How to work with no diploma?
May 7, 2008 8:15 AM   Subscribe

How do the uneducated make a living? What jobs are available to those who don't have degrees, but can easily fool you into thinking they do?

Without getting into the circumstances, I'm at a standstill in my life. I'm 21, have zero (0) formal education, thus no college degree, high school degree, or even GED. I'm not a dropout, and assuming any sort of generalized job, I would be on par with a college graduate.

What would be a good place to start to set myself up for the job market?

While I have no formal education, I'm reasonably confident that I could get a GED with ease. I have amateur skills in design, but that's about it… I'm not unintelligent, I'm reasonably well-informed about most things, even educated pretty well, but not formally, i.e. little that I can put on a resume.

Oh, and what's a good fallback? I know someone who was in a similar situation and got a dream job at the age of 20 without any of the above… but things changed, ten years later he was out of a job, and then he was back at square one. So even if I get a job that works for me without any degree-requirements, what's a good degree to just have?

Basically, I'm starting from a blank slate, but a lot later than I should. Where to start?

Two notes:
I'm not altogether against starting from scratch (getting a GED and working towards a meaningful degree), but as part of my whole not-being-educated thing, I have not clue what a useful degree is, or what I'm interested in doing. I'm not concerned about starting something now, although I'm aware that ideally I'd have started years ago.
I'm in NYC.

Throwaway address:
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (34 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Many trade jobs, such as plumbing and electrician, can be learned through apprenticeships and on-the-job training. You will almost certainly need a GED for this. I would advise taking the GED regardless.
posted by breaks the guidelines? at 8:26 AM on May 7, 2008

Get your GED first. You're going to need it to get into any college, should you want to pursue that, and the costs and effort are fairly minimal.

After that, well, most of the jobs you can look to are going to be labor or skilled trades, which still require some training or schooling. Aside from that, folks I know who haven't gone to college have ended up being musicians, artists, cooks, and small-business owners. However, that requires a lot of talent and hard work, and it's not something I'd recommend to anyone who isn't already informed enough to know what opportunities they're forgoing in order to pursue those options. Also, being a small-business owner without a formal education still requires a bit of capital and the willingness to work insane hours.

My recommendation would be for you to look to community colleges and cast about on your way to a transferable associates degree. Depending on where you are, the costs vary, but they're generally fairly affordable and a good route towards either a regular BA/BS or toward some skilled trades work, like design etc. They're also valuable in getting you started with a support structure engaged in finding you employment, and with networking with other students, two of the things that can be most valuable in college.
posted by klangklangston at 8:28 AM on May 7, 2008

My first thought is your local community college. Many programs do not require GEDs (and if they do, the GED can be obtained via the CC); most programs are focused on real-world jobs, and often include work experience as part of the process. Assuming that you can do math and are good at spatial thinking, any of the skilled trades could be a possibility -- you will have to work hard, and you will need to prove your abilities, but formal degrees are not the major barrier to success in those fields.

That said, I'm a bit confused by your saying that you have zero formal education, but that you are not a dropout. Does that mean home-schooling? Or what? The specifics of this will make a difference in what doors are opened and what are closed to you -- colleges and employers will see various non-traditional tracks differently, depending a lot on what kind of story you can tell to explain how you are in this situation. "My parents were underground from the 1960s and we moved every two weeks my whole life" is not the same as "I kind of had a problem with weed as a kid and never bothered to show up for school, dude." And there is a big difference between someone who has never set foot in a school, and someone who quit one semester before graduation, but has taken all the important classes. Neither has a degree, but one is a lot more educated than the other in terms of schoolwork.
posted by Forktine at 8:31 AM on May 7, 2008

First off, you must, must, must stop believing that you are starting far too late. I made a similar mistake when I was 24, believing that I was too old to get my masters. It's just not true. If you went the lawyer route you could be making 6 figures in just 6 years and pay off your loans fairly quickly.

That said, at IBM we once wanted to hire a developer. It turned out he had no formal education either, not even a GED. We bent all kinds of rules to hire this talented, bright, person, but it wasn't easy. You will at least need a GED, because it's standard to require it for many corporations.

My advice? Go to a college and say you are thinking of matriculating but want to talk to their career development folks first. They may give you tests to help you figure out your interests, etc. They will know how you can get your GED and set you up on a fast path.

