By Joyce E.A. Russell
Special to The Washington Post
— "I am 52 years old with no college degree, but plenty of work experience. The biggest challenge I have always faced in a career move is getting to the next step. I think I am equal or superior in talent and ability to others, but feel my lack of degree has kept the doors firmly locked. Any advice?"
I get a question like this a lot. There are many older workers without college degrees who have plenty of work experience, proven job stability, and a very strong work ethic, but have trouble advancing. Many companies have policies stating that a college degree is required, and applicants without one should not bother applying.
So, what can they do about this?
First, recognize you are not alone. According to a study conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, only 27.5 percent of adults in the United States have a degree. Yet, nearly 60 percent of American jobs now require at least a bachelor's degree, according to a 2010 report released by the Center on Education and the Workforce, and this number is expected to grow in the next decade. There are things those individuals can do to show their worth to the marketplace.
If possible, work with a professional career coach to review your resume, dress, interviewing skills, etc. This may be money well spent if you get valuable feedback, especially if it has been a while since you were on the job market.
Your resume is a critical part of getting that next job. There are a number of things to do to make sure it stands out:
First, update your work history, and consider using a form of resume that provides a summary of your qualifications at the top of the first page. There are lots of resources out there for resume preparation (e.g., "Knock 'Em Dead Resumes") and websites with examples (e.g., www.monster.com, www.careerbuilder.com, www.greatresumesfast.com).
Your resume has to demonstrate your skills, experience and accomplishments.
Make sure to highlight any awards you have won and professional associations you are a part of.
Emphasize any technology skills you have. Sometimes employers worry that older workers may not be as current with technological advances. If you have skills in this area, make sure to mention them, especially relevant recent training.
Put your education listing toward the end of the resume since this is not the part you are trying to emphasize. Instead, list all of your experience first and highlight your expertise, awards and accomplishments. Make sure they know what your strongest credentials are.
If you are pursuing a degree, you can note the schools and years you have attended or classes you have taken. Some experts suggest that by noting "bachelor's degree not yet completed," your resume may make it past the Applicant Tracking System software that many companies use when screening applicants.
Note any training, certifications, continuing education, licenses, internal company courses, online training, seminars, workshops, etc., you have received in order to highlight all you have done to show you have successfully invested in your profession. You can list this under a professional development section of your resume.
While you may not have the college degree qualification for a job, you might have a long work history that you can highlight to potential employers. This will be especially beneficial to illustrate if you can show a pattern of career progression (moving up the ladder with increasingly greater responsibilities). If you can explain why you received more challenging assignments or positions, this might persuade potential employers that you do bring a lot to the table.
Follow up on resumes you submit. Having a personal connection with employers is a much stronger way of standing out among other applicants.
In addition to upgrading your resume, it is also critical to network. For people without a degree, having others who refer you to someone in the firm is crucial for getting that first interview. It is also important to get others to write recommendations for you. Let them know what jobs you are looking at and what key points you want them to emphasize.
Of course, if you keep hitting obstacles and roadblocks, then getting your degree may be what's needed. A study by the American Council of Education noted that more adults aged 55 to 79 are bypassing retirement and leisure to pursue advanced degrees or start new businesses. Today, there are plenty of available options, ranging from special program for older individuals to online programs to blended learning to face-to-face traditional classrooms, all varying in price.
Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 30 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.