills. Just like a degree-granting college would.

  4. I agree with Lucille to an extent – it’s very hard to get the knowledge that companies may require without some type of formal education.

    I can count on one hand the people that have had this type of success without a college degree. I can say that these people are pretty much have a high IQ with a work ethic to match.

    Not to say it can’t be done. ;-)

  5. @Nick and Eddy

    Completely agree on company policy.

    I have been in interviews where the interviewer asks “where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

    Of course I give a specific answer of how I’d like my career to progress.

    Of course the interviewer balks at my answer. Why ask the question then? You expect me to work for you for the same pay/responsibility until I quit 7 years from now?

  6. It is interesting that for the most powerful elected office in the world, President of the United States, there is no legal requirement to have a college degree or any specific preliminary training. You don’t need a day’s experience in the military to become Commander-in-Chief as soon as you take the oath of office. Yet we routinely tell highly-qualified candidates that they lack a degree or a specific one for jobs that can be learned by most intelligent and determined individuals.

    I once applied for a writing job (after having four years of technical writing experience) where the company had the usual “Major in English or Journalism” line in the sand. My college major was in another area. So I said, If Ernest Hemingway walked in here, would you hire him? ‘Of course.’ Guess where he went to college? ‘Must have been an Ivy League school.’ The recruiter seemed surprised to learn that Mr. Hemingway never went to college.

    The only thing a US college degree validates is that the holder took a specific curriculum and completed it. The degree does not confer writing ability, creativity, critical thought or the ability to debate and evaluate a topic objectively. Exactly the things US companies say they desire but routinely reject for the tried and true safety of “Those things are not in our company policy” and “We’ll do your thinking for you.”

  7. I can weigh in from a # of different directions:
    I’m an old guy who spent over 40 years in the computer/hi tech industry, which has it’s own flavor, but is notorious for being demanding in all dimensions, capability, stress, and commitment to the job…i.e. long hours.
    1st I can offer personal experience. When I entered the industry I was non-degreed, but with some evening non related college work (accounting). When I returned to my company after military service…they asked if I’d like to work in Data Processing (what they called it then) & I figured why not. computers. I saw an add for a software tester/programmer in a trade journal and applied with what I’ll call a creative letter (it was snailmail back then). I don’t recall if it required a degree, but I definitely wasn’t close to being qualified & I said so. Basically Job hunting is sales..selling oneself, and if you’ve ever been in sales, you can’t discount luck. And as luck would have it in my case, the hiring manager had a sense of humor, my letter stood out and he wanted to meet me. He hired me. And I simply OJT’d and bootstrapped myself up. It didn’t hurt that I had a knack for programming & I learned fast.
    To the point of topic, don’t disqualify yourself because of some requirement(s). If you think you can do it, if you think you add value, make an effort. You will not be taken to the parking lot and shot for doing so. Just develop a thick hide to ward off rejection.
    @Eddy. I think the implication & reason for taking a lesser job is that it’s not the job that’s the target, but a company. Don’t troll for jobs, target companies. Taking a lesser job can reason test if it gains entry into an attractive company. If you target companies you have a focus for the networking that you should be doing…with current or former employees and one thing you’d want to learn about…is culture, policies (written and unwritten), specific to Divisions or departments if you can find out. That’s why one networks. Another useful piece of info for the non-degreed is whether or not there is tuition reimbursement. Yes, you can get good jobs sans degrees, but you also can’t ignore the way the game is played. It will not kill you to get a degree while working. In so doing, you enable mentors and bosses to give you a boost. If you don’t have a degree at they can and you can demonstrate you are in the process of getting one. That has value.
    Again I offer personal experience. That 1st job I noted above evolved to where I became the manager of the department…sans degree. But one day my boss walked into my office and told me I’d better get a degree. Because if I walked in today and tried to get my own job..I’d be unqualified due to lack of a degree. About the same time my wife discovered that if I went to university under the GI Bill, and carried a full load…we could make money. So I got one. It wasn’t fun but and easy, but I worked full time and carried a full load, and got a degree at age 39. So you can do it.
    @Lucy I don’t think the intent is to denigrate the value of a degree, but to point out there are other ways to learn, and in my view experience does trump raw education. My degree was a check-off item, as are many. In the hi-tech arena the technology moves so fast that many universities Computer Sciences programs couldn’t keep up with relevant course work. The work my department did was rarely taught. The basic job requirement was to be very smart and innovative, and that was demonstrable in many ways.
    I worked for 3 major corporations. initially degrees weren’t a major factor. They all evolved to where it was, to the point in some cases of being mindless. When it evolved to that point, what transpired was in my view, institutionalized laziness and micromanagement. By that I mean management, particularly HR decided to intrude on the judgment of the responsible hiring manager’s judgement on who could get the job done and who would be an asset to the company. From my point of view, it doesn’t really help the companies succeed. In many well know known cases these are companies who were started and grown by non degree people who evolved to that point where they were technically unqualified to be in their positions or those equivalent to the ones they had when they started their companies. I see something wrong with that picture.
    Of course one considers the grad pool, but the point is not at the exclusion of other avenues.