It is not too late. Believe me, at 21.... Let's just say most of us would give our left arm to be 21 again. The sky is the limit for you, but I would take my time and think through what you really want to do and would make money at rather than trying to fake your way through some kind of pseudo-career.
posted by xammerboy at 8:35 AM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you have sales skills you can always get work. Closers are very highly valued.
posted by mrhappy at 8:35 AM on May 7, 2008

Get thee to a community college. Get your GED and a transferrable associates, and while you're at it, milk their career assistance program for all it's worth. Look into getting training for a specific trade and an apprenticeship.

Bottom line is, don't mill about without degrees if you can help it. As you already know, even if you can get a good job without a degree, you'll be in a spot of trouble if that runs out. For good or for ill, white collar society demands proof that you can complete college. I know that plenty of people succeed just fine without this part of the equation, but it's just plain easier to navigate life with a degree than not. The fun part for you, however, is that you get to avoid the bullshit part of college and go straight into the practical side of which programs are most useful for your employment prospects.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:42 AM on May 7, 2008

I spent years with just a high school degree, but recently acquired an associate's degree from a community college, and am working on my bachelor's degree.

The process of going through college hasn't involved learning much of anything; mostly it's just color-between-the-lines stuff and crazymaking busywork.

The difference in available jobs is simply staggering.

If a decent job is at all important to you, you have to swallow your pride while simultaneously biting the bullet, and get the piece of paper. The only function of a college degree these days is to separate the lower and the middle classes, but it does that very well.

At the age of 21, an investment of a few years in your education will pay off time and time again. For intelligent, self-motivated autodidacts the process sucks, but the longer you put it off the more it will cost you.

Feel free to memail me if you'd like some survival strategies. And good luck.
posted by MrVisible at 8:43 AM on May 7, 2008

Oh, I didn't see that you were in NYC. Well, this is even easier. I have friends from NYU who had transferred in from various community colleges, and they were always the most motivated, intelligent, mature folk.

21 is a perfect time to start college, really, because you're still so young that the world's your oyster, but you're also over the immature hump of 18-20. I think you have a very happy future ahead of you, if you can play your cards right. Scope out CUNY's many excellent programs and get this done.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:46 AM on May 7, 2008

I would say that you should get your GED, since that would be a red flag for me. If you're confident you can get it no problem, just get it. Why wouldn't you?

That said, a lot of jobs don't require a college degree, and not just "skilled labor" type jobs or retail. In addition to sales, I know people who have gone into customer service, technical support, and even marketing roles without a completed degree.

It does, however, sound good to an interviewer if you can honestly say that you are working towards your degree in something. I think a lot of people assume that a lack of a degree (or the plans to achieve one) indicates a lack of ambition, and ambition is highly valued in a lot of corporate environments. But I do think they are understanding that people start late, and no one is going to care if you're still working towards your Associates at 23 or your Bachelors at 36.

Except for in very specific types of careers , it doesn't usually matter what your degree is in. A company is going to care more about your work experience and applied skills. I know art history majors who are sales managers at technology companies. I work with lots of people (in a technology company) that have general "communications" or "marketing" degrees. Something general like that will give you a good background, let you take classes that are interesting to you, and help you to show that you were ambitious enough to get a degree.

BONUS ADVICE: Try to find a job at a company that will pay for you to get a degree. My first job out of college was a temp job turned perm at a major corporation. I already had a degree, but a guy who got hired along with me did not have one -- just a few classes from one semester at a community college. This was an awesome perk for him and I think he's since gotten his bachelor's degree, for totally free. When a job makes you an offer, always inquire about all benefits, including whether they offer any education benefits. The more training and education they are willing to pay for, the more valuable that job is to you.
posted by tastybrains at 8:49 AM on May 7, 2008

Um, I neglected in my BONUS ADVICE to say that the major corporation that hired us had a policy to pay in full for us to take coursework at the school of our choosing to obtain a degree that could be related to any career within the company. Advanced degrees, like a law degree or MBA required approval, but pretty much any bachelor's degree you could justify was fair game. Benefits like that are worth a LOT.
posted by tastybrains at 8:53 AM on May 7, 2008

Bottom line is, don't mill about without degrees if you can help it. As you already know, even if you can get a good job without a degree, you'll be in a spot of trouble if that runs out.

