Skip the IT Degree? Not So Fast

Community College of the Air Force diplomas lay on a table at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.
College diplomas. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Remember the dotcom days, when tech-savvy teens went straight to work for internet startups, skipping or dropping out of college in the process? Their reasoning was that if they stayed in school, their skills would become stale and the opportunity to make it big off a hot initial public offering (IPO) would vanish.

That was then; this is now.

While technical skills and work experience matter, employers today generally do not advise anyone who wants to pursue a technology career to shun college -- at least not before giving serious thought to the repercussions.

Since information technology workers are now expected to possess a more well-rounded skills portfolio -- one that includes business and communication skills as well as technical proficiency -- employers often view a college degree as a requirement for anyone who wants to move up the ranks.

"To get in, you don't need a degree," said Jim Lanzalotto, a vice president at staffing firm Yoh who notes that entry-level help-desk and technical-support positions often do not require a bachelor's degree in IT. "It's as you move through your career where [the degree] will become critical."

School Daze

Techies posting to Monster's Technology Careers message board often ask whether they need a degree to break into IT. They note that plenty of successful IT professionals -- Bill Gates, chief among them -- are not college graduates. Wouldn't it be better, they ask, simply to get experience rather than waste time on college classes?

Gates aside, today's techies can better position themselves for advancement -- and for surviving the vagaries of offshoring and economic downturns -- if they have a college degree. Instead of the techies who've acquired a hodgepodge of technical skills on the job, employers are seeking individuals who are creative and possess strong critical-thinking and communication skills. Fair or not, employers often see a college degree as evidence of those traits.

Making the Cut -- or Not?

Furthermore, the lack of a degree can be a quick way for employers to eliminate job candidates. That means aspiring degree-less techies will have a tougher time getting into the field.

Even if you manage to get your foot in the door without a degree, your future options may be limited. "The barrier to entry may not be big," Lanzalotto said. "The barrier to success is significant."

To be sure, companies may be willing to overlook the lack of a degree if it suits their needs. "If a person's technical skills and accomplishments are specific to what the company is looking for, some companies will sometimes overlook the lack of a degree," said Carly Drum, manager director of recruitment firm Drum Associates. "Certain IT skills are hard to come by."

But candidates relying too heavily on their technical expertise could end up in trouble anyway. If their IT skills become out of date, their lack of a college degree can be a stumbling block to future employment.

You don't want to provide employers with any reasons to toss your resume, and the lack of a degree can be one such reason, even for an experienced professional.

Beyond the Degree

Earning your degree is one thing, but proving you have the skills and experience needed to succeed in the IT workforce is another. For that, you'll need the practice that comes with internships, volunteer experiences and self-directed projects.

Helen Campbell, chief technology officer of Data Group, emphasizes that it is essential for college students to focus on their own IT-related projects outside the classroom. College can give you a foundation, but it won't necessarily develop your real-world expertise. "The practice is up to you," she said.

After all, education is a lifelong endeavor that requires more than classroom learning.

"A college degree is not a be-all and end-all, but it is a key component of what employers are looking for," Lanzalotto said.

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