18 Ways to Start a New Career Without Incurring Massive Debt

Alternative ways to gain skills, get experience, and land jobs

Posted Oct 23, 2017

By North Charleston from North Charleston, SC, United States (STEM Career Fair) Wikimedia Commons
Source: By North Charleston from North Charleston, SC, United States (STEM Career Fair) Wikimedia Commons

Stumped on how to make a career change without amassing tens of thousands in student loan debt? Need to be earning an income while learning a skill? Below are 18 ideas for moving your career forward without being set back.

1.  The United States Department of Labor administers a Certified Apprenticeship program in conjunction with state governments. These positions provide on-the-job training while also providing a salary. 

2.  Getting hired into the federal government requires applying on the daunting USA Jobs website but there are many incentives to being patient with its cumbersome application process. Whether entry-level or skilled hire, I've known numerous people who've had success.

3.  In addition to federal jobs, it can be helpful to visit your state's job website where you might find entry-level positions that pay a decent salary and provide benefits. Be sure to also look for county and city job openings and keep abreast of the event calendar and program offerings at your local state employment agency offices.

4.  Many state and municipal governments have developed relationships with community colleges to create affordable training programs in skilled trades and STEM*. Contact your local community college to find out how you can enroll and be on the fast-track to a great salary in construction, tech, management, or many others.

And be sure to watch this video about the desperate need—and great opportunities—associated with the nation's current skilled labor shortage:


5.  If you're interested in a skilled trade but aren't interested in going back to school, reach out to your local trade union's office to inquire about apprenticeships, on-the-job training, and educational opportunities.

6.  If you're interested in getting a foot in the door of a company you admire, visit your local temp agency and inquire about temp-to-hire opportunities. Many highly successful executives started out in the mailroom. This article has more ideas for landing jobs in a manner other than applying through online job boards, which have a notoriously low success rate.

7.  Explore the many Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for free online training and education. The nation's top universities have made countless courses available from which you can build an impressive and free knowledge base about virtually anything you can imagine. Here is a list of MOOCs

8.  Build your freelance portfolio by putting yourself out there. Ask everyone you know if they need help with whatever it is you're interested in doing. Let's say you want to be a web designer but you haven't honed your designer chops. Volunteer to build free or low-cost websites for friends. Once you have some experience under your belt, post a profile on one of the many freelance talent sites. With experience comes the ability to set higher rates and a more impressive portfolio which you might then present to employers. 

9.  Speaking of volunteering, it's a great way to give back to the community while expanding your network, rubbing shoulders with influencers, and dipping your toe into a potential new career direction. Plus, many times volunteers are given preference when job openings arise. Interested in becoming a vet tech? Volunteer at a zoo or humane society. Interested in becoming a language teacher or tutor? Volunteer for Americorp or Peace Corp.

10.  Check out the many career and educational paths within the active military, National Guard, or ROTC.

11.  Perhaps you have a new skill set that you'd like to employ but aren't having luck landing a job. Reach out to a local recruitment/placement agency and let them advocate for you.

12.  If you already have a degree, contact your alumni association for employment resources and continuing education certification programs. Ask if they can connect you with a career mentor or career coach. Also, ask if your alma mater has a temp-hire office which might just help you start a career in higher education.

13.  Speaking of alma mater, call up former professors or take them out for lunch. Pick their brains about career options. Offer to help on a research project. Offer to edit their research paper. Whenever possible, do try to make a face-to-face connection or at least a phone call. Don't rely on email when you're trying to make a great impression or kindle a strong connection.

14.  Take your resume to job fairs. You can find job fair listings through many of the suggestions above: employment agencies, alumni associations, chambers of commerce, etc.

15.  Perfect your LinkedIn profile so it clearly and concisely represents your professional persona.Then go to your profile settings and turn on the setting that makes your profile visible to recruiters. Most of us miss that small detail.

16.  Become an expert on a topic and make your expertise visible by contributing on social media, blogs, and LinkedIn. Sign up for Help A Reporter Out (HARO) to find daily opportunities for providing your expertise to writers and reporters needing a quote or opinion for their articles or books. You can be an expert on a topic without getting a college education, you just have to be willing to dive deeply into a subject matter. Dive into books and MOOCs!

 17.  Apply for internships. Although usually unpaid or low-paid, they build up your resume and build up those all-important networking skills. Once you're actively interning, get it on your resume and start applying for jobs. Ask the company you're interning with what they'd like to see from you in order to be considered for employment. 

18.  Last but certainly not least, take an entry-level position and quickly leverage your experience. I've worked with clients who've quickly transitioned and transformed their careers by working in entry-level positions and leveraging those jobs into promotions or higher level jobs within a short amount of time. Work hard, absorb information like a sponge, go the extra mile, express interest in growth, and periodically ask yourself if you're becoming complacent in a position that isn't helping you reach your career goals.

Can you think of ways to land jobs and get great training that doesn't involve going into debt with student loans? Comment below.

*Heard about STEM careers but aren't sure what it means? Read about STEM here.