I don't agree with that one bit. It really depends on what you do. Specialized fields obviously have more preference for a degree, but if you can get your foot in the door in some industry and prove you can work effectively, from that point on no one cares about your degree. Of course, the hard part is getting your foot in that door to begin with and a degree can help in that regard but it's not the only way.

what's a good degree to just have?
You're doing it wrong. If you do go down that path do something you enjoy. I've worked at ad agencies in which some very good designers and managers had degrees in History and Biochemistry and other totally unrelated topics. Find out what you like first so you don't find yourself having having wasted time and money doing something you absolutely have no passion or motivation for (as I did).
posted by mkn at 8:55 AM on May 7, 2008

mkn has it right. Figure out what you enjoy, the work and effort you put in to figuring that out is worth way more than a degree. Not that a degree is a bad thing of course. I think to employers it proves discipline and a modicum of general smarts. Having said that, I don't have a degree but I do have those qualities.

There are so many people out there who feel stuck in jobs because they wanted the money or prestige or to fulfill their parents dreams.
posted by robinrs at 9:05 AM on May 7, 2008

You're still in prime age territory.

If my kid were in your shoes here's what I'd tell them. I'm assuming you have no external financial assistance.

1. Get your GED.
2. Research community colleges, locally our community colleges acutally have Guaranteed Transfer Contracts with some really decent schools. If you do one of these programs and maintain a certain GPA you are guaranteed admission to a 4 year university (and you'll only have 2 years left!)
3. For work - tend bar or wait tables. Honestly pick a decent restaurant (maybe the local TGIF or equivalent to start but after a year move to a good local restaurant or popular bar - thats where the dough is). Done properly you'll have time to take classes full time and as much as possible pay cash for your community college degree.
4. Graduate in 4 years and Bob's your uncle.

With respect to what to study - I'd really ignore that at first spend the years at C.C. doing your basic undergrad requirements and taking a few electives in fields that interest you. You shouldn't need to declare a major until year 3.
posted by bitdamaged at 9:14 AM on May 7, 2008

A video recently posted on the blue mentioned that 2x as may Americans believe the moon landing was faked as believe you can achieve the American dream with only a high-school education. This is a very credential-oriented society. A GED would be a no-brainer. The fact that you can write grammatical sentences and spell correctly is a big win for you, and places you beyond many graduates of our fine public-education institutions.

College? Sure, if you can afford it/get a scholarship/get family support/bear the debt. I agree 21 is a good age to start college. What to study is up to you—what do you want? If you don't have anything attracting you to a specific discipline, sign up for the college of liberal arts. I don't think most universities require you declare a major right away, and once you're in the system, you can get a better sense of where you want to be. Most of the credits that you accrue as a liberal-arts major will probably carry over to other colleges if you transfer into sciences, engineering, business, or whatever.
posted by adamrice at 9:18 AM on May 7, 2008

Please don't start college until you have some idea of what you want to do. A friend of mine in undergrad majored in business and was one of the rare business undergrads who felt passionately about the major and knew exactly what he wanted to do with it. His nonstop sarcastic commentary on his fellow majors, the great majority of whom just wanted a degree or had caved in to pressure from parents and peers, had a painful edge to it. I think he spent his entire undergraduate career wondering what the point of earning that degree was when so many people stumbled through drunk, listless, or bored. The saying that college is what you make of it is worth considering. Just because a school's lax standards allow you to wander your way through to a business or sociology degree doesn't mean you should. Get a degree just because you need one and you become a small contributor to the overall problem.

I'm not asking you to fall on your economic sword, either. I'm the only person in my current living situation with a college degree. One roomie makes close to $40k as a cook, and his current employer offers benefits nearly as good as those I receive working for the government. My other roomie is a carpenter/handywoman, and she pulls in about $30k a year depending on how much work she finds. Granted, both of these people are quite good at what they do, but in conversations I've learned that they spent less time achieving the prerequisite level of skill than I did getting my degree. Please don't consider college until you have a strong feel for what you will enjoy doing in life. Meanwhile, spend a few years learning a skilled trade. My same-aged cousin, whose mother tried to hold him to the "standard" I was setting as he floundered his way through the required schooling and never attempted college, is now an electrician making signicantly more with his trade skill than I do with my B.S. in physics.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 9:30 AM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you decide to go the college route after passing your GED, don't forget some schools allow you to take CLEP exams for some credit. Also, I don't know what your reasons for not attending a traditional school were, but if part of it is you don't like big classroom environments, Empire State College has an interdisciplinary program that is largely self-directed.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 9:32 AM on May 7, 2008

Maybe not the path for you, but a path could be to get a job in the mailroom of a large company while you work on your degree. It's possible you could get a front desk/secretary job with just a GED, but that will likely require at least an Associate's degree.

