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What Do You Mean I Need a College Degree?

19 November 2009 Written by: Anthony Tony Ratagick 13 Comments
What Do You Mean I Need a College Degree?

I find myself in a unique situation. I’m unemployed for the first time in my long career. I’ve been working since I was 14. I mean it; my Social Security records show earnings from 1976 to 1979, the years I was enrolled in High School.

Since that time, I was never really unemployed. Sure I had a couple 2 or 3 week vacations between jobs, but nothing like this. After high school, I joined the Army and received training in communications. When I left the Army, I immediately landed a great job working for the oil companies setting up communications systems. I was recruited to each position after that. And I enjoyed increasingly higher salaries and responsibilities. I never got comfortable with my role, no matter how well it paid. Once I mastered the job, I started looking for the next move up. It’s just my nature to be ambitious. Nothing wrong with a little ambition, right?

There is if you mix in a little impatience. See, despite the fact that for the last ten years I’ve been at the top tier of my industry earning well into six figures, I never went to college. It was never a priority, since I was making good money out of the Army and the Post-Vietnam era GI Bill was basically nonexistent. Besides, the money just kept getting better from there. Flash forward to today and for the first time in my life, I’m on the outside looking in. I’m having to learn how to job hunt. (Do they teach that in college?)

This hit home for me the other day, when I found a great position listed on the TN State Employment Agency web site. The description was perfect for me. It summarized everything I’ve been doing for the last ten years. It also required that if I wanted to be considered, I needed to come in to the employment agency to submit for it.

“A little odd,” I thought, “but sure why not.”

So I showed up and filled out all the requisite paperwork and after an hour of waiting (remember the impatience trait I spoke of?) I was allowed to speak with a state career counselor. I showed her the position I was interested in and she agreed that it was right up my alley based on my work history. So she began to check off her boxes. The gatekeeper emerged from its cave, teeth dripping with anticipation of the kill. She came to the box that said “education”.

“You do have a degree, don’t you?” she asks with a look on her face that I interpret as condescending.

“No I don’t, why? Is that important?”

“Well, I can’t send this to the employer without one.”

“Why?” I responded incredulously “You already said I was qualified for the position…”

“Sorry, that’s just the way it is”

“Well” I said, “let me ask you this; does it matter the type of degree? I mean, do I need to have a Computer Science major, Business, or what?”

“Well, no, just a degree” she responded, looking confused about the direction I was going with this query. The image of the prey standing defiantly before the predator came to mind. The prey is still going to die, but the predator can’t understand the defiance.

I continued, “In other words, if I had a degree in Ornamental Horticulture, I would qualify to manage a multi-million dollar contact center using the latest custom developed software in the industry? Software that I have been selling over the last ten years.”

“Well, apparently so” she responded. “I guess that really doesn’t make any sense, but there’s nothing I can do about it.” And that was the end of that. The gatekeeper slammed the door shut.

This is ridiculous and unfair, but that’s the way it went down. The perfectly qualified guy gets sifted out because I don’t have a degree. Anyone else have to deal with this? Is there anything I could have done different? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Good Hunting.

Tony is currently looking for work. You can learn more about him at http://www.linkedin.com/pub/tony-ratagick/1/898/b77 or follow him on Twitter @ratagick.

Anthony Tony Ratagick

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  • Lionel said:


    I hear you loud and clear – I’m in the same boat. I wasn’t “college material” when I was 17 and barely graduating from high school (another story). But, I fell into a data center job that turned my life around and I’ve progressively moved up through the IT ranks since 1977 – most recently an IT Director. For the first time in my life (I’m 51 now) I find myself unemployed. You were at least lucky enough to get a fac-to-face; I have yet to get that during my 5 months of searching.

    I have submitted for countless jobs that I am fully qualified for and I do beleive I am passed over for the lack of that piece of paper in a lot of cases. The competition for jobs is tremendous right now. I’ve been unemployed for 5 months, but I know some who have been longer. I know its just a matter of time, but I too have patience issues.

    Best of luck to you.


  • Chris said:

    Well-written article! I hear you, too. Like you and Lionel, I am in the same boat here in Delaware–mid 40’s and laid off. I’ve been out since March and have gotten a few phone interviews and one face-to-face, although the face-to-face was more to talk about areas where I could help because there was no real job opening at that time. I was trying to network myself into a new role (essentially building a new position) through a headhunter that I met. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.
    I do not have a degree as I only went to the U of Delaware for 1 year. I list that on my resume and being rejected for no degree only came up for one position where I expressed interest, and that role would’ve been a long commute anyway. So the long answer is that I have been lucky enough not to have run into that for a position that I felt I was ideally suited for.
    As for a suggestion, I think the only thing you could have done was ask to speak to someone else, possibly the counselor’s manager. Not sure how that would go over in a State government environment, though, even though they work for you… I thought you handled it well and asked the proper questions. It also seemed like she was sympathetic to your argument, which may have helped her pursue a 2nd opinion.
    Keep your chin up and keep plugging away–persistence is an important attribute to have when battling what we are dealing with today. Thanks for sharing!


  • Christine said:

    Hi Tony,

    I’ve been an IT recruiter for about 13 years, I myself do not have a college degree, and I was out of work for 9 months, but again fortunately working, mostly because of my history to be successful and make my previous employers a lot of money. Most jobs that come across my desk from employers usually state: College Degree or Equivalent Experience. There are a few that sometimes are stuck on the degree, and usually its the related degree to your background.

