(NewsNation) — Angel Hernandez had years of sales experience. But she always felt like the next step up eluded her because she didn’t have a college degree.
So, for part of her life, she juggled jobs. She worked in an inside sales role where she called 100 people daily and trained a half dozen sales representatives, while working as a doula. For a short time, she worked as a flight attendant.
In 2020, Hernandez took a risk. She moved herself and her three children from Pennsylvania to Texas for an entry-level sales job to financially support her children and make another run at a sales career.
“It was an opportunity for me — an opportunity to prove I could take care of myself and my children,” Hernandez said. “It was up to me to prove that all of the things that I had been told previously were not true.”
Hernandez is an example of how traditional job expectations, including having a college degree, can work against people who have had a non-traditional life. Hernandez left home at 15, navigated a troubled marriage, and then had to choose between supporting her children or getting that formal degree while she advanced in a career.
The challenges she faced aren’t all that unusual, said Jonaed Iqbal, a career coach who helped Hernandez in her job search and has worked with more than 400 job seekers without a college degree.
“There are a good amount of people who don’t go to college, not because they can’t actually do the test but because life hits them,” Iqbal said.
Hernandez grew up on Chicago’s South Side in a family where there was a lot of drug use and mental illness. She moved in with her high-school boyfriend at age 15, and then married him soon after graduation because she couldn’t support herself, Hernandez said.
The marriage was deeply troubled and it kept her from going to college, she said. She re-evaluated her 11-year marriage after a dear friend was murdered by the friend’s fiancé. Then, Hernandez left her husband.
“I was terrified to be a single mother,” Hernandez said.
By the time she left her husband in 2017, Hernandez had been working in sales six years and gotten doula training, which allowed her to make some money.
As she started applying for better jobs, she said she heard all kinds of rejections. Employers told her that having children made her an apparent liability, and that they just can’t hire her without a college degree.
There were also bureaucratic problems that held her back. For example, employers require certain documents for a background check. But Hernandez lived in domestic violence shelters throughout her life, and those in domestic violence shelters cannot reveal their addresses to anyone. This was just one of the challenges Hernandez faced trying to work in corporate America.
Hernandez also struggled to convey her experience on a resume; she thought she had tangible skills through self-employment. But it was hard for her to articulate that.
She was doing marketing, advertising and business development as she ran her doula business. But “I can only put so much in four lines on a resume,” Hernandez said.
“What I really wish people understood was everyone doesn’t start off in the same place,” Hernandez said. “It’s not Monopoly. We are human beings at the end of the day. And to me, I think it’s more important to emphasize how someone has overcome these things.”
She knew she needed help and decided to look for a career coach on LinkedIn, which is where she found Iqbal, who hosts The NoDegree Podcast.
NoDegree works with companies that don’t require a college degree and connects them with potential hires who didn’t get one.
“I am a fierce advocate for extraordinary individuals who have chosen to bypass the traditional college route and go straight into impacting the world,” Iqbal said.
If you don’t have a degree, Iqbal suggests breaking into an entry-level job first. If there’s a skill an employer lists on their application, YouTube is “one of the world’s greatest universities,” he said.
“You can do a small business, leverage it, and then you can use that to break into corporate because that gives you a very unique story,” Iqbal added.
Iqbal encouraged job seekers to focus on growing their confidence as well as focusing on building their resume.
More and more companies are open to hiring people without college degrees. Google, VaynerMedia, IBM and other famous names are among those at the forefront of this trend.
Iqbal hopes employers keep in mind that “it’s a luxury to go to college.” About 60% of people who go to college tend to come from middle-class or upper-class backgrounds, according to Pew Research Center.
In the end, Hernandez’s Texas gamble paid off. Within a few weeks at her new job, she says she became a top sales representative among her team of six. She then got a similar job at another company.
She also found safety and new love. She remarried in 2021 and re-started her college education.
“It’s not for an employer,” she said of going back to school. “It’s not for anybody else. It’s for myself. I’ve changed my major several times, and that may continue to happen. But it’s more about the journey than the destination. I’m just really, really grateful to find myself, and my children, safe and happy.”