Skimming through a list of IT job openings at all levels, most if not all include a bachelor's degree or higher in related fields. For CIOs, Rivier University even recommends a graduate degree, such as an MBA with a concentration in IT management, to get the executive-level job.
But only about one-third (36%) of Americans over 25 years old have a bachelor's degree, according to Census data released in March 2020. In a field facing a growing skills shortage and a bad reputation for lack of diversity and inclusion, experts across the industry recommend IT decision-makers weigh skills and potential over a four-year degree in the search for new talent.
"Degrees play an important role but when we have a critical skill shortage, they shouldn't be the end-all-be-all — especially when there's technology that isn't covered in school," said Zane Schweer, who leads the Global Knowledge's Skills and Salary report.
Companies such as Google, Apple and IBM hire for technical roles without requiring a diploma, according to a Glassdoor analysis.The Trump administration issued an executive order prioritizing skills over college degrees for new hires for federal jobs in IT.
Earning a degree is still a positive for many candidates. A bachelor's degree in IT can increase a candidate's chances of being hired, the pool of jobs to pick from and prospective salaries, according to City University of Seattle. But the cost and commitment of attending a university remains out of reach for many Americans.
While the cost of college tuition fell during the 2020-2021 academic year, the average tuition and fees at an in-state public college totaled $9,687 for the year and $35,087 at a private college, according to U.S. News and World Report.
Even as Amazon Web Services and other companies infiltrate the education system offering tech upskilling at two-year universities, some say tapping the two-thirds of U.S. adults without a college diploma will bring new skills and perspectives into the field.
"Even [in] entry-level IT support positions, it's hard to find qualified talent who are willing to commit and be exceptional workers," said Bertina Ceccarelli, CEO at NPower. Looking at just college graduates limits the pool even more, and overlooks the importance of soft skills in those who didn't go to college.
For example, "if you can stretch your budgets to manage your expenses and you have been working two part-time jobs, you have a motivation and an energy and an instinct that is well-suited to some of the urgent, and sometimes crisis, problem-solving required within tech departments," Ceccarelli said.
Skills beyond the technical diploma
After the COVID-19 pandemic, a wider swath of the workforce with little or no IT experience have been left unemployed.
The economic disruption displaces hospitality or service workers with professional skills the field needs to seek out new opportunities and they can be upskilled to learn the technical, according to Amy Kardel, VP of strategic workforce relationships at CompTIA.
Plus, "it doesn't necessarily require a degree to do these jobs," said Kardel. "And people shouldn't have to stop with their lives and go for a four-year degree if they want to reskill, they should be able to jump into a training program that lets them be part of a company."
Businesses and IT departments looking to tap into a workforce pipeline outside of college degrees can look into workplace training programs, such as internships, to upskill and test out potential employees. Certification programs, too, can help fill in the missing technical qualifications.
"If you're not already, continue to prioritize skills, and what people can do when you're looking for candidates," Schweer said. "It's less focused on that degree, it's time to start to permeate what we call 'degree deflation' into the technical hiring field."
Global Knowledge defines degree deflation as a conscientious effort to attract candidates that do not hold a four-year degree to positions where skills can be demonstrated in other ways.
"Be very conscious about what you're actually requiring for the job position, and be really critical" about whether a job position actually requires a college degree, said Ceccarelli. "Because when you look at a number of tech type of positions, oftentimes the answer is no, and that college degree is a proxy for cultural fit."