The 4-year debate: Do degree requirements still matter for IT?

Antonio Taylor landed his first IT job in 1999, having decided to leave his pre-law studies at college and get into tech instead.

He earned a Novell certification, believing it was a quick, effective way to get into a well-paying field with growth potential. Plus, he liked technology, saying, “Computers were always easy to me.”

Taylor’s gambit paid off: He has worked in IT ever since, earning a dozen or so certifications and multiple promotions during his career.

Now a hiring manager himself, Taylor still believes candidates don’t need a four-year degree to enter and advance in the IT profession. He says he has removed “degree required” and even “degree preferred” from many job postings, noting that IT pros can — and do — often develop the needed skills through certification programs, bootcamps, and even self-directed studies.

“A degree may not mean you have the experience and expertise needed for the tech job,” he says, adding he looks for candidates who can demonstrate they have the technical capabilities required for the positions being filled. “My questions in the interview are strictly around their abilities to do their job.”

Taylor is among a growing number of managers and executives dropping degree requirements from job descriptions.

Figures from the 2022 study The Emerging Degree Reset from The Burning Glass Institute quantify the trend, reporting that 46% of middle-skill and 31% of high-skill occupations experienced material degree resets between 2017 and 2019.

Moreover, researchers calculated that 63% of those changes appear to be “‘structural resets’ representing a measured and potentially permanent shift in hiring practices” that could make an additional 1.4 million jobs open to workers without college degrees over the next five years.

Despite such statistics and testimony from Taylor and other IT leaders, the debate around whether a college education is needed in IT isn’t settled. Some say there’s no need for degrees; others say degrees are still preferred or required.

Bob Dutile, a former CIO now serving as chief commercial officer at digital transformation solutions company UST, sums it up: “There are some who still prefer a college degree, seeing it — rightly or wrongly — as shorthand for showing that candidates have conscientiousness and the capacity to learn. But we and others have not found that it’s necessary.”

The argument for dropping degree requirements

CIOs, other tech leaders, and hiring managers from multiple organizations and industries say a good proportion of IT positions require competency in specific skills and not the academic breadth provided by a baccalaureate.

They list help desk roles, programmers, developers, designers, engineers, architects, analysts, and even some management positions as relying on technical skills, not a degree.

That’s not to say those positions don’t need people who can communicate effectively or think critically, they add. But they believe those skills as well as the needed technical competencies can be developed in myriad ways.

Moreover, they say the move to skills-based hiring brings several key benefits to both their organization and to workers. For the company, a skills-based hiring approach increases the number of qualified candidates applying and increases the gender, racial, ethnic, and economic diversity of the applicant pool. Meanwhile, workers have opportunities that they’re qualified to handle but otherwise would be shut out of, giving them not just a job but also a broader career path.

Broader talent pool

IBM is among the companies whose leaders have moved away from degree requirements; Big Blue is also one of the earliest, largest, and most prominent proponents of the move, introducing the term “new collar jobs” for the growing number of positions that require specific skills but not a bachelor’s degree.

Kelli Jordan, vice president of IBMer Growth and Development, says IBM has long taken that approach but became more deliberate about the strategy since 2016. It was then that the company started examining job descriptions and removing degree requirements when deemed unnecessary.

“We really focus on skills,” Jordan explains, adding that company leaders recognize that professionals can build skills through certifications, massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other such avenues.

Now more than half of the job openings posted by IBM no longer require degrees, Jordan says. And company managers and human resources teams continue to review position requirements, so an increasing number of jobs are falling into that no-degrees-needed category.

The hiring of people without degrees increased 35% since IBM started removing the four-year degree requirements.

Jordan says IBM’s approach helps the company compete for talent, a particularly important benefit while unemployment hovers around 4% and unemployment for technical occupations remains around 2%. She points out that by requiring a bachelor’s degree, companies shut out the 62% of Americans who don’t have that credential.

“You’re really limiting the opportunities for a large pool of people,” she adds.

Skills matter more than academics

Mike Calvo, CTO of Shipt, which operates an app-based shopping and delivery service, also brings that philosophy to hiring; he says the company has focused on hiring for skills since it was founded in 2014.

He says Shipt asks for either a four-year degree or relevant experience for most technology team roles. To ensure they get the right talent, Calvo says hiring managers “get pretty specific with skills, years of experience, technical capabilities, and experiences working in an environment similar to ours.”

Calvo, who oversees internal IT operations, says they’re looking for people who like to solve problems and are curious.

“That’s all way more important to us than where you got a degree, or if you have a degree, and we’ve hired a good number of people who have qualified from a knowledge perspective,” he says. “[College] has become so unimportant a factor in someone’s performance that people don’t talk about it; they don’t look at it. I can’t tell you the last time I looked at a candidate and said, ‘Oh, they have a degree.’”

