This feature first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Tech jobs are highly sought after. And the market for competent tech professionals, particularly developers, cloud computing pros, data science experts, and cybersecurity specialists, is robust. IT and other employers, however, can’t always find appropriately skilled people for certain positions.
All applicants for tech roles don’t land IT jobs of their choosing, either. This is true despite the widely acknowledged fact that there is a skills gap in many IT sectors, particularly in emerging technologies. According to CompTIA’s Cyberstates 2021 report, net tech employment in the U.S. added up to approximately 12.2 million jobs in 2020.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects 13 percent employment growth in computer and information technology occupations over the period 2020 to 2030. This is higher than the average for all occupations. Undoubtedly, career prospects in the rapidly-evolving IT industry look promising for those who have the right aptitude, qualifications, experience, and the ability to keep learning.
It’s worth asking, then, how aspiring IT professionals should go about finding a suitable IT role to begin with. And once you’re in the game, how do you go about developing a successful career in this very competitive field?
The best path to a promising IT career
Typically, aspiring IT professionals learn computer skills through some combination of self-taught technology use and public (or private) education. In the past, the path to an advanced technology career from that point typically involved either time spent at a college or university or months and years of learning on the job.
The growth of IT certification in recent decades, on the other hand, has opened up rapid and relatively inexpensive access to high-level technical skills and knowledge. This has become true to the extent that IT observers semi-regularly debate whether higher education or certification is more effective at creating a foundation for IT career success.
Will an individual preparing for a career in IT be better equipped with a university degree, or should they opt instead to earn a fistful of certifications centered around a chosen IT domain? Occasionally overlooked in the rush to pick sides is a more holistic solution. There’s no reason that one cannot pursue higher education and certification.
Given the rapid pace of technological change and the wide range of job roles and specializations, there’s no single best way to succeed in IT. Academic degrees and certifications play different roles in an IT professional’s career development. Successful professionals usually have a combination of both.
Ideally, you should plan to invest in both options at the right time. Which one you decide to opt for first depends on your situation. Factors to consider are the stage at which you are in your career, time and resources available, preferred area within IT, and goals. You need to find out what there is to gain from relevant degrees and certifications in order to figure out the best path forward.
Degree vs. certification
One of the key differences that normally influences one’s decision is the time involved in earning a degree. A full-time undergraduate degree in computer science, information technology, software engineering, computer engineering, or other relevant subject typically takes four years. A master’s degree will take two years or more.
A traditional bachelor’s degree program comprises eight semesters over four years, with two semesters per year. A semester normally includes four or more courses. In addition to classes, you’ll need to allot time for labs, homework, writing papers, and studying for exams. Some further pros and cons of a university or college education are as follows:
Positive: Knowledge — The depth and breadth of knowledge that a traditional IT degree imparts is the most significant benefit. Degree programs enable students to develop a solid foundation in computer science and technology and gain an understanding of different IT sub-disciplines. Exposure to different areas can help one decide on one’s domain of specialization.
Additionally, IT degree programs include courses from the humanities and other sciences, leading to a diverse and holistic education, which is all the more valuable because technology changes quickly and embraces many different concepts and skills. Well-rounded graduates are equipped to adapt to technological growth and evolution over the course of their careers.
Positive: Employment prospects — Most IT professionals in the United States hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Many organizations only hire applicants who have completed a four-year degree for most tech roles. Managerial and specialist positions are almost always filled by bachelor’s or master’s degree holders.
Some employers are open to hiring non-degree holders if they have relevant experience and/or certifications, and also can prove their fluency with essential job skills. This is more likely to be the case with lower-level roles: computer network and user-support specialists, network and system administrators, and so forth.
Positive: Permanent qualification — A university degree is valid forever, whereas a certification is often valid for just a few years, after which recertification is required. Even credentials that don’t require recertification are at risk of IT certification’s other big permanency bugaboo: obsolescence. A university won’t ever “retire” the degree that you worked so hard to earn.
Positive: Commitment and determination — A bachelor’s degree in IT is an indication of the holder’s dedication to establishing and building an IT career. Getting a university degree, even only an associate’s degree, requires a high degree of commitment and patience. Employers can rely on an academic degree, to some extent, as evidence of seriousness and motivation.
Negative: Time — As discussed earlier, a bachelor’s degree program takes four years. It’s incredibly difficult for those employed full-time, at work for somewhere around 45 hours per week, to allot the time needed to complete a degree in four years.
More often, full-time employees who want to pursue a bachelor’s degree, have to content themselves with taking one or two courses per semester, doing coursework by morning or at night. Naturally, the graduation timeline stretches out as this process unfolds.
Negative: Cost — The cost of tuition, even at an in-state university or community college, is typically much higher than the costs associated with certification. Add to that the cost of books and other study materials, labs, and, for younger students, accommodations and food. At private colleges, tuition fees and expenses are even higher.
