Few IT professionals would deny that having a college degree is very useful when searching for an IT job. But should completing four years of college be a mandatory hiring requirement?
Like a growing number of IT hiring market participants and observers, Dan Kirsch, managing director and co-founder of research and consulting firm Techstrong Research, believes that it’s time to look beyond the sheepskin when considering job applicants. He notes that hiring college grads has its own downside. “Computer science students learn what the ideal processes are, but once they join businesses, they are often shocked about how messy the real world is in terms of technology.”
Insurance provider Liberty Mutual is one of a growing number of enterprises that doesn't require technical job candidates to have a four-year degree. The firm has hired non-degreed individuals from code schools, partnerships, and apprenticeship programs. “With so many varied educational and training resources available today, we've seen great success with non-degree tech hires,” says Amy Ferreira, Liberty Mutual's manager of university and emerging talent acquisition. Ferreira credits the approach with attracting a more diverse candidate slate for entry-level jobs.
Ferreira notes that while her organization doesn't always require a four-year degree, it does look for some type of formal tech training experience. “We've hired from a variety of code schools that vary in length and curriculum, as well as apprenticeships,” she says. “While we do tend to see more consistency with technical capabilities from candidates who have graduated with a four-year degree, we have identified several code schools that have curriculums that align well with our requirements.”
Sanjiv Gomes, CTO at CarParts.com, an online vehicle parts retailer, says he considers job candidates on a case-by-case basis. “It depends on abilities and aptitude more than just a college degree, but the applicant must have demonstrated experience in the area that they're working in,” Gomes explains. “A lot of times, a degree gets you into the door, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be successful at that job.”
Gomes reports that he's screened degree-less job candidates in areas including networking and IT infrastructure. “I’ve also seen people who couldn’t afford college who were self-taught, and they created virtual labs at home and learned how to code, how to set up infrastructure.”
Addressing Risks of Degree-less Candidates
The risk inherent in hiring a degree-less candidate is that it's difficult to tell whether the applicant is capable of handling stress or has the ability to set and achieve targets. “These are some of the things you learn in school,” Gomes says. “You learn some level of discipline, some level of goal setting; it also demonstrates some level of ambition and mental capacity.”
Ferreira believes that it's important to closely monitor a degree-less hire's technical aptitude. “We are currently working on an assessment for non-degree hires to review performance over time, based on performance ratings, to ensure we’re addressing technical skills gaps,” she says.
When an applicant lacks a degree, they need to exhibit a passion for the area in which they will be working, Kirsch observes. “They can't just approach the job thinking, ‘this might be a way to earn some money,’” he says. “They need to understand that the job requires understanding everything from a subject matter expert, stakeholder, and industry perspective.”
Tech Certification Counts
Ben Richardson, senior software developer at security technology firm SecureW2, says that the absence of a college degree doesn’t necessarily mean that the applicant lacks the requisite skills and experience. “A college degree is among many tools that recruiters use to assess the educational background and fit for the job,” says Richardson, whose job includes interviewing and hiring IT professionals. “Other tools that recruiters can use include professional certifications, which indicate that the applicant has the necessary specialized knowledge to do the job.” Candidates, meanwhile, can prove expertise by pointing to an IT project successfully completed for a previous employer.
Certifications can help degree-lass candidates get their foot in the door. There's zero risk in having too many certifications, Kirsch notes. It's still important, however, for an applicant to clearly communicate what he or she can actually contribute to an organization. “Candidates that lead with that fact that they're a ‘Six Sigma Black Belt,’ for example don't move the needle for me or our clients,” he states. “However, being certified on platforms like AWS and Azure can give you immediate credibility if you don't have a college degree.”
While changing attitudes and a chronic talent shortage are making it easier for degree-less candidates to land quality IT jobs, Gomes notes that such individuals still have the deck stacked against them. “I would encourage a person who doesn’t have a degree to get a degree,” he says.