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The new (and better) route to a career in IT

Thu, 29th Jul 2021
FYI, this story is more than a year old

School leavers contemplating a career in the IT industry have a choice: go to university and take a three or four-year degree to attain a suitable qualification, or dive straight into the job market at an entry-level, progress their career through on-the-job training and gain a series of short industry certifications to verify their expertise.

It's a dilemma facing people in most industries, and in many cases, a degree is almost always required for a decent job. It's a phenomenon known as ‘degree inflation', which refers to the rising demand for degrees by companies looking to hire staff. However, the acute shortage of skills plaguing the IT industry means employers cannot afford to be so choosey, and there are plenty of opportunities for professionals without relevant degrees.

And there are other compelling arguments for diving straight into the IT job market. As an industry, IT is advancing at an extremely fast rate. While universities often struggle to keep their curriculums relevant with this pace of change, industry certification providers, on the other hand, are much more responsive.

With many organisations now busting the perception that a degree in IT is important, the movement towards ‘degree deflation' is gathering momentum. For example, global Knowledge surveyed 9,500 IT professionals from 159 countries for its 2020 Skills and Salary Report. Only 2% of respondents said a university degree was the main thing they looked for when hiring.

Furthermore, industry research firm IDC championed the movement in a recent report, arguing that less emphasis on degrees during the hiring process could reduce the shortage of skilled IT people.

According to the IDC vice president for IT education and certification research program Cushing Anderson, "In a 'degree deflated' world, IT organisations could expect to have an easier time locating and hiring candidates, a lower payroll, and a similar performance from their IT professionals, reducing the impact of the IT skills gap."

Others have been championing the cause and coining phrases in support. For example, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty created the term ‘new collar' for “entirely new roles in areas such as cybersecurity, data science, artificial intelligence and cognitive business,” that sit between traditional ‘white collar' jobs requiring a degree and ‘blue collar' roles.

In an open letter to then US President Donald Trump, Rometty said: “Getting a job at today's IBM does not always require a college degree … What matters most is relevant skills, sometimes obtained through vocational training.

Her view seems to be widely shared across the IT industry, with Australian research producing similar results. A recent report from IT Professionals Australia found employment prospects for IT graduates were lukewarm, with many struggling to find full-time work, or working in areas other than those they had studied.

Employers surveyed said they had trouble finding graduates with the right skills, which indicates that the curricula of IT degree courses do not reflect the needs of the industry.

Another global report from the Institute for Working Futures and IBM found degree courses were not particularly valuable for many IT and STEM roles because they do not equip graduates sufficiently with non-technical, human capabilities.

In line with the current skills shortage, competition between employers is extremely tough. Employers desperately need relevant skills, competence and real-world experience, which multi-year degrees often fail to offer.

So, aspiring IT professionals must choose carefully how they will acquire the skills needed to advance their careers. Industry certifications and shorter courses give individuals much-needed skills in specific areas of IT, such as cloud computing and cybersecurity, which will ultimately serve them much better than a lengthy degree.

In the Global Knowledge survey, 94% of decision-maker respondents said certified staff added value well above the certification cost. Over half of those surveyed put the economic benefit of certified employees at more than US$10,000 per year, and 16% at more than $30,000. They also said that the skills gained from certifications were highly transferable, benefitting multiple employees other than just those gaining them.

Additionally, more than 50% of IT professionals who hold certifications said they performed better and earned higher salaries, while 30% found their work more engaging.

For aspiring IT professionals, even if a degree does enable them to enter the workforce at a higher level and with a higher salary, they must weigh up this advantage against the years they spend studying with no salary, and in Australia, the significant HECS debt for their university fees.

Their contemporaries who have entered the workforce without a degree will have gained several years' experience and skills in the meantime; not just in IT but in equally important areas such as teamwork, communication and crisis management.

In summary, there are compelling arguments for both employers and employees to favour certifications and short courses over university degrees. In this scenario, employees are more likely to gain relevant IT and workspace skills sooner, and employers gain access to a much wider talent pool, which will do much to address long-term IT talent shortages.

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