How I Boosted My Income Without a College Degree
To start, I would like to say that this is not an advertisement. This is a true story of how I turned my income around from $18,000 a year to over six figures, without a college degree. We all have our list of life-changing moments, events that impacted us so immensely that we either changed our perception or direction in life. As a single mom, this moment was that one Christmas Day when my 9 year old son surveyed the presents under the tree and hung his head in disappointment. As he walked back upstairs, I looked at the Christmas tree feeling very disappointed in myself and my inability to provide even the necessary things for my children. I have never been a quitter and this was the final blow to my dignity that pushed me into a very full-forced campaign to improve my income.
To first summarize, I took the following steps to improve my income:
- Scanned the job postings and determined what positions I could get and what I might be missing. Taught myself those skills at home on my very limited free time. Took advantage of government funded classes.
Learned everything I could at each new job. Volunteered for new work and challenges. Went above and beyond what was asked of me. I took advantage of senior employees who were willing to educate and help me grow.
Job Hopped. When I stagnated at my job with salary or opportunity, I left. This provided me with experience in so many different things, but in the same general field, Architecture, Engineering, Environmental, Mechanical and Electrical, etc.
Constantly evaluated my skills and compared them to open positions and the salaries. I initially desired a salary of $60,000 yrly and was making under $18,000 as a copy shop girl. I realistically evaluated my situation. For example, I didn’t imagine I would write music and sell three gold records. A musician makes roughly $100 a night so I rejected that model for salary income! That would be similar to comparing a coding job to Mark Zuckerberg’s income. I was realistic with my research. My path took me first to $28,000 while I continued to evaluate, learn, and change direction. Recently I was offered a position at $110,000 yrly based on my excellent performance on a three month contract. I found a type of work that was PERFORMANCE based and not something that required a license or degree.
Under sold and over performed. Many times I took a lower salary to get my foot in the door and then grew, learned, achieved, and got promoted.
My journey was not an extremely fast one because I was also raising children, renovating a home, and dating! My friends that did not take this journey, however, are still making $30,000 a year as a secretary and are over 50 years old.
Many years ago, our family at the time was on such a tight budget that we didn’t have a computer, the gift from Santa that my son was actually looking for under the tree that morning. I knew that computer skills were the first step in competing in the job market and my skills were only average for a 34 year old. I voiced this concern to a friend and he donated an older computer to us. In addition to the standard office suites, I was giving outdated versions of graphic software from various friends. I began using the software and reading through the HELP menus to increase my skill levels. Night after night I read and practiced excel formulas, word merging, and graphic design. Shortly after, I left my minimum wage job at a copy shop and began my first office job as a receptionist.
While working as a receptionist, I now had new software available to me. After completing my tasks for each day, instead of reading magazines or chatting, I began learning database design and merging excel and word files. I was even reprimanded for convincing a field technician to take me to the job site during lunch so that I could see how the work was performed and understand the reports I was typing. A year later, I started my job as an administrative assistant. At this job I had various forms to fill out and this typically took most of the morning. Noting the redundancy in the data, I developed a process and entered the information into a database that I created and merged it into all of the forms, shortening the process to an hour. I used my extra time to learn more software. I continued learning and moving into better higher paying secretarial jobs until I realized that I had capped out on my salary. I was still at a very low income and therefore I was able to take part in a government funded program to attend a drafting school.
Upon completing drafting school, I interned at an architectural firm. I continued furthering my education in various ways. I watched, listened, asked questions, and experimented with various software. Upon completing the drafting project, I was offered at the same firm in marketing where I assisted with proposal development, once again using my secretarial and graphic skills. I still knew that I had not yet tapped into anything that would pay me the salary I desired. Drafting paid only slightly more than a secretarial position.
