Q: I am an engineer with over 14 years of experience and was laid off one year ago. Since then I have been studying computer programming as a career change. I decided not to go back to school, but instead teach myself.
Any advice on how I should tailor my resume or cover letter so potential employers overlook the fact that I don't have a computer science degree?
A: There are typically two basic ways to present an employment history in a resume. The first format is the chronological resume that most employers prefer and are somewhat accustomed to because it is the most common format. The chronological resume provides an overview of a candidate’s work experience beginning with the most recent and working backwards through the different roles and positions that a candidate has held. Dates are usually provided as well as a short summary of what each role entailed.
The second format is the functional resume. This format is less commonly used. A functional resume groups similar job responsibilities together. A functional resume often omits dates (which is sometimes frustrating for the reader). So as an example, one section of a functional resume may be focused on sales experience while the next section might be on management experience.
Most employers are more comfortable with the chronological resume because it is used more frequently and it is an “easier read.” By that I mean, you can determine length of service at each role or company and find gaps in a candidate’s employment history. Functional resumes tend to minimize gaps in a candidate's work history.
With 14 years of experience in one field, you may want to consider a chronological resume. My recommendation assumes that you had a steady employment history with just a few employers.
Some employers will strongly prefer a computer science degree. And there may be no way around that. You can not fabricate a degree. However, you should be certain that your educational achievements are detailed on your resume. Some employers would prefer a Bachelor’s degree or the equivalent. What your challenge will be is how to get a prospective employer to put you in that “or the equivalent” bucket. Detailing your academic credentials and any specialized training will be critical for you.
I must admit that I am strongly in favor of a attaining a college degree in most circumstances. College graduates almost always fare better in the employment market, but especially in the field of engineering. We all hear of the very successful college dropouts like Bill Gates. Bill Gates is not the norm. Most college graduates fare better in both strong and weak employment markets. In September of 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics published some very persuasive data. For US workers, 25 years and older, the unemployment rate for high school graduates with no college education was 10.0%. For US workers, 25 years and older, the unemployment rate was 4.5% for those holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. Although the numbers have bumped around slightly for many years, this trend is pretty consistent.
Lastly, if you are Massachusetts resident, you should take advantage of the career services offered by the state. The Massachusetts One-Stop Career Centers have a variety of resources and services available to unemployed Massachusetts residents. You can download a brochure entitled The Resume Guide by visiting http://www.mass.gov/Elwd/docs/dcs/1865_508.pdf.