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What's more important: earning a college degree or changing your colleagues' perceptions of you? Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.
I started working in HR 17 years ago as an assistant—without a college degree. I worked my way up to recruiter after two years. Now, a degree is required to get a job in almost every industry. How does a professional of a certain age, who is not likely to obtain a degree, excel? I have reached a ceiling for advancement at my longtime employer. How can I make my resume marketable to find a new career opportunity?
Seventeen years with an employer means that you already are doing your job well, so when I read "excel" and "new career opportunity," I felt us move onto more complex issues. If you want to make a strategic career move into a different area of HR, it will require targeting a job that has some clear connections with your existing skill set (talent management is one area that comes to mind), because the more skills and credentials you bring to the table, the easier the "sell" for you and the easier the "buy" for the hiring manager. Once you have determined an achievable job search goal, then develop the skills and experience you are lacking. For guidance, see "Starting Your HR Career," which has advice that can be applied to a promotion or an opportunity with a new employer.
My advice would be to quietly pursue a promotion rather than a job change at first, because your employer is likely to grant your requests to work on a project that relevant to your new target job. Also, it is frequently but not always easier to shift to another area of specialization at a company where you and your skills are a known quantity.
Who Are You Seen to Be?
When you've worked in a job for several years, everyone has you neatly stereotyped, categorized and pigeon-holed. How you have been stereotyped impacts your ability to make a change in your professional status within the organization.
As I say in other contexts, every industry, profession, company and department has an inner circle and an outer circle. If you belong to the inner circle and you ask for and work toward a realistic shift in responsibilities, you could expect help in achieving your goals, because the members of the inner circle are perceived to be superior performers. As such, they have greater job security and are more valued, becoming the logical choice for plum assignments, decent raises and promotions.
If you belong to the outer circle, you are not seen as an important player, making recognition and opportunity far less readily available. This is the case for the vast majority of working professionals. You can begin to change perceptions by following these steps:
Many years ago, when I faced the facts on this issue, I had to go through each of these steps to reinvent and rebrand myself. It didn't happen overnight. My colleagues in the outer circle had enormous fun at my expense, while the people in the inner circle were slow to notice the change. But they did eventually notice. If you commit to a similar re-invention, these will likely become familiar experiences for you too. The effort is worth it. Despite the challenges in making this happen, it changed the entire course of my life.
Sticking with the Commitment
One other important observation about professional reinvention: Just as there were some kids at school you knew you had to distance yourself from, you'll have to do the same thing in your adult life when you recognize that certain relationships are holding you back. There is one difference though—you remain personally "friendly," although you no longer share the same behaviors or support the same opinions publicly or privately. None of what you are doing or why has to be announced publicly.
The awareness that they have to leave some colleagues behind is why and how some people get ahead and others not so much, and you can bring that awareness with you from one employer to the next, giving you greater control over the trajectory of your career and increasing your stability and odds of success.
Lack of a Degree
Lastly, we should address your concern about college degrees. You already know, as a recruiter, that when a degree is listed as a requirement on a job posting, then applicants without degrees will rarely show up in resume database searches.
However, enrolling in a degree program (and it only needs to be a course or two) allows you to put that degree on your resume with a future "anticipated" graduation date. This will usually get a properly written resume pulled up in the search results and give you the opportunity to demonstrate how your experience more than compensates for formal education, while simultaneously demonstrating your commitment.
Whether it is a promotion, a career shift into a related but different function with your current employer, or a career change, you should always begin by establishing a clear target and discovering the skills required in the new job. The more you can learn about these skills and the situations in which they are applied, the greater understanding and better ability you will have to show a hiring manager how you can do the job. Finally, if you can get any practical experience under your belt, it will make the "sell" easier for you and the "buy" easier for the hiring manager.
Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to YourCareerQA@shrm.org. We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know.
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