Hmm, I can’t relate to your situation as I do have a degree, but let me tell ya, that degree didn’t prepare me at all for the actual professional field. I’m also finding a lot of devs that get hired into agencies are guys that taught themselves. These days I get recruiters spamming my inbox for skills I don’t even have! But this is what’s helped me in getting that recruiter stalkeridge to happen.
I attended a WordCamp last year where I heard an entire presentation by a WP freelancer Boone Gorges, Free Software, Free Labor and the Freelancer. Even if I wasn’t a freelancer, a lot of the concepts in his talk opened my eyes and made sense to me. I started a dev blog as a result and am still at it! It’s getting me recognition little by little which in turn, becomes job opportunities.
What Boone talks about basically, is when we’re all this anonymous developer that no one knows, there’s really no way for people to know how skilled you really are or if you’re really in demand aside from your resume. And everyone has a resume so it’s easy to get lost in there. So in order to charge more for your work, you have to create that demand, that credibility that you’re an expert in your field, and once you become that trusted source, the work will not only come in, but you can charge more because now you have that credibility.
You can gain this credibility by contributing to open source projects, working on side projects you can put online in your portfolio, participating in coding groups or support forums for certain platforms, start a blog, and so on. The goal is to get your work out there, and be able to point these things out to potential employers or recruiters to show that your work is solid, that you’re a credible person to hire. It’s hard work to do this, it doesn’t happen overnight, but I’ve been inspired ever since that talk, and having my blog is helping me immensely.
Also have your LinkedIn profile up to date, with a photo, and be active on at least one social network. Looks like everything is online these days and it’s not always enough to just know someone who knows someone.
I’m also surprised that PHP would be low in demand. Here in NY, especially when it comes to platforms like Drupal and WordPress, recruiters LOVE PHP. Are you applying to remote positions as well? Perhaps this can open more opportunities.
Also make accounts on sites like hired.com or see recruiting companies that will keep your resume on hand, so job opportunities can come to you. Work Bridge got me the job I was at for a few years before I moved on, they were great.
Anyway, I hope I wasn’t too rude or anything since I can’t relate to your situation exactly. But I hope I’ve helped a little. I agree that jobs are placing way too much emphasis on a piece of paper, and that’s everywhere, not just dev jobs, it doesn’t make any sense. So perhaps having a strong online presence in some form might help. Good luck!