Sunday, November 08, 2009

Degree Required, but You Don’t Have One

November 7, 2009

SOME job seekers harbor a secret that prevents them from applying for work they know they could do. Or they worry that if this fact comes to light in a job interview, it will explode and cause them to be led unceremoniously to the door.

These are people who went to college but never got a degree.

People who have had “some college” are far from rare. After six years, more than 40 percent of those who started at a four-year institution have not finished, according to data from the Education Department.

Some may have decided that college wasn’t right for them; some will take longer than six years to finish. But for many others, life intervenes, said Jacqueline E. King, assistant vice president for policy analysis at the American Council on Education, which represents degree-granting institutions. They may have decided to start a family, or had to care for a sick relative, or took on more responsibility at work.

Then more life happens, and as the years go by, that piece of paper with the calligraphy, gold seal and signatures of bigwigs becomes ever more elusive.

Owning that paper may seem especially important when the unemployment rate is high. Many employers are now reflexively listing a bachelor’s degree as a requirement; it’s an easy way to help whittle down hundreds of applications into a manageable pile.

Don’t lie on your résumé about having a bachelor’s degree, but if you spent some time at college, write down “bachelor’s studies,” with the name of the institution you attended, said Katy Piotrowski, a career counselor based in Fort Collins, Colo., and an author of career books. That could get you past the initial screening.

Still, if you respond to an online job posting that requires a bachelor’s degree and you don’t have one, you are much more likely to end up in the “no” pile. That’s why it is especially important for those without degrees to rely on networking, Ms. Piotrowski said.

If, through your connections, you can convince someone to give you an interview, you can show how your skills, qualities and experience make you right for a job — and that whole degree business may well melt away.

Ms. Piotrowski said that hiring managers should realize that employees who don’t have degrees can be some of the hardest-working and most loyal, for the very reason that they feel themselves to be at a disadvantage in the job market.

Some people wear their lack of a degree as if it’s a scarlet letter, she said. Just about the first words out of their mouths at an interview are, “I don’t have a B.A., but ... ,” she said.

There’s no need to mention that you don’t have a degree unless you’re asked, Ms. Piotrowski said. And remember that everyone has blips in their past. “Put in perspective this small piece of the total picture and don’t focus on it,” she said.

One of Ms. Piotrowski’s clients, Michele McCreath, 46, has over two years of college but never got a degree, she said, having quit more than two decades ago to raise her two children. She started working again when her younger child was in third grade.

Without a degree, she obtained her current job as a marketing director at a telecommunications business. But the company has told her that she will be part of a coming layoff, she said, and she will need to find a new job.

“Companies that have looked past not having the degree, and have seen the experience, have always been really pleased with my work,” Ms. McCreath said. But in this economy, she knows that she has to pick up the phone and use her connections to find a way in the door. She is also working on completing professional certificates as a meeting planner and a trade show marketer.

At this stage in her life, Ms. McCreath said, earning such certificates is a realistic goal. She is open to the idea of finishing her degree, she said, but “it’s really hard to go to work full time and go to school full time and have a life.”

But for some people, getting a degree may be more feasible. For some suggestions on how to get started, you might look at the Center for Lifelong Learning on the Web site of the American Council on Education. Check with your former college, with schools in your area or with online universities to find out about programs for adult learners, Ms. King of the council said.

MORE schools are reaching out to students who never finished degree requirements, creating flexible programs that can be particularly helpful to those who have just a few credits left, she said. If you are unemployed and unable to find new work, this could be an excellent time to go back to school. Money may be an issue, of course. But financial aid is available for nontraditional students, she said.

If you have only a few credits to go, why let them dog you for the rest of your life? For some people, Ms. Piotrowski said, the hours spent worrying about not having a degree could be spent actually getting one.

Amid all the practical considerations, don’t forget that you might learn something, too. When people return to school later in life, Ms. King said, they are often pleasantly surprised at how much they actually enjoy the learning process.

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