By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/21/2007 4:17:31 PM ET 2007-01-21T21:17:31

Only about 28 percent of working-age Americans have four-year college degrees, but still many workers find it hard to get a job or advance in their careers without one.

Even if an employee has years of experience and a proven track record, they may hit the no-higher-education glass ceiling. Workers over 18 with a bachelor’s degree earn nearly double what their counterparts with only a high school education earn, Census Bureau data shows.

Some of it can be risk aversion. Employers want to know you can do a job. While resumes and recommendations are nice, a degree from a credible university gives managers a degree of comfort when they make you that job offer.

Of course there are jobs that require boatloads of education, like a doctor or lawyer, but that’s not what I’m addressing here. I’m talking about jobs an individual can do without a fancy piece of paper from a university, and there are plenty of them out there in a host of industries. You can succeed and make your mark with out finishing college. Look at Evel Knievel, Steve Jobs and even Bill Gates, just to name a few.

While employers often prefer college graduates, high school and college dropouts have to find creative ways to make themselves more marketable. No, you don’t have to jump over a row of school buses on a motorcycle, just play up your strengths.

Here are some of your questions:

I am a 52-year-old technical specialist-engineer-manager who is considering looking for a new job.  I have a solid 30-year work history with no gaps in my resume, and a ton of expertise in computer programming, engineering and many levels of IT management.  My problem is that I do not have a four-year degree.  I have two years of community college and graduated top in my class from a private IT technical trade school (similar to DeVry).

I have frequently found that the lack of a four-year degree prohibits me from interviews, job advancement, etc.  Although everyone I have worked for recognizes my strong work ethic, managerial skills, and strong technical and marketing backgrounds, I am always paid less than other employees with lesser skills and experience because they have a “real” degree.

What is the best way to overcome this obstacle in both interviews and resume processes?  Is there a way to spin this on a resume, such as “a bachelor equivalent”?  Should I apply for jobs that advertise a requirement of a four-year degree?
--J. D., Las Vegas

I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve applied to a bunch of jobs for which I didn’t have all the requirements. Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever applied for a job where I had all the advertised requirements. Hiring managers sometimes fill job ads with everything but the kitchen sink when it comes to what they’re looking for. Their ideal candidates sometimes sound like bionic men or women, and in most cases there are few Steve Austins or Jaime Sommers out there.

That said, you need to focus on the experience you do have. Include a section on your resume called “skill sets” instead of “education,” advises Joanne James, founder of BestHeadhunters.com. In that section include all your technical abilities and training you’ve picked up during your many years in IT, as well as your community college and trade school education. But don’t include that it was a two-year degree, just call it an associates degree.

When you get in the door and you are asked about your lack of a four-year degree, stress that you have equivalent work experience and you have been upwardly mobile in your career.

But James suspects it may be more than your lack of a college degree keeping you from landing an interview.

“This person may be experiencing a bit of age discrimination,” she says. On a resume, or in a cover letter, you should not include more than 10 years of work experience if you include any dates at all because it may send up a red flag for some employers. Keep jobs as current as possible. Include older relevant experience, but just don’t include dates.

I've got tons of practical experience and have moved up the ladder into management at my current firm.  It's a small company, there's only so far to go and I can't take the 60-hour workweeks any more.  I'm smart, quick, logical, loyal, have a good attitude and an excellent work ethic.  The downside is that I don't have a degree.  I know I could do just about any job I set my sights on. How can I get in the door with a new firm when as soon as they see that I don't have a B.A., they won't even consider me?
--TS, Lacey, Wash.

If you tried everything suggested above but still can’t get past the HR department, go straight to the top, or at least to the hiring manager.

James says you have to get to the person at an organization that is feeling the most pain as far as needing to fill a position. Get your resume in the right hands. That means you’ll have to research, network and make a lot of calls. If it’s a big company, go online and scroll through all the vice presidents or heads of divisions listed and figure out what division head you should try to contact. If it’s a job in marketing you want, for example, call the department and ask which manager is handling the hiring for that position. You might get directed back to HR but at least you can try to make a case for yourself on the phone. This is when you have to get thick skinned and be pushy, especially if you believe the job was made for you.

Again, I’ll recommend the book “What Color Is Your Parachute?” by Richard Nelson Bolles, and so does James. “The best way to get a job is act as your own recruiter,” she adds.

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