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How to Navigate Around the Diploma Roadblock

Microsoft Corp. has Bill Gates, Oracle Corp. has Larry Ellison, Dell Computer Corp. has Michael Dell and Apple has Steve Jobs. Aside from the fact that all of these individuals are very successful CEOs, what else distinguishes them? Unless a recruiter (or these days, a computerized resume scanner) recognizes their names, they very well may be rejected for management positions because they lack college degrees.

In today's marketplace, companies are fixated on degrees, often allowing the lack of a degree to override other important factors and eliminate candidates before they interview. It's obvious why such fields as law, medicine, finance and engineering require degrees. However, when considering more "general" positions, such as operations or executive management, the requirement of a degree often is irrelevant.

The depersonalization of the hiring process has caused many companies to lose candidates who are potentially great assets to their organizations. A lack of a degree hardly means a lack of ability, and when individuals without degrees have proven themselves, it's unfortunate they can't claim a Bachelor's of Experience degree without being accused of deception. Until a few years ago, a candidate without a degree at least had a slim chance to get past the degree hurdle by impressing interviewers with their accomplishments. But as more companies use software to screen resumes, the computer takes over and rarely considers prior accomplishments.

A: While what you say about degrees may be true, the issue isn't entirely black and white. Messrs. Gates, Ellison, Dell and Jobs are consummate entrepreneurs and didn't feel they needed college degrees when they started their businesses. Entrepreneurs rely on their vision, perseverance and belief in themselves, not their credentials. However, most employers consider a degree to be evidence of candidates' intellect, ability to learn and commitment to finish what they start.

In the current job market, a college degree now represents what a high school diploma once did. And, many careers that once required a bachelor's degree now demand a master's. Employers expect workers to be continuous learners, and many professionals now balance jobs and college course work. Employers assume people without degrees are disinterested in education. It's not surprising that recruiters question why non-degreed professionals don't pursue a formal education.

Experience Over Education

So what can experienced job hunters do to compensate for not having college degrees? If you use traditional job-search techniques--want ads, search firms and direct- mail campaigns—expect traditional employers to look for reasons such as this to weed out candidates.

Recruiters or computerized resume search engines usually screen out resumes of individuals whose qualifications don't match the job description. Like their corporate staffing brethren, executive recruiters make their decisions based on a profile of the ideal person for the position. Yet they usually don't expect to find a perfect match. In fact, they rarely locate a candidate who fulfills all criteria. A college degree is one desired element, and recruiters often choose experience over education, especially for more senior executives.

However, even without a degree, your resume's chances of passing muster may be better than you think in small firms, where hiring managers typically review resumes early on. They're more open-minded than large-company screeners and less concerned with your education credentials, so long as you have the experience to handle the job.

Networking is another way you can get around the diploma roadblock and use your experience to your advantage. Companies fill up to 80-90% of jobs through referrals because they prefer hiring people their employees like and trust. Potential employers who meet you by networking will likely consider your overall capabilities and not focus on whether you have a college degree. Their goal is to find a person who complements their team. This is especially true for higher-level executives. At this level, education isn't among the top three considerations unless the position requires a specific credential.

Recruiters and managers spend 10 to 30 seconds skimming resumes for keywords and phrases that indicate whether candidates are qualified for the job. As they seek the best prospects, education is rarely the first or most important credential.

Rapidly changing technology makes even recent engineering graduates' skills obsolete in 18 months. Continuing education is the key to marketability. A candidate with a record of commitment to learning will be in greater demand than someone relying on a 20-year-old degree.

Sell Your Experience

A keynote speaker at a recent conference of career management professionals told an intriguing story about the importance of educational credentials in today's labor market. The CEO of a large computer company received an e-mail complimenting him on his firm's redesigned web site and suggesting further improvements. The e-mail writer said he had developed a system for web pages and invited the executive to view his personal web site as an example. Sure enough, the writer's site was beyond state-of-the-art. It was stunning. Anxious to take advantage of the writer's talent and hire him before a competitor did, the CEO offered to meet him any time that week to discuss a job opportunity. The writer e-mailed back that the meeting would have to be on Sunday because it was the only day his mother could drive him. The web page genius was 12-years-old!

While you don't have to be a computer prodigy to get hired sans degree, companies are more interested in candidates' ability to do a job regardless of their education credentials. If you don't have a degree, stack the deck in your favor by tailoring your resumes, targeting smaller firms and committing to learning and networking to increase your chances of getting hired. Consider the suggestions below.

Be specific. When responding to a classified ad, match your qualifications and experience to the position's requirements. A one-size-fits-all resume won't work, even with a tailored cover letter. Describe accomplishments that relate directly to the job. What you say about your education (buried at the bottom of the second page of your resume) shouldn't hold you back. If it does, it may be a sign that the firm is inflexible, and you're better off finding a more open-minded employer.

Small is better. Focus more on small- and medium-sized companies that need your expertise. These firms probably won't have resume software or human resources gatekeepers screening out your resume. Direct your resume to the hiring manager and describe how you can contribute to the firm's mission and bottom line. Chances are you'll get an interview.

Be a learner. Describe all relevant continuing education prominently in your resume's education section. Microsoft certification, Covey training or up-to-date knowledge of employment or tax law will help you land a new position. If you've attended college but haven't completed your degree, mention the college at the end of the section.

Network. Rather than relying on traditional job-search techniques, concentrate on networking, which can lead you to hiring authorities. Talk to friends, friends of friends and relatives about their contacts in industries and careers that interest you. Attend meetings of professional organizations, ask college professors about trends and key employers in your area, tell fellow church members you're in the job market and ask your golfing or fishing buddies who they know in your area of interest. Ask each contact for the names of others.

If you treat networking as a research project, build rapport with people you meet and make your networking meetings mutually beneficial, you'll uncover hard-to-find opportunities. You'll also be in a better position to emphasize your experience and downplay your lack of a college degree.


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