Degree-free IT: Can college-skippers thrive in tech?

Degree-free IT: Can college-skippers thrive in tech?

With college costs sky high and the IT job market red hot, some techies are skipping the sheepskin and heading straight to work. Is that a smart move or short-sighted?

Mike Samaras has worked steadily in IT for a decade, starting when he was 17 and fresh out of high school.

He's worked in contract jobs and staff positions, held titles like junior systems administrator, desktop administrator, network engineer and systems administrator, and picked up knowledge of Microsoft Server and Windows, Cisco routers and EMC storage.

Now 27 and a senior systems engineer for Denver-based Frontier Airlines, Samaras says he's confident that his future prospects are as strong as ever -- despite the fact that he doesn't hold a college degree. "In IT, experience counts for more than a degree," he says. "It's about show me your skill set and what you have to offer.'"

That's a bold statement, but Samaras is not alone in making it. Data on the number of currently employed IT workers skipping the college route is difficult to find, but with tech workers in high demand, and college tuition and student loan debt showing no signs of abating, at least some techies -- and their potential employers -- are beginning to wonder if they need a college degree to make it in IT.

A 2013 national online poll (pdf) sponsored by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities that found 45% of respondents -- a mix of people in all industries, with and without degrees -- said they believe college was not worth the cost, while 41% said it was; 14% were undecided.

What's more, high-tech has long cultivated a reputation for welcoming renegades who take a pass on completing college -- think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Then there's PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, who earned a B.A. and J.D. from Stanford University but funds a fellowship that pays up-and-coming entrepreneurs $100,000 over two years to drop out of school and begin innovating on their own.

The story behind Samaras' decision isn't quite as dramatic, but is indicative of the mood in the marketplace. Samaras developed an interest in technology while a kid; as a teenager, he landed a tech-related internship -- an experience encouraged by his father, who is also an IT professional. Samaras then enrolled in college but dropped out after a semester, saying he was put off by the liberal arts requirements. He soon found contract work installing computers. He quickly picked up new skills and built experience on the job, which he says made career advancement possible.

He acknowledges that a college degree would likely help if he wanted to go into management, but he likes being a technician. He notes: "Every time I've submitted my resume for a full-time job I get a call back within a day." Plus, he says, he's not saddled by college debt -- a big plus, particularly given that the pace of technological advances can render college courses obsolete in a matter of years.

That's one reason workers like Samaras are bypassing college, instead building skills with hot certifications, taking (cheaper) online classes, and studying on their own (a longtime tradition among IT folks). That combination comes at a fraction of the cost of a four-year, or even two-year, degree -- and yet it's enough to land at least some techies jobs with competitive compensation and ample advancement opportunities.

"Absolutely, I see people hired without a degree," confirms Jason Reagan, regional vice president for the IT practice at Addison Group, a Chicago-based recruitment and staffing firm.

Reagan says companies look at what candidates can do and the skills they possess. Of course, a college degree is one way to validate that they have certain training, and the majority of companies continue to list it as a prerequisite for consideration, he says, but for some companies, "that degree is a plus, but not a must at this point."

Pete Kazanjy, founder of TalentBin by Monster, a talent search engine, says a growing number of employers recognize that they might miss out on superstar techies if they limit their choices to only college-educated candidates, particularly given the competitive job market and low unemployment rates within the tech sector.

One such employer is Bryan Sadler, senior vice president and IT manager at ParkSterling Bank, a 44-branch financial institution headquartered in Charlotte, N.C.

While Sadler prefers to hire IT workers with a college degree, he doesn't require it. He says he can tell a candidate is capable of doing the job if he or she has good work experience, a positive demeanor and strong references.

In an effort to attract talent in the highly competitive Bay Area, Fernando Gonzalez, CIO at the San Francisco-based apparel manufacturer Byer California, is courting college graduates as well as recruiting potential staff fresh from high school. As Gonzalez told Computerworld last year, he looks for those with a customer service attitude to whom he can teach technology.

Byer's IT director, Mandar Ghosalkar, estimates that a third of the company's 20 IT employees do not have a college degree. Byer tends to hire non-degreed candidates for help desk positions and then train them for higher-up IT positions. "We let the people grow," Ghosalkar says, explaining that IT team members typically train junior staff members in various disciplines -- from engineering to programming to networking -- so those staffers can then move up in the company.