  8. I have got the quadruple whammy going currently.

    1. 56 years old
    2. No degree.
    3. Intense shyness, coupled with a curmudgeonly streak.
    4. The economy? Breadlines on the near horizon with no end in sight.

    A degree in a very nice frame from an institution with lots of old ivy crawling up the walls is on my bucket list. But my preference is to not work for those place that use “Have a degree” as a filter for anything or HR substitute for doing their job. I agree with Don: It just becomes mindless; rather much like “zero tolerance”.

    An Anecdotal Tale:
    Back a lifetime ago , I had the reputation of being one of the top bankruptcy paralegals in A Midwestern City. Never ever could get an interview from the biggest law firm in town. The hiring manger told me that she had gone to the senior partners and point-blank asked them if they wanted someone who had a history and reputation of doing the job, or some kid fresh out of college who needed a guide dog and a map to find the courthouse. They told her the college grad every time. Places with that kind of hiring mentality are not worth the trouble of getting to know the hiring manager, seeing what his needs are, etc. The deal killer is the corporate culture of mindlessness.

  9. If you want the time you might be required to spend earning a sheepskin to really pay off: Use that time to expand your “Circle of Friends.” I would go so far as to claim that an OK student who has spent his/her time on as many internships (paid or unpaid) as possible will do better after graduation than a straight-A student who never set foot inside that kind of company during four+ years of “education.”

    However, if you do seek out internships (almost identical to seeking out a dream job, but a little less stress due to less commitment on the parts of both parties), you will likely find your grades improving anyway because you will learn what it is you really need to know and your motivation to learn those topics will improve. Alternatively, you will learn in the early part of your educational experience that the job you thought you wanted would bore you to tears, so you have time to switch before you end up with $200K student-loan debt and a tent in Zuccotti Park.

  10. … and here comes one common enough to prove how hard this economy is getting.

    I was looking at a opening on Dice (yeah, I know, bad for the Seasonal Affective Disorder) and I find a posting from a company we shall call Capgemini, because that is what they call themselves.

    Under “qualifications) for a project coordinator position we find: “They will be recent graduates of prestigious, accredited universities, Masters degree a plus.”

    Now that is enough reason to not bother applying, but the plain language of their veteran’s policy is worse. “Capgemini conducts all employment-related activities without regard to … status as a Vietnam-era, special disabled and other covered veteran status.” on its face declares that no veterans need apply.

  11. @ L.T.

    Let me guess, Capgemini will pay $12/hour, not one penny more… ;-)

  12. It sounds to me like they may be violating the ADA. When you start talking about special disabled veterans, there may be a huge problem.
    Also when they mention Vietnam era veterans they are dancing around age discrimination.

    How big is the company? How many employees do they have?

    If the company is in fact covered by the ADA, eventually an attorney… the state ADA agency or some other state agency will do something about it. Age discrimination is another matter and is usually broader than discrimination against the disabled.

    This business should be reported to the state and an investigation should be started or perhaps an attorney for the ACLU or another nonprofit group would be interested in this.

    This is a serious matter and what this company puts on a computer for the public to see or in writing, may very well be illegal.

  13. I agree with Lucille. Today, for some reason, employers are using education (usually a college degree or higher, depending on the job and industry) as a requirement, in addition to number of years of work experience and whatever other criteria they think will net them the perfect candidate (i.e., one they don’t have to train and who can do the job from day one). It is silly at best. Years ago, employers knew that no matter who they hired, some on-the-job training would be required, college degree or not. Nowadays, they’ve come to assume that colleges are responsible for training their employees. The best colleges can do is give students general education and teach them to apply it in different situations (assuming that employers will do some training and allow for a learning curve).

    Not all jobs require a college education–you shouldn’t need a college degree to work at Home Depot unless you’re in management (and even then I’d question what you’d be doing that requires a degee) or are doing some kind of analysis for the company that requires a degree.

    The other part of the college experience is making connections–that’s why people still go to the Ivies and want to go there. Schools with those names provide (future) connections, open doors that are closed to others. There’s nothing wrong with that–making connections, developing relationships, all that is something Nick has been emphasizing for some time. College is merely another place that it happens.

    But I agree with the statement that employers are hiring the wrong way–they’re relying on HR, on software that screens out applicants, and an expectation that colleges and universities will do their on the job training for them. Then they’re shocked when their sophisticated software can’t find good candidates and when the candidates they do find actually need on the job training. “Talent shortage!” they wail. I think the “talent shortage” is not in the candidates, not with unemployment still high and under-employment (people who are working part time, working outside of their field, etc. when they’d rather be working full time and/or in their field) still high. The real talent shortage exists in the pea-brains of HR and in management, who have decided to let computers do their hiring for them.

