No Degree? No Problem - 7 Skills to Master for Maximum Career Growth

Jul 8, 2024

For decades, the message was clear: in order to have a meaningful career, you need to get a college degree. But as a result of the Great Recession of 2008, technological advancements, and a widespread labor shortage across multiple industries, workers have started questioning that wisdom. Is a college degree the best choice for everyone? Maybe not.

There are some roles that do require formal education. “Most management roles require a four-year degree,” says Bill Wolfe, Executive Vice President of Kimmel & Associates’ Heavy Equipment Division. However, he notes, “Sometimes, a candidate without a degree but with 20+ years of progressive career experience will get considered.” David Goodrum, Executive Vice President of the Heavy Civil Division, adds, “There are also many crafts and trades that require at least an associate degree and an apprenticeship before you’re ready to be a professional.”

Still, there’s a broad range of career paths that do not require a four-year degree for success. So, when a candidate doesn’t have (or want) a college degree, how can they make sure they’re maximizing their chances for career success? Below, our industry experts outline seven skills they believe are at least as valuable — and, in many cases, more so – than a formal degree when it comes to career development.

  1. Adaptability
    One of the qualities that employers value most in this ever-evolving market is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and pivot to meet needs as they arise. For example, Mechanical Division Associate Ryan Hennessee points out the impact of the ongoing labor shortage on hiring and professional development. “I think the shortage of techs in the field might force some companies to look for candidates with different backgrounds,” says Ryan. When a candidate can demonstrate an open mind, a flexible attitude, and a range of skills that can apply to different specializations, they can step up to serve a company in whatever way they’re needed — making them invaluable to that company’s continued success as the market changes over time.
  2. Problem-Solving
    In any sector of any industry, problem-solving skills are a must-have quality for candidates. And while formal education settings can provide a strong theoretical background in problem solving, the real skills come from experience. According to Hennessee, “most companies hire based on experience in the trade with the various systems and projects.” The more projects you’ve worked on, systems you’ve learned, and processes you’ve engaged in, the more problems you’ve likely encountered and had to work to solve. In a new role, you’ll be able to draw on those experiences to keep your cool and solve even novel problems using prior experience.
  3. Communication
    Strong communication skills are a necessary part of career success, whether you’re working in the field, the C-Suite, or anywhere in between. Learning to communicate with employees up and down the corporate ladder can help improve site safety, scheduling, process efficiency, sales numbers, training protocols, team morale — and that’s just a few examples. To focus on developing strong communication skills, Structural Steel Division Market Leader Michael Jones suggests starting with “active listening.” In the field, in meetings, and through written communication, take in different employees’ communication styles and preferences. Then, when it’s your time to speak, be clear, be respectful, and always be ready to step back and listen more.
  4. Leadership
    The ability to lead and manage teams is a highly sought after skill, and it’s one that is best developed through experience, not in a classroom. There are some practical aspects to this skill set — organization, time management, communication — but it’s also about confidence, how well you know people, and how willing you are to be a true leader, not just a boss. Jones says the best way to develop as a leader is to learn from the best: “Find a mentor. Ideally this person will be in the field you are pursuing. They can help you determine the best path for success and what steps to take to begin your journey. Have regular meetings and measure your progress. Ask questions, take criticism in stride, and continue to learn.”
  5. Integrity
    Whether your career path has you in the field with a large team, working remotely on your own, or in the corporate office, one of the best ways for you to make a name for yourself and build a career you’re proud of is by showing up every day with integrity. Be honest in all your communications. Do what you say you will do. No matter what you’re doing or who you’re working with, make sure your behavior is rooted in trustworthiness and good judgment. This can help you earn leadership roles, stretch projects, promotions, and high esteem among your colleagues and managers.
  6. Humility
    There’s a reason Patrick Lencioni names humility as one of his three traits of an Ideal Team Player: it’s a skill that makes every employee — and every team — stronger. To Goodrum, humility is all about “the willingness to learn; to do the dirty work, without being told it needs to be done; to be willing to fail and try again, and again, and again.” A humble employee is a great teammate with a can-do attitude. No task is too small for them to volunteer to do — and to do well. This approach to work makes employees an asset to any organization.
  7. Hunger
    Another of Lencioni’s ideal traits is hunger. No amount of education can outmatch the value of hard work. What employers want and need above anything else are employees who are willing to work diligently, pursue opportunities to stretch and grow, and put in the effort to improve themselves, their team, and their company. Short on opportunities in your current job? That’s not a deal-breaker. “There are plenty of books and online resources to sharpen your skills,” Jones says. No matter what role you’re in, or what role you’re pursuing, a hunger to succeed will serve you well.

While it’s true that some roles will probably always require a college degree for consideration, Goodrum says that “most employers know that experience trumps a degree when a degree has a bad attitude or won’t put in the work.” Colby McCoy, Market Leader in the Industrial/Power Division, says that he hopes “folks without four-year degrees aren’t deterred” from developing successful, long-term careers. By practicing the seven skills listed here, and focusing on growth and continuous learning opportunities on the job rather than simply in the classroom, any employee can thrive on their career path — degree or no degree.

***We are grateful to Ryan Hennessee, David Goodrum, Mike Jones, Colby McCoy, and Bill Wolfe for contributing their unique perspectives to this article.

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