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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?

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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