My software safety net

Degree? Forget it. CV? Don't bother. Quark and Word are the passport to work, says Tom Standage
There was a time when having a degree counted for something. It used to be regarded as the pinnacle of one's educational career - and a safety net that would virtually guarantee a job in some quarters. It was something you could "fall back on". But those days are over. I have an Oxbridge degree but, as a freelance journalist, nobody I have ever worked for has asked for my qualifications. This is all fine and good - it may even sound enchantingly meritocratic - but when times are hard I'm under no illusions that my degree will be of interest to any other potential employer, or indeed be any good to me at all.

Fortunately, I have a much more useful skill. It's one I taught myself, and for which there is currently an apparently insatiable demand. But if I tell you what it is, you'll have to promise not to tell too many people - perhaps just a few close friends, in the same way that you wouldn't spoil a good restaurant by telling too many people about it. The secret is this: I know how to use a few popular software packages.

Is that it? Yes, that's it. To my generation, the ability to use Microsoft's word processing package Word, or the design programs Quark XPress and Photoshop, is a far more useful safety net than any academic qualification. I don't have any certificates to prove I'm handy with a mouse, but I've never needed any. Temping is, admittedly, incredibly dull, but if you know one of the better-paid software packages you only need to do it two days a week to pay the bills, and you've got the rest of the week free to do what you want. It's also a handy way to clear debts: such work is sometimes referred to as "having a GOOD job", where the letters stand for Get Out Of Debt.

The other day I met a contemporary from university at the airport. He was on his way home after a nine-month, round-the-world trip. "What are you going to do when you get back?" I asked. "Oh, I don't know," he said. "I'll probably temp for a while, and then decide." Another friend played bass in a band for two years, but the band recently split up. Instead of turning to drugs and alcohol to drown his sorrows, he turned to Quark XPress and PowerPoint (a slide-presentation package), which was far more constructive - and financially advisable.

Time was when plumping up your CV involved dredging up examples of community service and all-round niceness from your past to demonstrate your credentials as a good egg. The equivalent these days is remembering which software packages you can claim to be able to use: it might just be that your experience in the graphics package CorelDraw, or the ability to do tables in WordPerfect - the main competitor to Word - is the qualification that will make your CV stand out from the crowd.

So my advice to anyone struggling with Ucas forms, worrying about their A-level results or taking their first steps in an uncertain job market is this: you'll be fine as long as you have a safety net. Just take care that your safety net is up to date. After all, it would be terrible to be confronted with the latest version of your favourite package and to have to admit that you don't know how to use it.