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Coders and College: Should Degrees Still be Expected?

Should Degrees Still be Expected

It’s the big question lately: Do tech workers really need four-year degrees to succeed? As an employer, your knee-jerk reaction may be to discount the question. Why shouldn’t we require degrees as one of the first steps in screening ideal job candidates? The short answer is that major tech companies like Apple, Google, IBM, and others don’t think it’s necessary for many tech positions. That’s great news for tech talent who face barriers to getting a traditional degree. So, while you have every right to require it, you may find that you’re missing out on top talent because of it. It’s a decision that should be weighed strategically.

A series of Dice articles based on Burning Glass research provides insights, particularly when it comes to software engineers. They report that more than 90% of software engineers have bachelor’s degrees (compared to 5% with master’s degrees and 2.3% with high school diplomas only). If you’re an employer, you could see that as a sign your traditional requirements for a college degree are on par. But let’s dive deeper:

“A number of companies—including IBM and Apple—have announced that they’re more interested in a job candidate’s skills than any degrees they might possess. That opens the proverbial door to lots of people who might not have spent a lot of time in school—but it also puts added emphasis on skills and experience,” says Dice Insights Senior Editor Nick Kolakowski.

Both Kolakowski and his Dice colleague Brian T. Horowitz have recently reported correlations between a four-year college degree and higher-paid tech jobs. But if you interpret that as a reason to require one off the bat (for entry-level positions or mid-level jobs in programming, web development, and database engineering)—assuming that anyone “serious” about their career would have a degree—you could be making a huge mistake. Here are two significant reasons:

  • With nearly all major tech companies doing away with the requirement at some level, top tech talent is getting comfortable with the idea of choosing specialized training over four-year degrees and locking themselves into a career at a major tech company in the meantime (thus remaining off the market for you).
  • College degrees are financially inaccessible and impractical to many. If you care at all about diversity and inclusion—and if you’re seeing your applicant numbers dropping—you need to consider how your required job qualifications are limiting your candidate pool.

“If you fear or have found that requiring a degree has limited your choices of candidates, step back and ask: Why do we require a degree? What specific skills do our workers actually need?” recommends Paul McGaughan, Practice Director for The HT Group Technical Recruiting

Remember that Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, and others dropped out of college. Tesla’s Elon Musk has said colleges “are not for learning,” but rather a place to have fun. Tim Cook said in 2019 that half of Apple’s U.S. employees included people without four-year degrees, reasoning that many colleges don’t teach the skills that business leaders need most in the workplace.

“You may disagree, but the fact remains that these tech leaders set the bar for talent. So, if they’re rethinking degree requirements, there’s value in you at least considering your organization’s philosophy behind it, too,” McGaughan adds.

Even The University of Texas at Austin believes bootcamp is a valid educational path. so much so that it has become the first accredited university in Texas to offer a coding school certification program (The Coding Boot Camp at UT Austin).

With some soul searching, you may find the reasoning behind much of your general four-year degree requirements has been lost. They may offer some assurance that job candidates have both the hard and soft skills necessary to do the job, but there are more comprehensive ways to make that determination. For instance, you can work with a tech recruiter to:

  • Determine the exact technical skills desired for the job.
  • Identify the different paths toward mastery of those skills. Perhaps what you’re truly looking for is a set of specific certifications.
  • Decide whether that training/education is necessary before starting or can be learned on the job. If the ladder, would you be willing to provide/sponsor that training/education, perhaps even an apprenticeship program?
  • Envision an ideal career path for the position and decide if a college or advance degree would be optimal for that person as they grow with your organization. Again, is that degree something you would want them to have now, or can your organization support them in getting it over time?
  • Decide on the ideal soft skills needed for the position (leadership, collaboration, decision-making…) and work assessments for those skills into the hiring process.

Both tech talent and major tech companies are rethinking college degree requirements. You may decide that it’s still valuable, but if you keep requiring it without a compelling, practical reason, you could trail further and further behind when it comes to winning top tech talent.

The HT Group fills roles in Temporary Staffing, Executive Search, Technical Recruiting, and Retained Search.

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