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

Mary K. Pratt | Jan. 15, 2015
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?

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.


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