During the period following World War II, until the late 1970s, the American economy experienced unprecedented growth, driven by the middle class. About half of those among the postwar middle class were blue collar workers. Buoyed by strong wages and often protected by labor unions, the working class was also the middle class. The factory worker lived next door to the engineer. Their children were friends. They shared common interests. Unskilled, administrative, and manual labor enabled Americans to live comfortable lives.
As the children of these Baby Boomers entered the workforce, they became the most educated workers in history. Manufacturing jobs began to decline as automation increased. At the same time, unions, once the most vocal advocates of labor, began to lose their power. The result, over decades, was that the job market fundamentally changed its entrance requirements. Jobs that previously were the purview of smart, eager high school graduates became the sole domain of those who held bachelor’s degrees.
By the early 2000s, not only were well-paying manual labor jobs in short supply, but non-manual labor office jobs also required a degree as the price of entry. Receptionists, mailroom workers, administrative assistants—these are all jobs that regularly require that applicants hold an undergraduate degree.
At the same time, the cost of college education continued to rise, and with those increasing costs came an increase in student loan debt. It’s an ugly house of cards that is bound to come crashing down. The burden of the cost, along with a backlash against the “You Must Go to College” mantra, has some people opting out of pursuing higher education.
There must be a turning point at which the labor and employment markets agree that some jobs just do not require a degree. But for the time being, it continues to be difficult for those who don’t hold a degree to secure non-manual labor office jobs. Articles such as these are disingenuous at best. There is no way that a firm like E&Y, for example, is going to hire an assurance manager who does not have a degree, regardless of what this article says. Does that mean that right now you are out of luck unless you have a degree? No, but it will require more effort on your part.
The first thing you need to do is to demonstrate that you possess transferable skills that an employer needs. I recently worked with someone who had spent her entire career in retail management. She wanted to make a change and move away from store management and into merchandise management and operations. We worked to focus her resume and her interviewing on the skills that are critical for success in those roles: leading a team, budgeting, sales forecasting, merchandising, and revenue management.
You should also be prepared to answer questions about your education. If you’ve taken non-credit courses (such as management training courses), or hold any certifications, this is the time to bring them up. Also, if you do have some college credits, be sure to mention that. If you’re thinking of returning to school to complete your degree, play that up.
The bottom line is that it’s going to continue to be difficult for non-degree holders, but it is not impossible. Employers value proven transferable skills more than they do letters after someone’s name. Getting your foot in the door is challenging, but once you’re there, sell your proven history of success, and, as always, quantify your achievements.