Anyway, my point is that you get your foot in the door of a company while making it clear to them you're committed to advancement. At the ad agency I used to work at, there were account execs who worked their way up from the mailroom. Yes, it happens. You've clearly got good communication skills, and you seem to have the drive, so there should be no reason you can't make that work for you.

Absolutely do whatever you need to to get your degree.
posted by mkultra at 9:33 AM on May 7, 2008

I have no degree. I'm in my mid-40s, and I'm a graphic designer for an agency of the U.S. Federal Government, plus I do freelance work in web and graphic design, and marketing consulting. The older you are, the less important a degree is. Experience takes its place. Everyone thinks I have a degree until I tell them otherwise. It's just assumed.

In my government job, I started in a trade position, running offset printing equipment. What mattered was having the skill. I had the skill, plus I had attended a technical high school where I learned the trade for 3 years. As technology and my interests changed over the years, and as I worked for different agencies, I did more and more graphic and web design, and photography, most of which I taught myself.

In my freelance work, no one has ever asked, nor do they care what my educational background is. I can do the work, I have a bunch of references and a portfolio, and people like to work with me. They trust me to give them advice about marketing and branding, even though I have never taken a single class in that field. They like what I do so they keep calling me.

Many careers require a specialized degree, of course. Without proper education, you wouldn't even be able to do the job. In other careers, the employer might just want some degree, any degree, just to show that you are a well-rounded person. In freelance work, if you have a marketable skill, you may not need a degree at all. You can be a good writer, designer, marketer, advisor, etc. without a degree.

In my case, I'm pretty much self-taught in the things that are important to me. Unbelievably, I had a full scholarship to any Michigan university I wanted, due to high SAT scores. I didn't use the scholarship. If I had it to do over, I probably would have, but I don't think I have suffered greatly because it. It's hard to know, because it would have taken me on an entirely different road.

So, after all that, my suggestion would be to get your GED. It probably won't take that long at all. If you are interested in design, maybe take some night classes. Read a lot. Maybe you can intern with a local design firm. Learn about how to set up and run a freelance business.

The most important thing: do not let your lack of education hold you back. You don't need to fool anybody. Don't lie about it. Do good work, and let it speak for itself. Continue to learn in any way you can, and make the most of any opportunity that comes your way. Be honest and industrious, and good things can happen.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 9:35 AM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

You're a "shoe-in" for a salesman. Try it out, and remember, "timid salesmen have skinny kids." Go get-em tiger!
posted by winks007 at 9:42 AM on May 7, 2008

Small companies, esp. tech startups, care less about credentials than what you've done and are doing.

If you are a good programmer in a hot area, many will consider you. It's typically the larger companies, where HR has taken root, that care most about credentials.
posted by zippy at 10:00 AM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

i'm a programmer. i make a lot of money. i'm 32. if i could go back to the age of 22, when i was going to start school i'd do it, even though i was going to go into biology, something that wouldn't have been nearly as lucrative as what i'm doing now.

now, i'm considering going to university to work on a degree related to, but in a different field from, what i'm doing now. the choice is this: do i keep working and saving money but risk having my very specialized skills become obsolete, or do i go to school, spend my savings and sell my car and be educated but back at square 1 financially when i'm 40? if i was making this decision at your age, i'd be falling over myself to get into school. the older you get, the harder the choice gets.

as for not knowing what you want to do, i don't think it's as important to know what you want to do as it is to just do something. you can always change course once you're in school, but waiting ten years and going back is much, much more difficult.

[i mentioned specialization: it's not that i'm not learning and evolving all the time, but a degree would have given me a broad-based survey of the fundamentals. that's something i lack, and it's sorely missed.]
posted by klanawa at 10:47 AM on May 7, 2008

Some of the smartest and most accomplished people I know are high-school dropouts or have no degrees. As others have mentioned, a few work in sales/fundraising type jobs, where results speak louder than a piece of paper.

