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In today's market, you need credentials to compete


Dear Joyce: I worked my way up to assistant manager of a well-known bank. But I don't have a college degree, much less an MBA. At 43 and out of work for 14 months, I am beginning to despair of ever cloning my former job. What avenues are open to me? -- W.R.T.

Dear W.R.T.: Your predicament warns others of the dramatic changes the American job market is undergoing. In the past, working your way up the career ladder without credentials was always delightful as you rode the employment express. But when the ride ended too soon, it was always tough to get aboard another equivalent opportunity.

Now the challenge of equaling your old job without bothering to acquire the "credential password" is more than tough. Your goal may be virtually impossible to achieve because so many middle-management jobs are being sucked out of the economy.

As career authority Marilyn Moats Kennedy says, "Most media stories of 'hopeless' job hunts are about people whose companies didn't insist they make themselves competitive and credentialed against the broader job market. If that's what the job market demands, everybody who wants to be on a payroll needs credentials."

But, you ask, what about the legions of success stories of bootstrappers who have pulled themselves up the ranks? What about the virtue of hard work, loyalty and good breaks? $l Exceptions exist, of course, but generally when bootstrappers find themselves laid off, structured out or lured by early-retirement packages, they've got trouble.

The lesson to be learned is clear: Get appropriate credentials. Get your college diploma if that's what your competition has. Get your master's in business administration if you're competing against MBAs. Get your bachelor's degree in engineering when you only have an associate degree. Get your CPA or CMA (certified public accountant or certified management accountant) or equivalent credential for the numbers world.

Even when the recession is history, the rules of the job market will have changed forever. As "Second Careers" author Caroline Bird observes, "People have to get it out of their heads that they will have a good, steady job for life. IBM is breaking up into more parts than the Soviet Union. We're developing into a two-tier society and only a core of people will hold the traditional America Inc. jobs."

The missing credential may not even be useful in the work, but when too many people compete for too few chairs, it is used as a screening device. Most recruiters look for mainstream candidates -- profiles vary by occupation, but the unspoken criteria often include credentials, experience record, age and gender.

A related pitfall was recently described in this column -- the dangers of being over-educated and under-experienced. Avoid an experience gap -- which will disqualify you as a mainstream candidate. Once you're in the work force, obtaining your credentials may be best accomplished on a part-time basis while you're still working.

So having fired that warning shot across this readership's bow, where does that leave you after being jobless for 14 months? Options others have followed are persistence in looking, trying smaller companies (often wearing two hats), relocating, taking a pay cut, trying related fields (insurance and real estate), seeking retraining for a different line of work or going entrepreneurial.

Irv Goldberg, a 55-year-old former sales manager, has lined up other early retirees to sell office footrests, backrests and keyboard wrist protectors. Goldberg found a niche. Can you think of a niche that fits your experience?

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