The piece of paper they were referring to was my college degree, technically the degrees.  I have a masters, and I work in a world where everyone has a degree.  I can say that although the degree is important, and definitely a gatekeeper credential in my world, it’s still far from the only thing that gets you the job.  There is a universal trifecta, of credential, attitude, and a whole lot of luck that all come into play during the job hunt.  My friend was placing way too much emphasis on the degree over the other two variables in the equation.

The degree can be kind of a funny thing.  It can get you a job, or it may not get you a job. I know idiots who hold doctoral degrees and they can’t get a job and keep it to save their life.  I know people who haven’t even gotten an associate and they can go wherever they want within their field, and they have people begging to hire them, often at extremely high wages.  

So first, before we explore this further, we need a quick primer on a degree as a gatekeeper credential. More specifically the primer is on the gatekeeper credential itself which isn’t necessarily a college degree. It is a credential of some sort designed to limit the number of acceptable applicants to an industry or job type.  Pretty much anything in the medical field is a good example. Teaching as well. You have to have the degree, and usually some form of licensure, or you’re not allowed to do the job. In other instances, the majority really, needing the degree for a job is very much a gray area.  It’s easy to spot these when looking at the job boards.  They are any job where the bottom of the listing says something to the effect of “degree required or equivalent experience”.   In effect, the employers are using the degree as a filtering tool. It’s not really necessary for the job or they wouldn’t have the disclaimer about accepting equivalent experience. It’s just an easy way to make a very big pile of applicants into a much smaller pile.  Make no mistake, there’s a corollary between degrees and professional jobs, but it’s not causal, not by a long shot.

I don’t want to go down this rabbit hole too deeply as I’ve already written an article on it.  The point is my friend looked at all degrees as a gatekeeper credential.  To me the idea of a degree allowing you to get the job  is much more nuanced than that.  Unless it’s specifically required by law, or deeply entrenched tradition, like trying to get a job in a K12 school system or an institution of higher learning, it’s not necessary. As an example, why do you need a degree to teach anything up to 5th or 6th grade?  I will say that people who don’t have the degree feel like they can’t get ahead without it. The net net is that the degree does help, but it is not the be all end all that many make it out to be.

I think the second piece of getting the job, and even just having more luck on the job hunt, really is about attitude.  You have to be willing to get out of your comfort zone. In the case of my buddy he doesn’t want to deal with the hour plus commute to downtown.  He also doesn’t want to give up some of the niceties attached to his existing job.  In this case, you have to give up something to get something else.  If you take my buddy as an example, he would have to give up a lot of scheduling flexibility, but he would gain a much more pleasant working environment.  Pay is also a big factor here. The crap jobs tend to pay more to retain people. It’s not universal, but I do see correlation between increased wages and less desirable working environments.

It’s not just about the working environment.  Another aspect of attitude has more to do with a willingness to get out of your comfort zone in the actual tasks.  This definitely builds upon itself over time. It’s also the thing  that employers are continually saying that they want out of their workforce. They want the employee to be willing and aggressive about learning.  It’s good for the business.  The net result for the employer is to have people that they can move into different areas when they need to.   In effect it’s a variant of the just-in-time workforce that all employers want.  They want the right person, just for the moment they need them.  If an employee has skills to do three jobs, it’s like the employer has three part timers they can call in when needed.  Otherwise they’d need three full time people and enough work to keep them all busy all the time. 

The benefit is just as much for the employee as it is for the employer.  If the employee is willing, and maybe even aggressive about their desire to try new things, and do them with enough care to not screw them up too badly, then the employee will learn those new things. I know, it seems obvious when you write it out.  But you don’t learn new stuff unless you attempt it. Too many people, in my opinion, like their comfort zone. They prefer, as the saying goes, to stay in their lane. I know many many people who only want to do the job they were hired for.  I never quite understood that mentality, only because it seems so boring to me.  In addition to knowing new things, you get to know new people who are related to those other things.  This network effect is also huge.  

