To degree or not degree: Is university education still an IT golden ticket?
Posted on
October 30, 2017

This feature first appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

A computer science degree is the original golden ticket of the IT employment realm. Does the same hold true in 2017?

Starting a career in the IT industry is a difficult challenge, whether you are at the very beginning of your professional journey, or looking to switch careers and enter the tech industry. Just as technology has radically changed over the last 30 years, so has the IT job market. The employers in today's tech industry hardly resemble their counterparts from the turn of the century.

The tried-and-true model for young adults looking to break into any given industry has been to advance from high school to college or university, achieve the appropriate bachelor's or graduate degree for your chosen career, and then hand out résumés until a promising job opportunity comes along.

Some 20 years ago, the "golden ticket" leading to a tech career was a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science (BCS). The BCS was the de facto standard for entering the IT industry.

The tech landscape, however, has shifted over the last two decades. There are jobs in today's industry based on technologies that didn't exist at the turn of the century. More IT workers are working from home using telecommuting setups. Many employers have quietly reduced the number of permanent full-time jobs, shifting workers to time-share or contract arrangements.

And, while California (home of Silicon Valley) and Washington are still huge players in the high tech industry, they are not the only hot spots in the nation. Several thriving IT business markets have emerged in other parts of the country, including New York, Texas, Colorado, and Utah.

With the changes that have occurred in the IT industry over the past couple of decades, is a university degree still the only suitable preparation for a career in the tech sector?

Bachelor's launchpad

A Bachelor's of Computer Science degree is still a highly respected credential in the IT industry. Anyone who has ever looked at tech job postings has seen the BCS listed as a desired qualification for lots of different positions.

A BCS program typically gives students a broad foundation of skills across a number of key disciplines, such as:

  • Computer programming
  • Data structures and algorithms
  • Software engineering
  • Web programming
  • Databases

On top of this, students can usually give their degree a specialization by taking additional courses in a given discipline.

While the BCS remains an excellent way to prepare for a general career in tech, colleges and universities have created new degree programs meant to provide graduates with the means to enter the industry in more specialized job roles. These programs range from associate's and bachelor's degrees up to master's degrees.

A computer science degree is the original golden ticket of the IT employment realm. Does the same hold true in 2017?

These are just a few of the tech specialties students can earn college degrees in:

  • Web development
  • Software engineering
  • Game development
  • E-commerce
  • Cybersecurity
  • Animation and graphic design
  • Computer forensics

These degree programs exist at dozens of schools across the country. Better yet, many of these programs can be taken mostly or completely online.

A computer science degree is still a great way to prepare for a tech career. Now, however, candidates who know which specialization they want to pursue can find a degree program tailor-made to give them an advantage at the start of their chosen career path.

Getting a tech degree at a college or university offers two additional advantages. First, many companies with a high demand for tech workers will send job recruiters directly to campuses to interact with faculty and students. Meeting with a recruiter can lead to a job interview after graduation, or even result in a standing job offer good for when the candidate completes their degree program.

The second advantage of getting a tech degree at a college or university is that many schools participate in student internship programs with local businesses. These programs help students to get valuable work experience and mentoring while they work towards their degree.

Doing a student internship doesn't guarantee the company involved will offer you a job after you graduate, but it certainly does increase your chances of getting on with them when your program is done.

To a lesser degree

There are good reasons why someone might not be able to go to college or university to earn an associate's or bachelor's (or master's) degree. There are the costs associated with post-secondary education: tuition, campus fees, books, living arrangements, and so on.

These expenses are unmanageable for many people living on a budget. Parents with small children may not be able to arrange (or afford) daycare for their little ones so they can attend day classes. Thankfully, there are alternative education options available that are less expensive and offer greater accessibility.

Technical schools and IT training centers have been the target of criticism from some industry sources, but not every school of this type deserves to be summarily scorned. It is true that some for-profit schools have been called out in the past for using deceptive recruiting tactics, including exaggerating future career prospects to students.

Tech schools and training centers, however, should be judged on the merits of their education, especially when the education is integrated with a recognized IT certification program. These schools offer courses which not only educate future tech workers, they also prepare students for the relevant industry certification exams from vendors such as Microsoft, Cisco, CompTIA, and others.

Tech schools and training centers offer students a more affordable road for preparing to start a career in IT. These organizations often have more night courses and online education options than mainstream colleges, making them more accessible to people with scheduling or distance challenges.

Achieving one or more IT certifications through attending a tech school also shows a prospective employer a level of devotion to the process of preparing for a tech career. This dedication is evident whether you are a high school graduate, or an older adult looking to switch careers.

New tech needs old skills

Working in IT means having to learn new tech throughout your entire career. Employers have an expectation they will always be able to find candidates trained in a given technology. Savvy HR hirers look for candidates who aren't just technologically apt — they want people who have additional skills, experience, and training outside of tech subjects.

This can work in favor of people who want to switch careers to the tech industry. For career switchers, the experience you've gained from another industry can still serve you well when applying for IT jobs, as long as you also have some current tech training that's relevant to employers.

IT employers are typically more interested in candidates who can demonstrate they have the following non-tech skills and/or experience:

  • Project management (on any scale)
  • Supervising other employees
  • Change management
  • Clear oral and written communication
  • Team collaboration
  • Presentation, especially to senior business leaders
  • Creativity and problem solving

Career switchers should capture these traits in their résumés, cover letters, and online profiles, as part of their preparation to enter the IT industry. Employers can be willing to provide tech training to a candidate who brings a wealth of otherworld skills and experience to their organization.

Young adults who don't have several years of work experience can still add to their personal profiles to present themselves as well-rounded candidates. Many rookie techs have gained valuable skills and experience by volunteering at a local charity or community organization.

A computer science degree is the original golden ticket of the IT employment realm. Does the same hold true in 2017?

This volunteer work could include building and fixing PCs, helping to maintain office devices like printers and scanners, or developing a mobile app for the organization's use.

Younger techies can also add to their profiles through membership in one or more IT industry organizations. There are dozens of professional organizations spanning every tech specialty and career field out there. Joining one of these associations can also provide students with the opportunity to participate in focus groups, act as a subject matter expert for exam creation, or contribute to industry advocacy initiatives.

Whether you are a fresh graduate or a seasoned veteran from a different industry, the key is to show a potential IT employer you are more than your tech knowledge. Depending on the company, showing what you have done will receive equal or greater attention than what you know.

Start preparing for your tech career

There are dozens of sayings and famous quotes that create a link between preparation and opportunity. When it comes to preparing for a tech career, the people who are most ready when their opportunity comes are those who have combined some level of IT education with work experience and/ or activities that demonstrate a skill set exceeding the boundaries of tech knowledge.

About the Author

Aaron Axline is a technology journalist and copywriter based in Edmonton, Canada. He can be found on LinkedIn, and anywhere fine coffee is served.

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