The Birmingham, Ala.-based company partners with training programs to recruit professionals with the specific tech skills Shipt needs. For example, in 2021 it hired 25 graduates of a Pivot Technology School bootcamp and is onboarding another 17 from the school’s training program.

Real world versus theory

Others similarly stress that hands-on skills matter more than academics for many, if not most, technical positions.

Anant Adya, an executive vice president of cloud services company Infosys Cobalt, says he looks at attitude, testing candidates’ ability and willingness to learn when making hires. Adya’s company often recruits from community colleges and certification programs that focus on giving participants hands-on training in skills that align to existing market needs.

That’s not always the case with graduates from four-year academic programs, Adya says, adding that “we have found there was a gap between what’s required in the real world and what’s taught in [four-year] college programs.”

Tailoring talent to your needs

Proponents of skills-based hiring say the approach works best when it’s part of a comprehensive talent strategy — one that has a heavy emphasis on ongoing training and upskilling.

That’s what plays out at Thoughtworks.

Thoughtworks North America CEO Chris Murphy says the company has a long history of “hiring non-traditional talent for tech roles” including coding bootcamp graduates as well as people who have learned coding on the job or in their own time.

The company in 2005 started its Thoughtworks University program (TWU) to provide a one-year training program to ensure such hires can succeed at the company.

The case for degrees

Not all are convinced that dropping degree requirements is the way to go, however.

Jane Zhu, CIO and senior vice president at Veritas Technologies, says she sees value in degrees, value that isn’t always replicated through other channels.

“Though we don’t necessarily require degrees for all IT roles here at Veritas, I believe that they do help candidates demonstrate a level of formal education and commitment to the field and provide a foundation in fundamental concepts and theories of IT-related fields that may not be easily gained through self-study or on-the-job training,” she says. “Through college education, candidates have usually acquired basic technical knowledge, problem-solving skills, the ability to collaborate with others, and ownership and accountability. They also often gain an understanding of the business and social impacts of their actions.”

Intangibles matter

Zhu, who has a bachelor’s and master’s in computer science and a doctorate in operations research, says her own academic achievements “have played a huge role in my success.”

She adds: “The knowledge I acquired from my degrees equips me with strong technical and problem-solving skills; enables me to easily internalize business strategies, initiatives and challenges; have productive architecture-level discussions with IT staff; and allows me to make sound business decisions faster.”

Vision and commitment

Josh Lazar, who recently served for three years as CIO for Florida’s 18th Judicial Circuit, has a similar take.

“A four-year degree shows that a candidate can make a commitment to a long-term goal and achieve it. Further, the training you get within that setting can be more demanding and a person can gain expertise in a particular area,” says Lazar, who left his CIO role in February and is now CEO of TechThinkTank.

Leadership and learning skills

Others share that perspective, saying a bachelor’s degree demonstrates that candidates can think critically, handle complex problems, and persuasively communicate ideas; that they have studied a range of topics that help them manage and lead; and that they’ve fine-tuned their learning skills so they can more easily develop and upskill throughout their careers.

Of course, not all those with a baccalaureate possess such qualities — something proponents of requiring or preferencing degrees acknowledge.

However, they say someone with at least a bachelor’s is likely to have some or all of them — and that is reassuring.

“The CIO is placing a bet with everyone they hire, and they want a sure bet. And there’s still a sense of comfort when you have someone with a degree from a top-notch school or with an MBA,” says Mark Taylor, CEO of the Society for Information Management (SIM).

Not either/or but both

Dutile, from UST, says his company employs almost 30,000 engineers, most of whom work on software with some 60% deployed to work in the IT departments of the company’s Global 1000 clients. Dutile says nearly all of those clients want those workers to have a bachelor’s degree.

However, two of the companies do not have that requirement. “And their experience has been great,” he says.

That fits with evolving marketplace trends, where there’s more openness to skills-based hiring for many technical roles but a desire for a bachelor’s degree for certain positions, including leadership.

In fact, research shows that nearly all CIOs have college degrees. Online job site Zippia analyzed multiple sources and concluded that in the US 67% of CIOs have a bachelor’s, 20% have a master’s, and 2% have a doctorate. Only 8% have an associate’s degree, and 3% have what Zippia identified as “other degrees.”

Antonio Taylor’s own experience mirrors the ongoing discussion about whether and when a degree is needed in IT.

He believes certifications, bootcamps, and other such programs as well as work experience can give IT professionals the skills they need to succeed and advance in technical positions. But he also says, “Degrees do matter when looking for certain leadership roles in IT.”

Taylor returned to college, earning a bachelor’s degree in IT administration and management in 2017 and an MBA in 2018.He has held several management roles since earning his degrees and earned his latest promotion on March 1, moving from a director position to vice president of infrastructure, security, and services at Transnetyx

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