    @Lucille: re your comments about ADA violations. Yes, you’re right. But companies discriminate on all kinds of matters that are supposed to be protected. With gov’t cut backs, there’s fewer investigators and staff to go after the violators. But if no one brings it to AG’s attention, then nothing will be done. If I thought there was a company that was committing age discrimination (and if I decided that I didn’t want to work there), then I’d contact my state’s AG’s office to report them. Or I’d contact my state senator or representative. Depending on your elected represetatives, you might get quicker action once a prominent politician gets notified, especially if s/he’s made it part of her/his career to address these matters in your state. In my state (MA), the AG’s office handles all kinds of complaints, and isn’t limited to solely criminal matters. There’s also the MCAD (MA Commission Against Discrimination), which handles employment and other discrimination in all kinds of cases–race, age, gender, ethnicity, veteran status, etc. They would also be a good office to contact if you suspect a company is in violation of the ADA. Your state probably has the equivalent of the MCAD, and surely your state AG’s office could look into the matter.

    Yes, what a company puts on its website for public consumption or in writing could be illegal and is a serious matter. But many do it and get away with it. Employers still have a right to hire whomever they want. They just can’t be stupid enough to say openly that they only want white men who are Protestant and no older than 30. Some groups get the highest level of protection (race) while others (such as women) get less protection. Age is a relatively new protected class, and I suspect that they’re going to get some mid-level of protection, like women. Better than those who get the lowest level of scrutiny, but not as good as race, which gets the highest level of scrutiny.

  14. @Marybeth, I’m sure when you cited me about the ADA, you made a typo, because I didn’t rant about ADA.

    I think college degrees are necessary because colleges teach you to think, and to learn, and teach you to master your career. There is a lot of learning to be had in colleges. The 4+ years you spend in college give you the time to learn.

    Also you said that people make connections and that is certainly true. And there have been studies that say that people make more money over their lifetimes when they have college degrees.

    People who have not spent the 4+ years in a college can learn their career, but I find it helpful to concentrate on that learning curve in a college setting and devote the time to master that knowledge.

    I’ve listened to everyone posting here cite examples of people hired who didn’t have a degree. I didn’t say this stuff doesn’t happen. I said it was rare. The candidate who started this conversation should be cautioned that this approach can work, but he’ll have to work hard at getting a job. In all fairness I think he should be cautioned that this approach is difficult. So I’ve given the caution.

    But don’t want to discourage this person. I want him to succeed. I also want him to be prepared, mentally, to outline all the steps and all the rejection points before-hand so he can prepare himself to cope. He can plan in advance, all the positive comments he can make to employer’s disbelief in his skills. He’ll need a list of rejoinders and comments to turn people’s negative comments prepared in advance. If he does it in advance, and feels discouraged and he walks through how to turn negative to positive, he’ll have been discouraged and prepared in private. And he can shine in public.

  15. I worked in software development about 25 years without a degree, although it required much persistence and flexibility (such as the willingness to relocate). I knew the lack of a degree closed some opportunities, yet managed to do reasonably well. But as the years went on, that handicap became more problematic. Even early on, company policy could get in the way, as several times I was kicked out of an interview with a hiring manager that otherwise seemed to be going well when it was revealed I had no degree. I was told that regardless of experience, managers were prohibited from violating policy.

    Eventually I realized without a degree options would become too limited, and tired of fighting a dysfunctional system. So I finished my degree while working full-time using an external degree program designed for working people. Being part time it took several years, but life and work experience definitely helped in getting better grades without excessive effort. Very glad I did this, and in retrospect should have done so much sooner. It didn’t make me a better worker, but removed a kind of stigma that I felt had always held me back.

    I’m sure its no coincidence this rampant credentialism has contributed to the obsession kids have nowadays about getting into the “right” university, which shows how effectively corporate propaganda about the mythical talent shortage has distorted hiring, and led to the absurd overqualifying of too many jobs.

  16. @NeverTooLate: that’s a great summary of the situation about credentials. Good for you for getting it done, but it still doesn’t answer the question, Are degrees really always necessary? And I think you nailed the attitude kids have nowadays — this is embedded in our culture from youth. But it’s hard to assess how whether the degree itself is the thing, or the actual education.

    • The education.

      The degree is so ridiculous I can not tell you how many people have degrees who can not write a block letter.

      Very off.
      Education is what you make of it.

      Berkeley certainly did not have classes in bomb making.

      Very sick of this.

      6 years for me and still listening to you did not graduate.

      Oh yes I did.

      The last class was not recommended for me.

      That was my deal.
      NO verification but I walked.

      I still get judged all the time .
      It could have been 10 years.

      It is ludichrist and I intend to fight back.


  17. Hi,

    I went to college for 6 years. I completed my major and had my papers for graduation signed and was permitted to graduate minus 3 units pending in a very difficult class. I attempted to take 5 times. I was quite frustrated, it was a not just my fault. I am being judged for it now, 29 years later in a company merger and not permitted to re-engage.

    I was told no degree verification and my contract wouold be rescinded thta I signed.

    Is this possible or a bad dream ?