Recently someone asked me for advice on what they can do to improve their career without getting a degree.
I have performed a quick poll of some people I know and found that for experienced people there seems to be little need for a degree. People who have extensive experience but no degree report no problems in finding work, and employers don’t report any reluctance to hire someone who has the skills but no degree.
One thing that a degree is very good for is making a career jump. This is most notable when you get your first professional job, school results and references from part-time work don’t help and a degree is a massive benefit. But if you have proven your abilities in the field then most employers will be more interested in checking references and the interview process than in qualifications. If you are only interested in getting a job that is one level above where you are at the moment then lacking a degree should not be a problem.
Another possibility for someone who lacks a degree is certification such as the Linux Professional Institute (LPI) provides and the Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE). One advantage of the RHCE certification is that it is based on fixing misconfigured Linux systems, no theoretical questions, just the type of work that real sys-admins do for their job – this means that people who do badly in traditional exams can be expected to do well, and it also means that the RHCE certification accurately depicts real skills in fixing problems (and it should therefore be more valuable to employers). The LPI exams can be taken by anyone, but to sit for an RHCE you have to be sponsored by an employer.
There are ways of getting career benefits without strictly going upwards. One way of doing this is to move to a region where the pay scales are different. Some years ago I moved from Melbourne, Australia to London to increase my salary. When in London I did work that was a lot less challenging and was paid considerably better for doing so. One thing I discovered is that in London Australians were widely admired for working really hard, I don’t think that Australians work harder than British people on average, but people who will move to the other side of the world to advance their career are generally prepared to work hard!
If you spend some time working in another region and then decide to return home you will probably find that employers are more interested in hiring you for what you have learned in another region. Whether you actually learn things that are of value to potential employers when working in another country is debatable, it probably depends on the individual. But when applying for a job you want to make the most of every opportunity that is available – if someone wants to hire you for the special skills you learned in another country then that’s OK. ;)
Another possibility is moving to a different industry sector. Some industries have career bottlenecks at different levels. If there is no possibility of moving upwards in the area where you work then getting a job with the same skill requirements in a different industry might open up more opportunities. An example of this is working as a sys-admin in a medium sized company that is not IT based. If you are the only sys-admin in the company then there is no possibility of promotion, moving from such a company to an ISP (or other IT based company) would then give the possibility of becoming a senior sys-admin, team leader, or even the manager of the ops team (if management is your thing).
A final option that few people consider is becoming a contractor. Contractors tend to earn significantly more than permanent employees when they do the same work (so becoming a contractor provides a significant immediate benefit) and as the duration of contracts is usually small there is less attention paid to degrees etc (what does it matter if the contractor will only be there for three months?). Of course most contracts last significantly longer than the initial term, some contractors end up working in the same position for 10 years or more!
There are some down-sides to being a contractor, one is that they get less interesting work (offering someone a choice of projects if they become a permanent employee or the project that is deemed to be least interesting if they insist on being a contractor is not uncommon). Another down-side to being a contractor is the way that contractors are used. The ideal way of running a company is to have mostly permanent employees and to use contractors for special skills, short-term projects, and for emergencies when they can’t hire permanent employees. When a company has almost no permanent employees it usually means that something is going badly wrong. This means that if you select a random contract role there is a good chance that it will be one where things are going badly wrong. The money from contracting is good, but it can be depressing when projects fail.