Does It Make Sense to Skip College and Go Pro in IT?

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    According to a Brookings Institution report from last year, half of all STEM jobs paying an average of $53,000 a year don’t require a college degree. So does it make sense to go pro with nothing more than a high school diploma?

    The answer appears to be that often, it does. In fact, Addison Group, a Chicago-based staffing and recruitment firm that specializes in IT, is finding that success in IT has become increasingly accessible without an expensive, four-year degree. That was the topic of a recent discussion I had with Jason Reagan, regional vice president of the IT practice at Addison Group, who said the Brookings Institution’s statistic mirrors what he’s seeing in his practice.

    “Some companies we work with don’t even request or require a degree. They consider it a plus—something extra, rather than a must-have,” Reagan said. “A candidate with a degree won’t necessarily beat out a better, more experienced candidate without one.”

    Reagan acknowledged that it’s strange to believe you can make that much money in IT without a degree, but he said it’s definitely possible.

    “Some companies are looking for a candidate that has the right background and experience to get the job done, rather than a specific education,” he said. “Experience can be more essential than a degree for some employers.”

    As for where he sees this trend heading, Reagan said college degrees are still valuable, for now. “But companies today are putting more and more emphasis on the overall candidate,” he said, “not just one piece of the puzzle, like their degree.”

    I asked Reagan to what extent IT certifications can effectively serve as an alternative to a college degree. He said it depends on the skill set the company is looking for.

    “In some situations, IT certifications can serve as an alternative to a college degree—some certifications require a very specific skill set,” he said. “If a company needs to fill a job with that skill set, they’ll know the candidate already possesses the necessary background and knowledge to get the job done.”

    Reagan did acknowledge that technical expertise and academic knowledge aside, there are some skills and lessons that young people tend to learn in college and bring with them into the workplace, that people without a degree would likely lack.

    “Time management, setting goals, and working through adversity are examples of some of the skills learned in college,” he said. “At times, companies do recognize this and take this into consideration.”

    I couldn’t help but wonder to what extent employers being less concerned about whether a candidate has a college degree may stem from a feeling that colleges aren’t doing an adequate job of churning out graduates with the skills they need anyway. Reagan addressed that question diplomatically.

    “There definitely are colleges that have excellent computer science and/or MIS programs,” he said. “But just like with anything else, there are some that aren’t quite as reputable when it comes to producing graduates with the skills that are needed to enter the work force.”

    Here are a few tips from Addison Group on how to land an IT job without a degree:

    • Hone your skills. So many resources now exist to pursue an informal IT education—coding sites, development forums, hackathons, etc. Take advantage of the resources out there to refine your skills in your area to ensure you are competitive with other applicants. Certifications through various programs or classes are always helpful.
    • Build a portfolio. Make sure you are able to demonstrate your unique skill set and the value you can bring to a company. You may not have a degree, but if you can point to some of the great work you’ve done on your own time, a company can get a sense of your capabilities and better determine if you’re a fit.
    • Consider a startup. Startups are always looking for tech support, and because they often run a very lean ship, you’ll be able to get your hands dirty and gain a lot of experience quickly. You’ll also be working side-by-side everyday with other skilled IT professionals, presenting an opportunity to learn and develop your skill set and your network to help kick-start your career.
    • Join a local tech meet-up. Meet-ups are the perfect opportunity to network with individuals already in the industry. Schmoozing with professionals already in the business is a great way to make connections, learn about opportunities, and get your foot in the door.

    A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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