How to find a high-paying job  without a college degree

As a career coach at Pathstream, I work with many students who started college but never got to finish. Perhaps the tuition got too expensive, or other responsibilities came up. Many now want to enter a new field that promises a good salary and interesting work. Yet, they are reluctant to spend four years or more earning a degree. What are their options?

Fortunately, a college degree is not the only signal of a qualified applicant. People who have spent years working or caregiving instead of sitting in a classroom often bring valuable real-world skills to future employers.

For example, Pathstream students without degrees have landed entry-level jobs paying over $50,000 a year in digital marketing, data analytics, and Salesforce administration. This trend holds steady in other industries requiring digital skills. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about one-quarter (26 percent) of IT workers in the United States do not hold a bachelor’s degree.

If you haven’t earned a college degree, but are looking to find a new profession, here are some tips:

1. Identify a high-potential career field. Many new types of jobs require digital skills that pay a high wage but that employers still have a hard time filling. These jobs often require using new tools and platforms like Salesforce, Oracle, Workday, Jira, Google Analytics, Facebook Ads Manager, and more. You can get up to speed on these new platforms and digital skills in months rather than years and immediately bring value to employers. Hiring managers are often willing to hire people who can demonstrate mastery of these new tools even if they don’t have a degree.

Start by looking for career fields that interest you that (a) pay at least $50k for entry-level work, (b) offer multiple pathways for growth and promotion, and (c) offer full-time work and benefits. For example, check out this list from U2B and this list from Business Insider. At Pathstream, we’ve done the labor market analysis for you and identified five career paths that offer strong starting salaries and are projected to keep growing for the next 10 years. These include data analysis, Salesforce administration, digital marketing, project management, and immersive design.


2. Earn an industry-recognized certification that employers will trust. Once you’ve identified a high-growth career field, look for certificate programs that will help you gain the necessary skills on an accelerated timeline. Hiring managers increasingly value candidates who have earned a certification in their field. CompTIA, the body that certifies IT professionals, recently found that 91% of employers believe certifications play a key role in the hiring process.

We found that employers are particularly receptive to candidates who have earned a university-backed certificate from a reputable institution. Pathstream works with well-known universities like Emory, NYU, Syracuse University, and the University of San Diego to offer our programs so that graduates can add a certificate from a highly-regarded institution to their resume.

Furthermore, employers particularly value certificates aligned to industry-recognized exams, like the Salesforce Administrator Exam, the Facebook Blueprint Exam, the Certificated Associate in Project Manager Exam, or the CompTIA. Passing these exams shows that you have the technical skills to be at the top of your field.

Once you’ve earned your certificate and passed a certification exam, add both to your resume’s ‘Education, Awards and Honors’ section. Highlight the learning programs you’ve pursued as well as any accolades you’ve earned in your field.


3. Identify transferable skills from other roles. Many people who have not spent years in school earning a degree have many skills that will serve them well in other roles. Spend time looking at job descriptions for the positions you’d like to be hired for and identify the key skills employers are looking for. Then, think about your past jobs and identify the skills you have that might apply to this new role. For example, if you are pursuing a digital marketing role that requires candidates to have experience managing multiple clients, you could bring in your experience as a hotel or restaurant manager overseeing large events and reservations. If a Salesforce administrator role is looking for people with strong attention to detail, you could speak about all of the accounts and databases you managed in your role as an office administrator. Take this skills assessment from Career One Stop to identify some potential transferable skills to highlight.


4. Find forward-thinking employers who screen for skills, not degrees. Major companies like Google, EY, Bank of America, Apple, and IBM have increasingly waived college degree requirements for most jobs. Many small businesses and nonprofits are also often flexible when it comes to degree requirements. Target your search effectively by taking a look at lists of large employers that do not require degrees like this one from CNBC. We expect most major companies to move away from degree requirements within the next five years.

For now, find roles at big companies where a college degree is not mentioned in the job description or is only a “preferred” not “required” qualification and start by applying to those roles. Additionally, seek out smaller companies that are more likely to have a real person screen every application and might be more receptive to candidates who can demonstrate they have the relevant skills and experience, even if they don’t have a degree. Finally, look for apprenticeship programs at companies of all sizes. These programs are often a pathway to help people who might not have traditional education experience enter the company.


5. Build a resume and portfolio that highlights your skills and experiences. Once you’ve identified transferable skills and target companies, the next step is to create a tailored resume or portfolio highlighting the clear connections between your past experiences and what you want to do next. For example, if you want to enter the field of data analytics, build a resume highlighting how you might have managed, manipulated and analyzed data in your past roles. Use a tool like Cake Resume to build a professional and polished resume or portfolio.

Make sure you review the job description carefully and match the keywords and phrases as closely as possible so that an Applicant Tracking System (ATS) will be more likely to deem you a “match” for the job. You can use tools like JobScan and the Emsi Skills Extractor to identify the target keywords to include.


6. Develop networks in the field to help you get in the door. One of the best ways to be considered for a new opportunity is to have someone who already works at the company refer you. To start, think about anyone you know who might already hold a job similar to the one you would like to pursue. If you don’t yet have someone in your immediate network, don’t be afraid to ask friends or professional contacts if they have any connections they could introduce you to or use LinkedIn to find target contacts. Reach out to individuals in the field and politely ask them for a 30-minute call to hear about their work and get their advice. Most people are often happy to talk. Focus on hearing about their key responsibilities, what skills they think are most important for their job, and how they got hired. Learning more about all of these areas can help you determine what to highlight on your resume and in interviews.


7. Be prepared to talk about your education history in an interview. An interviewer might ask you about your education and degrees. Don’t try to hide the fact that you didn’t complete college. Instead, highlight any relevant coursework you might have taken and any certifications you have earned. Be specific about the skills you mastered and the projects you completed as part of these programs. Then, practice talking about the relevant transferable skills you’ll bring from other roles. Focus on everything you have to offer your potential employers — not what you lack. Practice “telling the story” of who you are, what you’ve done, why you want the job, and what you could offer to your employer several times. Ideally, get feedback from others so you sound polished and professional.

Remain confident in all the experience you can bring to the table, and don’t be intimidated! Many Pathstream students find that employers are increasingly excited to hire people who can offer their companies new perspectives. Your dream career is attainable, and you don’t have to have a college degree to attain it.

Click here to learn more about Pathstream’s certificate programs.

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