I realized that I enjoyed the challenge and creativity of marketing, however, I didn’t care for the young and immature woman that I was training with. After a year, I was able to move into proposal coordinating with an engineering company whose client base was primarily federal. I began reading each RFP and thoroughly reading the responses and asking the Project Managers to explain their strategies to me. Some were not so patient, but one particular Project Manager gave me some life changing lessons and taught me technical writing within the next five years. I offered to take on new challenges and read through project reports and specifications. I researched terminology online so that I could thoroughly understand what I was working on. After five years of reading and researching I realized that I had developed a very strong set of skills. I could now draft a full set of prints, write the specifications, interpret an RFP and response appropriately, edit technical reports, and develop graphics. Since the company that I worked for was a large one, they had policies on their pay grades. Without a college degree, they refused to pay me over my entry level proposal coordinator wage. I transferred to another branch and started working part time while I designed and built my own home. The company replaced me with a woman with half of the skills and paid her $20,000 yrly more than I was making because she had a degree. To add insult to injury, six months after she was hired, they asked me to return and train her. I walked into a scheduled meeting and tried to speak but was immediately shut down. After listening to a long and rudely executed speech on how they would promote me, but also promote her on the same level, I thanked them and resigned. I was driven at that point by a lot of anger, but I had also recently sold my previous home and put a decent amount of cash into the bank. During the past ten years, not only had I increased my income by training myself mentally every day, I also worked diligently on renovating my home, a gutted out VA foreclosure that was purchased when my son was born. This was my plan “B” if I could not get my career going. At this point, my son was graduating from high school. I had more than doubled my income, but was still struggling financially.
After several interviews I found a position as a writer for a company that produced federal proposals and they gave me a salary very close to my goal. For the next two years, I worked a minimum of 60 hours a week producing proposals, reading RFPs, specifications, reviewing plans, attending debriefings, and developing processes to automate the department. In less than two years, we produced almost 600 proposals. I was given free reign with one request, to win contracts and train people to win contracts. I produced and was promoted several times and hired my son and began training him. He was already following my lead without even realizing it and was self-taught in web design, coding, and graphic design.
When promoted to Vice President at this firm I was asked to find my replacement as Director. We listed all of my skills and started the search. A smile came across my face when I realized that each person we interviewed for the position requested a yearly salary over $120,000. My initial salary on that day that I stood under the Christmas tree was $18,000.
Shortly after the search for a Director, I slipped and broke my right arm and was denied time off because I was a critical part of the team. I knew that if I pushed the issue legally I could get the time I needed, but I realized at that point that I was tired of pushing so hard and was ready to move to a more professional company. Even though I received small raises with my promotions, I knew that I was not getting paid the salary that I deserved. I resigned at that time and went into consulting. Today I am working as a consultant and am also using my knowledge in federal procurement to start my own small business. I am not sure when the learning and growing will end. I am hoping to one day write an article on how I used my knowledge in federal construction to win many multi-million dollar contracts! I have already executed my first small project on an Air Force Base.
The internet is full of articles regarding college degrees and the lack of value that they really bring to a person in the job market today. When you levy the tuition against the type of job that you hope to secure, there is often very little to gain. There are certain professions such as Engineering and Architecture or Physicians, that require licenses and degrees, but for the most part, there is one rule of thumb when you evaluate your worth. Can you make people money? If you can make people money and can prove your success, then they will pay you what you are worth regardless of a college degree. I had a girl on my staff with a marketing degree. When I read this sentence that she wrote, “The exterior of the building was on the outside”, I realized that marketing degrees don’t really guarantee skill. In addition to her degree, she came with a sense of entitlement for a salary that she was not worth. She could not make the company money because she didn’t possess the skill or knowledge required. That is actually the bottom line in every job. Can you make yourself a critical part of a team that makes the company money?
I am proud of my success and my son is now working in the same field and improving his income tremendously. Even though I was not able to provide him with many things as a child, I feel that now I can provide him with opportunity. My advice would now be to not have children without the ability to care for them financially; however, that’s an entirely different story.
© 2015 Simone Sander