As an example, You can be the best accountant in the world, but if you haven’t gone out and tried to recruit some new business for your firm when invited on a sales call, It won’t help when things get really tight because of a down business cycle.  The boss may look at you and say we have three accountants and really need to cut that down to two.  Since the other two are good in front of customers and you’re not, well we have to do what’s in the best interest of the firm.  Alternatively,  if you were the accountant who did the joint calls with the customers, and were let go because of something like not having enough seniority, then you’re going to have to look for a new accounting job.   If you were competing with the other accountants in the market and you had sales as well as accounting on your resume, that puts you in a better position to get one of the few jobs available.  I use sales and accounting as an example because most of the accountants I know just want to be accountants, but this knowledge benefit exists in every industry.  Even if the company in question only wants an accountant and your sales experience isn’t important to the new company the network effect could kick in.  For example if one of your old sales contacts you worked with knew someone at the target firm or maybe even had moved from the old firm to the new firm, then that’s someone else you know on the inside of the company with the job opening.   

As I said, over time this positive attitude related to trying new things really enhances skills and connections and it all leads to flexibility in presenting yourself for that next job.  Like in the accountant example,  when you’re hunting for the new job, or the new position in your existing company, you can tweak your resume and talking points with all of the different skills, connections, and knowledge that align to the desired job you’re going for.

So I’ve covered the degrees and attitude but there is the biggest of the three left.   Nothing happens without luck.  To get the job you want the situation has to be: right place, right time. It’s that simple.  If there’s a huge need for a particular position to be filled, the degree isn’t legally required, and you know somebody who’s doing the hiring or you have that right mix, more than likely you’ll get the job.

If we were to use playing poker as an analogy.  Think of a degree like having an ace.   Having an ace is never a guarantee that you will win every hand. It means you have an easier time putting together higher value hands.  You could still win  the majority of hands with low value cards if you have the right luck. More practically speaking, politicians are always telling us that we need more degrees because the average income goes up with more education. That’s true. It’s like having the ace, you’ll probably win more hands over time. But I also know a lot of people who don’t have a degree and make tons of money.

I think the takeaway here is that if you don’t have the degree, it can be perceived as a much larger issue than it actually is.  Yes, not having the piece of paper is absolutely a real problem when looking for a job in environments where the degree is legally required. It’s less of an issue with a positive attitude about when, where and what you do, a broad network and skill set, and some luck. 

 In the past I’ve questioned if the piece of paper, the degree, bachelor’s and masters, is really worth all that much.  Admittedly I question it from the perspective of somebody who has already achieved it. My questioning the value of it, and my friends comments reminds me of a conversation I had with a family member. They had a very high income, and had paid off their house years earlier. I was going on and on about how my goal is to pay off my own home. This led to them giving me a bit of a lecture about how it’s not that big of a deal. They argued there’s still a ton of other bills in life and the house payment is a relatively small piece of the big family expense pie.  They told me I was way too fixated on something that wasn’t that important.  I was of the opinion that they forgot what it was like to always have that mortgage payment.  Years later, another friend of mine got lucky with some real estate investments and was able to pay off their own home early. When I asked them about it, they said the real benefit was mental and emotional. They felt more free even though they still had kids to raise and all the related bills to pay.  Maybe that’s the biggest value of the piece of paper. It’s not that it gets you the job or keeps you from the job. It’s that it changes your mindset about your own value to the organizations that you are trying to get employed by and that changes how you approach things.   But in the end, no matter how many pieces of paper you have, you still need to have the skills from trying new things, and you still need a whole lot of luck. Now that I think about it, It’s a shame they don’t offer a degree in attitude and luck. That would be the most valuable one of all.

Posted by Mike Peluso

Mike Peluso writes about the collision between between the business / professional world and life. He also writes about the journey involved with the Peluso Presents efforts including the Blog, Books, and Podcast so that others may benefit from his efforts. From Mike: I spend hundreds of hours working on these articles every year with no compensation other than support I get through donations. You can support with a tip and by Subscribing to the Podcast (and writing a review on iTunes would be really appreciated as well!) One time tips:

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