By Perminus Wainaina
The dream for most of us is to go to school, pass the national examinations, get into a good university, join the job market and be successful. Many of us follow this route.
But is it the only way to succeed? Can you still excel as a professional without using this conventional method?
Last week, I met up with a young professional who’s not been to through formal college education. His name is Joseph and he is a communications manager at a beverage company.
Here is Joseph’s professional experience.
Joseph cleared high school in 2013. At the tail end of the year, he began his working life.
He started off as a messenger for one of his mentors. The mentor was a graphics designer, and Joseph’s work involved picking and dropping documents to clients, and any other manual office work assigned.
Some days, there would be no work for him, so he would hang around at the office.
He started getting interested in graphics design work. When the mentor noticed his inquisitive nature, she started teaching him about design work. In a few months, he had moved up from being a messenger into a trainee graphics designer.
After a year, he left the design work and started writing. Joseph says writing came naturally to him. He had found a passion.
Today, he is a communications manager at a mid-sized company – from a messenger a few years ago.
So, how did he do it?
How did Joseph manage to move up the professional ladder without a university degree?
When I asked him this, he took some time, and then gave his answer, “I worked on growing the skills I needed.”
“I didn’t have the money to take myself through school,” Added Joseph, “So, I decided to grow skills that would help give me an upper hand.
Graphics design was just one skill. At first, I loved it, but after a few months, I got bored with it. (I was 18 at the time, and I wanted something more exciting.)
After I left the design firm, I stumbled onto writing. I did that for a year, at the same time, I would still freelance as a graphics designer.”
At some point, Joseph realized while he did enjoy writing, he was not adding any skills to help him in the professional world.
Around then, he applied for a job as a marketer and social media manager at a startup real-estate firm.
While working here, he took up extra roles –managing field officers and talking to clients. It was then that Joseph realized he had a natural liking for talking to people.
Joseph decided to hone in as a communications expert. Still, his wages at the real-estate startup could not take him through school.
Last year, Joseph decided to take a leap and apply for a communications position. While he did not have formal education, he had worked in a few companies and gained the required skills.
“The beverage company he currently works for was looking for a senior communications officer and a content writer. I applied for the writing position, but I did not get it.
Afterward, I contacted the hiring manager and asked him to consider me for the senior communications officer.
At first, he told me I was unqualified, then I drafted him an email, detailing my experience over the years. I explained while I did not have university papers to show, I had gathered the practical experience through the years.
Long story cut short, I got the job!”
What advantages has Joseph had that most professionals don’t get?
1. The advantage of choice
He started off in graphics design, then moved to writing, and later communications. Because he lacked a college education, he had the liberty of moving around. While this can be sometimes dangerous, it did help him rule out what he did not want, and what he wanted to settle on.
When most professionals graduate from university, they immediately start looking for a job in the area they studied. This could lock you out on an area you’re passionate about.
2. The advantage of practice
There’s no problem with going to the university and earning your degree.
However, there are a lot of practical lessons you will learn afresh when you join the job market. Joseph had the privilege of practicing both technical and practical skills.
Even as you earn your degree or diploma, search for opportunities where you can gain and apply the skills you need in the job market.
3. The advantage of error
After you’re done with your university education, you’re so focused on getting a job, that you will give everything to succeed at the job –even if it is not something you enjoy doing. When you do finally realize you don’t want to spend the rest of your life doing what you studied, you’ll be a few years in your profession.
At this point, you can either quit your career and go into your passion, or keep on unsatisfied in your career.
Joseph had no pressure to work in his area of expertise. He had the advantage of trying a few professions and learning it wasn’t what he wanted to do.
Joseph did not have it all easy. There are disadvantages to joining the job market without a college degree.
Some of the challenges he faced include;
1. The disadvantage of experience
To many employers, a university education is seen as some sort of experience. This also includes attachment and internship opportunities.
Joseph not only lacked university education, he had not interned or been attached anywhere, and initially, employers did not want to take a chance on him as they would spend time and resources training him.
2. The disadvantage of lowered salary
Conventionally, an MBA graduate is paid differently from a high school graduate.
Even when he applied for a job he could rightly execute and had the experience, most employers lowered the salary range on realizing he had not been to the university.
Most employers will base your salary on your education level. This, however, should not be the case. Your remuneration should be based on the value you add to a company, not your education level.
3. The disadvantage of opportunities
Joseph has spent the last few years in the communication department. He has relevant skills to be successful as a communications officer. However, his application has been rejected time and again, simply because he did not have a degree.
Some employers equate qualification to a degree or diploma. When you don’t have the papers, you will get locked out on several opportunities.
Is a degree or diploma necessary in today’s job market?
You cannot negate the importance of having a degree education. While pursuing your degree, you will learn skills to help you in the job market.
However, the level of quality education has significantly dropped over the last two decades.
The verdict, then, is for you as a professional, to work on growing the skills you need –whether you’ve been to college or not.
For example, if you need communication skills, look for opportunities to grow this skill. Put yourself in scenarios that will grow you as a professional.
Joseph, for instance, enrolled in effective communication training. This will help him take his communication and presentation skills to the next level.
At the end of the day, an employer will take a chance on you when you prove you can deliver results. The most effective way to show this is by gaining practical and soft skills –in or out of a class.
What’s your opinion, is it possible to succeed in the job market without a college degree?
Perminus Wainaina is an experienced HR Practioner with over 15 years of experience in executive recruitment and selection, training, performance management, and Kenyan labour laws.
He has consulted for firms such as Safaricom Sacco, Oxfam, Un Women, Pacis Insurance, Windsor Golf, Muthaiga Country Club, etc. Currently, he represents the private sector at KEBS in the HR standardization committee.