February 2024, Island Voices

When College Doesn’t Make Sense

Part III (of III)

By Andy Valencia

I’ll finish this series of articles with some final notes on places to make a living without a college degree. The point isn’t to supply an exhaustive list, but rather to give you a feel for where to look – and who to ask – when you start thinking about your future without that fancy and expensive credential.

The TV show “Dirty Jobs” tells you to look for the job nobody else wants to do. The counterpart of servicing septic tanks in technology is to test software and document it. You’ll still have a hard time getting in through the front door of a large corporation – human resources policies make it almost impossible to hire an entry-level person without a degree. But there’s a way around this.

A large portion of software surrounding you is open source. From the web server showing you content, to the low levels of your phone, from the tools that built that software, to the tools which organize its source code – it’s all open to anybody to look at, build for themselves, or submit repairs or new features.

This is not a path for somebody who wants the world served to them on a plate. But if you have the sort of mind where you can hear about “git,” and look up what it is, then look up a tutorial, then install it and play with it? Then you have the right kind of mind to find a cool open-source project, spot a chunk of documentation that is missing, and write it. Typically, the missing bits aren’t hard to find; they’ll be white pages with “somebody please write this” on them. The project owners will be grateful! And they will never ask about your diploma.

You complain that you haven’t made any money. You’re not wrong, but your name is now on software which the average company is already using. By the third big chunk of work you put in, the project in general will be aware of your help, and you’ll get a mention in the software release notes. Your resume can list this work, and a hiring manager can go look at your actual contribution.

Speaking as a guy who’s hired many people in the tech world, I can assure you that once I know I have a candidate who can do quality work – I want to hire them. As a manager, I can get around HR because “bachelor’s degree in computer science or equivalent experience” is satisfied by your established work history in that open source project.

Open source is equally open to software contributions. All modern software has test automation, which is just custom code that makes sure the software itself isn’t broken. To contribute, you need to be able to write code, but test developers are terribly hard to find, making it friendly to entry-level coders. If you have discipline and attention to detail, learning to code is available to you for free – there are many books and web sites – including the famous Khan Academy. Then, take a look at a few open source projects, eventually asking one, “Could I add some tests to your automation?” Most of the time, somebody will eagerly get you in touch with the right person. If not – try the next project on your list.

Or set aside the world of technology.

Plumbing and electrical require somebody who’s healthy, doesn’t mind being on the move all day, and will show up and do the work. Ask your local electrician if their company’s hiring. If not, do they know of one? You can cold-call one after another, and eventually you’ll find one who’s open to bringing on a trainee. They’ll have you come in to meet in person, and most companies will hire on the spot if they decide you’re a good investment. The same is roughly true for auto repair shops – as with electrical and plumbing companies, it’s typically not the smallest businesses that can afford to hire a pure trainee.

Plumbing, electrical, and auto repair are all also served by trade schools. These are mostly much cheaper than university, and depending on what you want to study, will run for months up to years. For plumbing and electrical, you can then approach a shop with proof that you can do code-compliant work, and have some experience with typical tasks. Automotive Service Excellence certification does the same thing for automotive work. If this training interests you, southseattle.edu, seattlecentral.edu, and many others are great starting points.

One very large, very old organization handles all their own training – the U.S. Postal Service. Our local office currently has two delivery driver positions open. You’re looking at about a week of off-Island training, and then they’ll train you on the particulars of delivery on Vashon. It’s not technically a career position, but it’s quite normal for somebody who works well to end up becoming a long-term employee. In addition to pay, there’s full benefits – medical, dental, eye, even a retirement plan.

Because of all the training, the post office is not a great choice for a short-term job. There’s packages involved too, so you need to be able to lift up to 70 pounds on occasion – and have good mobility, as you’ll be in and out of your delivery vehicle all day. If you want a “real” job that is older than the U.S. itself, USPS is a unique possibility.

A final job to consider – call it a career, or a skill that can kick in to keep the bills paid. Short-order cooks can go almost anywhere and find work. Chat up the cook at any diner in the world and they’ll guide you on how to get started. It’s not a fancy occupation, but imagine knowing how to get off the bus in any city in the U.S. and have a paying gig the same day.

Intelligence, discipline, honesty. These make you valuable. I hope I’ve given you some ideas on turning your great general value into specific jobs in the 2024 U.S.

February 9, 2024

About Author

vandys Andy Valencia is a 20+ year islander, tech guy, father, writer