In the 1980s, American society turned its focus toward an emphasis on higher academic achievement. No longer did a high school diploma suffice; a bachelor’s degree suddenly became a necessary accoutrement for gainful employment. The result? Degreed graduates flooded the job market, and businesses took advantage of the glut at the same time a recession eliminated most middle management positions.

Jobs that formerly required nothing more than a high school diploma suddenly required a college degree. Degreed graduates found their expensive educations devalued. Business, however, continued to push for workers with advanced education. By the mid-1990s, every business wanted a unicorn: an 18-year old worker with an MBA and 10 years of experience willing to work 60 hours a week for a minimum wage without overtime pay.

The country slowly grew to realize, especially with Millennials racking up huge amounts of debt in student loans, that the cost of a four-year degree in several fields outweighed the potential benefits in higher salary. In the first decade of the 21st century, academic focus turned to STEM topics: science, technology, engineering, and math. The humanities languished. STEM-oriented academics churned graduates who could count, but not write. The quality of the written word deteriorated, especially as online platforms for freelance content providers sprouted like dandelions in spring, and hungry writers offered their services at deeply discounted rates.

As realization slowly sank in that the humanities had value, STEM began to morph into STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. The inclusion of arts hailed a bourgeoning recognition that the humanities are what make us human. However, tuition for 4-year degrees continued to skyrocket beyond the reach of anyone not independently wealthy, willing to take on immense debt, or without scholarships to defray the cost of education. The emphasis on 4-year degrees also resulted in the skilled trades going underserved.

Trade a degree for a trade

Any fan of Mike Rowe knows that success doesn’t depend upon a 4-year degree. The mikeroweWORKS Foundation challenges high school graduates to buck expectations regarding pursuit of a college degree and reconsider community colleges and vocational training, because millions of well paid jobs in the skilled trades go unfilled. The elder statesmen of the DIY (do it yourself) show, This Old House, created an apprenticeship program called Generation NEXT through which the master tradesmen bring new blood into the construction trades. Other, less publicized apprenticeship and adult internship programs abound. For instance, the Wallcovering Installers Association initiated an outreach effort to bring people into the trade.

For those without a college degree—or those who have a college degree and seek employment in another field—the time is ripe, the market is open, and the opportunities are plentiful.

Getting experience before you get the job

FlexJobs states that “Career fields that hire for remote jobs without a bachelor’s degree requirement and also offer solid pay include the food and beverage industry, web development, medical and health, administrative, and writing.” The site lists nine remote jobs that pay a solid, middle-class salary between $45,000 and $60,000. The effort to find a work-from-home job that doesn’t require a degree gets trickier when the employment seeker also has no experience.

For the job seeker without experience, entering the realms of the gainfully employed presents a Catch-22 irony Joseph Heller would have appreciated: You can’t get a job without experience and you can’t get experience without a job. So, how do you get experience if you can’t get the job?

For those who have the time and availability, certification programs offer one venue for the acquisition of recognized competence. Many manufacturers train contractors in the operation and maintenance of their equipment and award graduates of those training programs with certificates of accomplishment that contracting firms using that equipment recognize. 

Many trade schools and career colleges offer vocational education programs that confer specialized certification upon those who complete niche training programs. Third party certification often carries more clout than one issued by a manufacturer. A third-party certificate testifies that an objective third party, such as a trade or professional association, has judged the certificate holder as meeting their high standards for competence and knowledge in the field beyond a particular make or model of equipment.

If you have an interest in, say, value engineering, and no degree, then look up the professional association that advances the interests and profession of value engineers to see what their certification requirements are. There’s a trade or professional association for every job title and most will offer some type of certification or vocational training.

Another option is to volunteer your time and talent in the field in which you want to work. Doing so will not only help you acquire necessary, relevant experience, but also bring you into contact with the very people who can provide you with professional recommendations and references and maybe even offer you employment. Apprenticeship and internship programs do the same, but usually offer some form of financial compensation.

Find out where the jobs are

Discovering who’s hiring locally may be as simple as driving around the neighborhood and responding to those “Hiring: Apply Within” signs. Many small “job shops” avoid using online recruiting platforms like Indeed and CareerBuilder, because those have a reputation for catering to desk jobs. If you like to work with your hands, directly approaching those small foundries and job shops shows both a willingness to get out of your chair and a desire to work. Many of these small employers are hurting for good employees, so they will be willing to train an applicant who shows the right attitude. Be confident and amiable; neither arrogance nor desperation is the right attitude.

Talk to people and, more importantly, listen to them. If the pest control contractor complains that he’s having trouble filling positions in his company, heed that blinking neon sign flashing above his head. If your equestrian friend complains that she can’t get a hold of the farrier and can’t find another available farrier, there’s another clue. Turn off the satellite radio and listen to local broadcasts. Oftentimes, local companies will air advertisements announcing job openings.

Recent changes in employment compensation requirements resulted in many companies reducing employee hours to avoid paying benefits and overtime wages. Such companies then found themselves in the position of needing to hire additional part-time workers to cover those hours formerly filled by full-time workers putting in overtime hours. Scrutinize these companies and speak to employees to avoid unethical bosses and find one willing to work with your availability.

If a company advertises for full-time employees, but you’re only available on a part-time basis, it doesn’t hurt to ask if the company would consider hiring you on a part-time basis. Remember, the kids won’t always need ’round-the-clock supervision, and you can use part-time employment to build your expertise. A prospective boss who is truly desperate to fill a position will understand the old proverb that half a loaf is better than none.

Another option with regard to employment particularly suits parents who have dedicated partners (i.e., spouses): second or third shift employment. In such an arrangement, one parent stays home with the child(ren) while the other parent works. Because this arrangement risks the estrangement that comes with seldom seeing one’s partner, extra effort must be made to connect and keep the relationship strong at every opportunity.

If you have an existing skill or area of expertise, then capitalize on it. For instance, casinos can always use dealers who understand the nuances of card and dice games. Translation and moderation services are always in the market for people who have superior fluency in a second language. Hospitals, too, often employ people who can serve as interpreters. Content providers such as Textbroker, Crowd Content, and BlogMutt don’t necessarily require prior experience: they test candidates to demonstrate their expertise. Real Ways to Earn Money Online offers an annotated list of 63 jobs requiring no work experience and that allow you to work from home, most on a freelance basis.

On-site or at-home?

This decision typically depends upon the job. A virtual assistant, for example, works from home, except for occasional meetings with clients or vendors. An event planner must tour properties and work on-site during events. A farrier or equine dentist travels to the farms where the horses live. A paperhanger travels to clients’ homes and businesses to measure surfaces and hang wallpaper. A machinist, mechanic, or carpenter works in the shop. A caterer delivers food to specific locations. Heating and air conditioning technicians travel to the job sites.

Not all work-at-home jobs keep you at home. Many can be performed part-time. Only skill and interest limit your options.