It’s often hard, if not impossible, to pay for college-level education without assuming a sobering burden of debt. Many employers, on the other hand, do pay for experienced employees to pursue relevant degrees, often to the point of entirely reimbursing college tuition payments.
Gaining IT knowledge and skills through certification is often faster and cheaper than pursuing a university degree. It can also be far easier to balance certification with full-time employment, and employers frequently pay some or all of the costs of certification. Some further pros and cons of education through certification are as follows:
Positive: Short time frame — It’s possible to earn many certifications in two-to-six months. A year of professional or lab experience is recommended for many in-demand certs, including even foundational credentials like CompTIA’s A+. And more advanced IT certifications are designed for candidates with a number of years of relevant experience and can take longer to achieve.
For those with a degree of professional experience, however, who are looking to land a full-time tech support or junior networking role as quicky as possible, the certification route would be more suitable. This is why certification is often appealing to career switchers jumping to IT from some other professional sphere.
Positive: Affordability — Entry-level certification exams cost a few hundred dollars. For example, you need to pass two exams to earn CompTIA’s A+ credential. Each exam costs $232 (U.S.). So total exam fees for this certification would work out to fewer than $500.
Advanced and expert-level certifications have higher exam fees. And the cost of certification often includes training from books, web-based tools, instructor-led classes, and more. Even so, you’re not likely to remotely approach the total cost of a university or college degree. And, as mentioned already, many employers reimburse the cost of certification exams and related training.
Positive: In-demand job skills — Many certifications are designed to develop relevant industry-level role-specific expertise in a relatively short span of time. You can directly and specifically improve your employment or promotion prospects. Certification verifies skills and knowledge in particular tools, technologies, frameworks, or methodologies.
One or more sought-after certifications can bring your résumé to the attention of recruiters looking for candidates with up-to-date skills in particular areas. Indeed, many academic degree-holders earn relevant certifications to refresh their knowledge and stay abreast of changes. Certification programs offer a quick, cost-effective, and targeted approach to updating one’s skills.
Negative: Short-term validity — Certifications are typically valid only for a few years, after which credential holders need to take exams or participate in continuing professional education (CPE) programs to recertify. You can choose to let your credential lapse, but that can be a roadblock if you attempt to take your skills — and your expired credential — to a different employer.
Negative: Domain-specific knowledge — An academic degree demonstrates a fundamental understanding of information technology and knowledge of different IT sub-disciplines, such as programming, data analysis and management, information and cybersecurity, and networking. By contrast, a certification validates a very specific skillset.
As noted above, this hyper-specificity can also be viewed as a positive. Since certification exams assess a candidate’s level of proficiency in a specific technology, product, framework, or methodology, however, shifting to a different job role or IT knowledge domain can mean going down the certification road all over again.
Negative: Limited career prospects — In-demand certifications can help one land an entry-level job in certain areas of IT, or can prepare experienced professionals to tackle new technologies. On the other hand, it’s rare to find a professional who has relevant certifications, but does not have a degree, in a senior role.
IT degree holders can work in multiple tech disciplines, but certification holders are often equipped only to work in areas where they have specialized domain knowledge.
A complementary relationship
Degrees and certifications play different roles in the development of an IT professional’s career. When you take a holistic view, however, it becomes clear that, rather than choosing one or the other, combining both creates an optimum skill set. Both contribute in different ways to your résumé. Hence, numerous college or university graduates invest time and effort in earning relevant certifications throughout their careers.
If you have time and funds, it’s usually beneficial to take the degree route first. That will give you a solid foundation and a breadth of IT knowledge, enabling you to function in a variety of IT sectors. Once you gain experience, you might want to consider relevant certifications to develop job-specific skills.
There’s even a middle ground between certification and graduate-level degrees. Some universities also offer certificates. Unlike certifications, certificates are not focused on a particular technology or IT skill set. Rather, they comprise a series of courses that address a branch of IT learning, such as cloud computing, or data analysis.
Certificates normally take a little longer to earn than a certification, but less time than a bachelor’s or master’s degree. And while they tend to be more expensive than most certifications, certificates cost less than degrees.
Earlier this year Google launched certificate programs designed for people who may not hold relevant degrees but are looking to land rewarding jobs in fast-growing tech fields. Google claims the programs are intended to enable graduates to get high-paying positions and build a steady career.
These certificates typically take six months at the most to achieve and are affordable. Currently, Google offers certificates in areas that include project management, user experience (UX) design, and data analytics.
Academic degrees, mini-degrees (certificates), and certifications can all contribute to building a strong IT career. Don’t get sidetracked by the occasional discussion of whether you should attend college or earn certifications. The best advice is that you should do both.