If you have the right experience, the odds may be in your favor.

By Chad Broadus | September 2008

So you've found the perfect job posting - one that seems written specifically for you. There's just one problem, two little words: "degree required."

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, many of the technical jobs that make both its 30 fastest and 30 largest growth occupation lists have a bachelor's degree listed as the "most significant source of postsecondary education training." Completion of a degree indicates an ability to commit to, and complete, a prolonged and complex endeavor.  It also demonstrates mastery of a base level of knowledge that's fairly uniform across all institutions of higher learning. The general assumption is this gives a potential employer some degree of certainty regarding future performance.

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Whether true or false, do these general beliefs about post-secondary education influence hiring managers?

The Right Experience, Fit

According to Joshua Kitchen, senior recruiter for Kforce Professional Staffing in Dayton, Ohio, if you have the right experience, the odds may be in your favor. "In the tech field today, a degree is like the high school diploma of previous generations. There's a huge performance gap between recent college graduates and their non-degreed peers those posses years of experience," he says. "Work experience is as valuable as a degree."

Having talked to hundreds of hiring managers, Kitchen believes that, ultimately, a hire comes down to the right fit. If the candidate has the right skills and experience, and is a good personality fit, the hiring decision is clear-cut regardless of level of education.  "Employers want to hire a candidate that can not only do the work, but also fit into the culture and have some longevity at the company," Kitchen explains.

The right experience is paramount, but how much work experience do you have to possess to overcome the education deficit? Anthony Miller, a recruiter with Volt Technical Resources in Portland, Ore., says the general rule among recruiters and hiring managers is to equate about three years of work experience to every year in a college classroom. If you have a decade or more in the field, chances are you'll be a competitive candidate.

Miller advises job seekers to apply for positions that require a degree if they have the equivalent experience. "If a candidate has 12 years of experience, go ahead and apply for a position wanting a four-year degree," he says. "The candidate's 12 years of experience is going to be much more relevant than a candidate fresh out of school." In such cases, both degreed and non-degreed applicants will have a similar base of knowledge, but the applicant with hands-on background will have more practice in dealing real-world situations.

Standing Out from the Crowd

If you decide to apply for a job using your experience in lieu of a degree, Miller suggests employing your cover letter and resume to position yourself. "List the problems that you have solved at each position," he says. "How much money did you save the company through solving those problems?  How much time did you save the company through your efforts?" Such examples will create a narrative that casts you as a problem solver and solutions provider. Plus, using this technique will make your application stand out from the pile of other resumes, and show potential employers your experience is equal to the task.

If Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Steve Jobs - all college dropouts - are any indication, a degree may not predict future performance. If you have the drive, determination, and experience to be the best, go for it: Polish your resume and cover letter, and apply for the job. The strength of your experience and personality might be just the right combination to overcome the education requirements and land you in the position you've dreamed of.

Chad Broadus is a tech professional based in Oregon.