I think you need to have a think about what kind of soft skills you have, and brainstorm what types of jobs will be the best fit. But most importantly, you absolutely need to start racking up work experience, because this is your counter-balance to not having a degree. Probably the best thing for now would be to get an entry-level position at a company/organization with good development and promotion opportunities (don't be afraid to ask about this at the interview). If you are a smart, well-informed and ambitious person then you should be able to move upwards and onwards pretty quickly.

I'm in my late twenties and I have no degree, but I have managed to get much further in my career than most people my age. Because I started working straight away I now have 10 years experience in my field and no debt. A lot of friends went to university right away and got Bachelors and Masters degrees in fields with little or no job prospects and graduated with huge debts and no job experience beyond coffee shops.
posted by vodkaboots at 11:58 AM on May 7, 2008

You have no idea what sort of work you want to do, or even what sorts of jobs people have.

You need to see a career counselor that can help you evaluate your skills and interests so you can decide what you would like to do. Get a GED -- for the purpose of finding a job, not having a degree and dropping out are pretty much the same thing.

There are many careers that pay well and make people happy that don't require a college degree. Electricians and plumbers can be paid quite well, better than many jobs that require a degree.
posted by yohko at 12:40 PM on May 7, 2008

Go get your GED and go join the Coast Guard. Go rescue people for a living.

I always recommend the Coast Guard for young, aimless people because a) it's free training for any number of real-world, useful skills, b) it's a government job you can't easily lose, c) it's fun, d) it's worthwhile and e) it's military without being "military," if you get my drift.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:15 PM on May 7, 2008

Distance Learning
posted by netbros at 2:19 PM on May 7, 2008

Because I started working straight away I now have 10 years experience in my field and no debt.

I think this bears emphasis. What an awesome statement. It just goes to show you that you don't have to do things the way "everyone else" does.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 2:30 PM on May 7, 2008

I worked as a production assistant for a TV channel without a degree. I know of some other jobs with non-profits/social orgs that don't require degrees too - what they're more after is passion and determination. In Australia, some jobs let you gain a certificate through work.
posted by divabat at 3:38 PM on May 7, 2008

You'll hear a bunch of stories about people who don't have a degree and make loads of money. But you could also end up like me- working a succession of shitty jobs because you have no degree. When you finally work your way up into an OKish job, you get laid off and spend a bunch of time not finding another job. So you settle for a new crappy low paying and soul-crushing job so you don't starve to death, etc. and end up going to school anyway at the same time as busting your ass at yet another crappy job.

I don't live in an area where you can get a good job very easily without a degree. If you don't have one your options are pretty much Walmart and McDonalds. You can clean houses or wait tables. That's about it. If you live somewhere like this, you need to get one of those jobs until you get the rest of it all sorted. Just do something for now. Whatever it takes.

At least get your GED. Then maybe take a few general education classes somewhere and figure out what you like doing. You're only 21 and you don't need to know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life, but now is a good time to start figuring things out.

21 is YOUNG. I wish I was 21 again.
posted by howrobotsaremade at 5:28 PM on May 7, 2008

"If you don't have one your options are pretty much Walmart and McDonalds."

Absolutely not true. Sorry. Just not the case.
posted by robinrs at 6:28 AM on May 8, 2008

Would you care to elaborate, or did you just want to piss on another user's walk of life?
posted by mkultra at 7:07 AM on May 8, 2008

I meant "you" in the relative sense.

Not to derail the thread with petty sniping but I was speaking specifically about where I live (and of places that might be like it), which is more rural than urban and not exactly swimming in stellar job options, especially for workers without degrees and even moreso for those without even a GED. I'm actually located in the "city", which is only about 3 miles square and the only jobs for non-degreed people around here are mostly service industry. Or you could work in a factory, but even those jobs require at least a GED around here.

I was able to overcome that problem eventually by finding a job where I could telecommute, btw. I work in IT and there's a real dearth of jobs in my field around here.
posted by howrobotsaremade at 7:15 AM on May 8, 2008

Oh, and PS- I missed the part where the OP said they were in NYC. That makes things a lot different, so sorry I didn't see that originally and what I said earlier might not even apply.
posted by howrobotsaremade at 7:19 AM on May 8, 2008

(I was actually referring to robinrs' cheap, ignorant drive-by)
posted by mkultra at 8:02 AM on May 8, 2008

Do low paid work that supports you and study on the side. Aim for something like manager of a store, while working at a business degree. At the end of it all, you will know what you like and a degree to get it.
posted by markovich at 9:51 AM on May 8, 2008

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