    I think that recruiter was incorrect in what she told you, and that had the manager had the chance to actually see your background you would have been considered, or at the very least he would have told you that you need a related degree, not just any degree.

    90% of the time with your level of experience, the lack of a degree is overlooked, but unforutunately you have experienced the 10%.

    The best advise I can give is network, network, network. Don’t feel shy about connecting with someone that you don’t know.
    Find the name of a company that hires your skills set, seek them out of linkedin and send your resume directly to a Senior Manager/Director/Executive. Make sure your resume has no spelling errors and is written very neatly. Also make sure any skills you have listed at the top of your resume are reflected in the body of your job details – this is VERY IMPORTANT.

    Good Luck!

  • John said:

    Hey Tony,

    Yet another in the same boat as you story. I’m a graphics professional, no degree but 2 years of vocational mechanical drafting in the late 70’s that got my foot in the door to a technical illustration position which led to 20+ years of experience branching into graphic design, animation and digital video. I’ve kept up with trends, gone to seminars, using the latest software but have had only one interview in 7 months.

    Leaving my last “real” job 3 years ago involved a corporate takeover and a hatchetwoman who decimated our entire department(ironically we practically BEGGED her to hire on as she was to be the liaison between us and the marketing director). Since then I’ve been severely underemployed and finally laid off from a newspaper (we all know how vibrant that industry is) in April. Like you I made increasing salaries over the years and thought I was getting along very well without a degree. Surprise, surprise. I can no longer avoid the likelihood that I’m going back to school for something. Most likely medical as there’s plenty of job security there…

    Good luck (or break a leg)

    John C

  • Jonathon said:

    It’s a difficult position to be in. I often kick myself for not going to University, but at the same time have gained plenty of life experience during this time that I wouldn’t trade for a degree. Networking is key to finding work, but don’t forget the world of self-employment, as a consultant. This is often a great route to go for the right person, if you can overcome the initial difficulties faced by everyone starting a new business.

  • Orietta said:

    Thanks for the article, Tony, and timely given the number of people out in the market trying to be employed once more. Never understood why a degree should be the dealbreaker. Yes, it shows commitment, yes it shows the desire for knowledge, and yes it shows you followed the “typical” rules/process. However, and I know I’m going to hear about this, maybe this is why we’re in worst economic situation ever, we let the degree (and usually the ivy league one), define our roles/capabilities. Hmmmmm?

    Experience, wisdom, ethics, good judgment, professionalism, good leadership, talent, dedication, loyalty … should also be on the list of criterias for a position, especially a high level one.

    This brings me to the so called recruiters … who makes you the be all and end all of this process? Where’s your due diligence and follow through, and accountability?

    Now that I am off my soap box, Tony, try to find the hiring manager for this role and speak to him/her directly. If smart, they’ll know a good employee when they see one. If not so smart, they’ll stick to the degree requirement. Either way, it’s a win-win … you win cause you got the job, or you win, because you got away from an employer you would not want to work with/for. Good luck!

  • Greg said:

    What a great read! There is a job for everybody out there we just have to keep the faith. Networking will lead to 85% of the positions people find, as Christine indicated. I have a similar situation with Certifications. I have none, but I know the material. Employers need to recognize the great talent pool they are missing out on because of degrees and certifications. Sad to say in this day and age people still aren’t truthful about their skills and abilities. The Certifications and Degrees are proof that they know something. But people with years of experience like you and I should be given an opportunity to at least get an interview. Is that too much to ask?

  • Bill said:


    Great read and the pain a whole lot of us have felt. Way too many times I’ve seen the graduate come in, hired becasue of his/her great degree, and totally mess up the entire team. No experience, not a clue how to do what they were hired for while so many great folks like you were standing outside waiting for a chance. I got lucky and got a Masters degree going to school after work for 2 years ( I don’t have undergrad degree-talked ’em into taking life experience and passing grade on GMAT test. The only thing it does is get the checkmark in the box.

    I hope someone will see the real value in your history soon.

  • uberVU - social comments (author) said:

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by CareerJockey: What do you mean I need a college degree. I’m qualified! http://ow.ly/DDAL

  • RoxanneBF said:

    This is a great read and speaks directly to the frustration shared by many these days. One would assume that experience, maturity, dependability, proven competence, and first-hand industry knowledge would somehow be of more value than a ‘college degree”–which only means that a person passed a few tests and wrote some interesting papers back in their early 20s.

    In the end, a degree is not determinate proof of anyone’s capability to manage the rigors of an actual job, or a guarantee that an applicant can fulfill an employer’s objectives or bring in revenue for a company.

    I’m in my mid-40s and have been ‘underemployed’ since 2005, when I was ‘let go’ from my sales job after three years. Before that, I worked consistently since the 80s, taking on jobs of increased responsibility. I did not have a college degree. In 2006, I started working temporary assignments, returned to school, and completed work on my bachelor’s degree in under three years.

    Well, now I possess more than 15 years of professional,corporate experience coupled with years of working in freelance/contract employment ventures, and stints as a temporary employee. And, I also have that so-called highly trumpeted college degree.
    What I don’t have now is a job.

    So, it really makes me really wonder: how important is that piece of paper anyway!?

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  • Mario Sanchez Carrion said:

    Is there any way you could get past the gatekeeper? Maybe contact the company directly? If they didn’t tell you who the company was, could you try to narrow the range by Googling some of the info in the job posting to try to find out? I think that if you get face to face with someone in the company you may have a better chance.

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