Hudson Denney, founder and principal at Net3 Technology, a cloud services company in Greenville, S.C., likewise believes that a college degree isn't a priority when hiring for the firm's various positions, from support personnel to junior engineers to advanced developers.

"It's a results-oriented world these days, and we're looking for results," Denney says, explaining that his company's hiring process includes Predictive Index testing, a nationwide background check and rigorous interviews to ensure candidates have the skills and disposition needed to do the job.

"There are organizations out there that won't hire someone without a college degree, but I think they're selling themselves short in their hiring practices," Denney says. "Does a college degree show something? Yeah, there's some socialization there, you might come in more mature, it shows you're teachable. But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter to us. I'm not going to pay you any more whether you went to college. I'm going to pay you based on your experience,  your ability to get the job done and your certifications."

Others, though, don't believe the outlook for those without degrees is so rosy, even in today's tight job market. They say companies still want candidates with a college education.

David J. Bair, executive director for technology at the Tampa, Fla.-based staffing services firm Kforce, says many companies still mandate four-year college degrees for IT candidates because they see college as a way to confirm that candidates have some or all of the skills being sought. Bair has seen some companies  open up their searches to those without degrees, but only when they are having a hard time finding good candidates.Darin Matuzic, a senior technical recruiter at Riviera Partners in San Francisco, sees a similar pattern, with companies willing to consider work history as well as side projects, certifications and portfolios in lieu of degrees -- but only when they have to. "Companies will say they're open to those without degrees, but they'll always [hire] the person from the good school first," Matuzic says, noting that he has only placed one non-degreed IT worker out of the 60 he's placed since taking his current position.

While recruiters and hiring managers say they do indeed see more companies willing to overlook the lack of a degree, the trend applies more to entry- and mid-level jobs such as help desk positions and infrastructure, networking and development jobs. It's difficult, they say, to determine how high up the org chart that amnesty extends.

All told, degreed candidates still have a leg up when starting out, are favored when moving up, and are better positioned to move to a new job if the economy turns down, industry watchers say. "A college degree continues to give you an advantage in the marketplace. It's really a good asset to have, particularly when there are two equally qualified candidates," says John Reed, senior executive director of the national staffing firm Robert Half Technology.

Even those who started without a degree share that view, worrying that the lack of a college education could hurt advancement opportunities.

Ron Wright, 40, who has an associate's degree in electronic engineering, initially maintained and repaired copiers and printers and then moved into installing them on networks. He parlayed his experience and the A+ and Network+ certifications he earned on his own into a job on an IT help desk at an international manufacturing company.

"They knew I wouldn't crack under pressure, that I could treat everyone professionally," he says, adding that he has had other IT job offers since taking the help desk position a year ago.

While his lack of a four-year degree "hasn't been a huge issue in holding me back, as long as I can prove I can do the job," he still plans to earn several security-related certifications and eventually get his bachelor's degree to bolster his resume.

Michelle Beck entered the IT workforce in 1997 after three years of college; she took a break from school to see if she'd actually like working with computers, a major she selected as a junior after trying out a few others first.

Beck started on the help desk at Robert Half International, then soon moved into a more senior role when the company started a PeopleSoft implementation. That work gave her in-demand expertise that landed her plum positions with other companies and, in 1998, a developer job at PeopleSoft itself.

Despite her success, Beck says she believed she needed both a bachelor's and master's to advance her career. So, in 2007, while at PeopleSoft, she earned a B.S. in computer science through an online degree program. She earned an MBA in 2012 while working as IT director at Aon, and in 2014 became director of IT for Bretford Manufacturing in Franklin Park, Ill.

Beck says she'll never know for sure whether her concerns about advancing without a degree were valid. She still wonders: "Would my resume ever have been pulled without my degrees?"

That uncertainty is what causes employment experts like Addison Group's Reagan to continue waving the flag for higher ed. "If you have a proven track record, I don't think [a lack of a degree] will limit you," Reagan says. "But what we've seen is that a degree will always be relevant; there will always be a place for a degree in IT."

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