Ask The Headhunter: Is There a Substitute for a College Degree?

BY Paul Solman  January 15, 2013 at 11:46 AM EDT


Photo by Daniel Grill.

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

Making Sense
In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


Question: I have over 20 years of experience in general accounting but do not have a degree. How do I make myself stand out on paper to a prospective employer without the degree that most seem to require?


Nick Corcodilos: You are in a profession where a degree is almost a necessity, if only because there are so many new college graduates with accounting degrees. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I know that on the job experience can easily substitute for a degree, especially if you have 20 years in the field. But given a choice, an employer will probably hire someone with a degree before one without.

The cold fact is that there are lots of experienced accountants with degrees, with advanced degrees, and with continuing education and relevant certifications under their belts. That’s what you’re competing with, whether you like it or not — and whether it’s justified or not.

But there’s good news. You can get your degree without necessarily taking a full complement of college courses. There are lots of good “distance learning programs” out there. These are colleges that will give you coursework via the Internet, and let you earn your degree without ever going to their campus. In fact, your experience and extensive knowledge of accounting will earn you credits because these schools will administer tests rather than make you take all the necessary courses.

Now I’ll give you a caution: Check any online education program carefully before signing up. Make sure they’re accredited by an agency your state’s department of education recognizes. (To stay out of trouble, see “Can I earn a degree from the School of Hard Knocks?”) If you’re worried about attending a no-name school, nowadays many well-known brick-and-mortar colleges offer such degree programs. So you’ve got lots of choices.

If you’re going to try this job change without a degree, I suggest you prepare your interview presentation in a way you probably never have before. You need to obtain a bit of “insider” information that’s perfectly legal! This tip is excerpted from an article titled “Job Hunting Skills”:

Work Skills that Win the Job

Review your work skills, and answer the only question that really matters: What can you do to help this employer succeed?

Think that takes more research? Absolutely right. Do what the headhunter does: Talk with other employees at the company, talk with the company’s vendors and even its customers. Figure out what the work is all about before you interview.

> Employers pay headhunters for candidates who can do the work profitably, not for clever interview repartee. So, headhunters make sure their candidates are prepared to “go live” in the interview and do the job. That’s the skill that wins job offers.

Get a degree, or get to work and prepare extra before your interviews. If your preparation is thorough, you might be able to prove your skills trump a degree. But why continue to face this added challenge? Start working on that degree.


Question: Nick, I possess a lot of good skills in office administration. What is keeping me from getting a job is that employers get so specific about the applicant’s knowledge of their in-house software programs that not everybody uses. Where are they going to find these perfect employees?

Nick Corcodilos: In today’s employment market, employers don’t just exercise their power to be picky. They go overboard. Trying to find the perfect candidate with an exact skill match is incredibly costly to a company, and this is a fact you can use to your advantage.

A job stays empty while a company can seek out perfection. But while the search is underway, and there’s no worker to do the work, profit-making opportunities are lost. While a job sits empty, the associated costs “roll downhill.” That is, other departments and functions that depend on the empty job cannot get all their work done. And while the company interviews and rejects 50 candidates, the work itself changes and evolves. The longer it takes to hire someone, the more there is to learn, and the longer it takes the new hire — no matter how perfect — to become a profitable worker.

These are all points you can use in your interview. If you believe the manager is hesitant to hire you, try this:

How To Say It

“I have never used the software you use, but I’m very experienced with a similar program. But here’s the important thing: I can ride a fast learning curve without falling off. I could be up to speed and working profitably while you’re still looking for the perfect candidate. In fact, I’m so sure of that, I’ll give you a guarantee. Let’s set a clear performance objective and a deadline. If I can’t meet it, I’ll leave with no hard feelings. But I assure you, you will be happy with my work.”

Yes, that’s a bit of a risky commitment to make, and you must decide whether it’s right for you. But it may be worth it. If a company is hesitating to hire you, you’ve got to help them re-set their expectations and bring them back to reality. It’s all about costs, and it’s all about profit.

To understand more about the “perfect fit” problem that companies have created for themselves, please see this article: “The Perfect Fit, Isn’t.


Question: Could you give a little advice about non-profit job hunting? I work in the fundraising field and the organizations often don’t make a decision on a candidate, or they decide to re-structure and start the search process for a qualified candidate all over.

Nick Corcodilos: While you’ll never know why an organization can’t make a decision, you can offer some compelling reasons why hiring you will be the profitable choice. To do this, you must take control of the job interview.

While the non-profit world is different from the commercial world, it’s important to keep one thing in mind. Every organization must produce some sort of profit. Profit is simple: For whatever resources you commit to an operation, in the end it must yield something more than the operation costs to run. Now, this might stir some non-profit folks up. But it’s nonetheless true. Translate the word “profit” into one of these terms to see what I mean: efficiency, service, success, change. The operation must produce enough of one of these to justify its existence.

Here’s a suggestion about to handle this in the job interview, from my article, “The Basics: The New Interview“:

Offer Profit to The Manager

Be ready to discuss or do something in your meeting that will help the manager with a problem she’s facing now. Ask the manager to put a live problem on the table, so you can show how you’d go about solving it. This single technique — which relies totally on your work skills — does more to impress an employer than anything I’ve ever seen a candidate do in an interview. Roll up your sleeves! When you’re done, ask to be reviewed like an employee.

Your job, as the job hunter, is to explain how you will optimize the output of the the job you’re applying for, whether it’s a for- or non-profit organization. Taken that way, your challenge is to find a non-profit that prides itself on producing its product efficiently and effectively. In my opinion, there are too many inefficient non-profits out there. If you join one of these, I think you’ll regret it. So establish some job-search standards for yourself. Go after only the good non-profits, and approach them with profit in mind.


*Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available for sale on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?“, and “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

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This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions