Should IT roles ditch degree requirements? It’s complicated

Degree requirements are the norm for many IT roles, though it’s changing.
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· 4 min read

Do IT workers really need diplomas—or should CIOs and other hiring managers be focusing on finding alternate markers of skill?

While there’s a clear trend toward ditching degrees, it’s not happening overnight.

CIO magazine recently quizzed tech leaders and found support for skills-based hiring, but also acknowledgment that college degrees are likely to be signifiers of learning, communication, and critical thinking skills. Veritas Technologies CIO Jane Zhu told the magazine degrees indicate “basic technical knowledge, problem-solving skills, the ability to collaborate with others, and ownership and accountability.”

Meanwhile, degrees themselves are no guarantee. The New York Times recently reported just half of City University of New York computer science graduates had a job in their field a year out, with a CUNY report identifying lack of access to internships as a major barrier to rectifying racial disparities in NYC tech employment.

According to Computerworld, Washington nonprofit Opportunity@Work estimates applicants skilled through alternative routes missed out on 7.4 million jobs from 2000 to 2020 through “degree discrimination.”

The pendulum’s swinging. The tech industry is, by and large, still asking for diplomas.

Opportunity@Work found that while some IT roles usually don’t require bachelor’s degrees—computer support stands at 45%—others are much more restrictive. For example, 76% of computer programming, 88% of computer scientists, network analysts, and web devs, and 94% of CIS manager jobs come with diploma mandates, despite the organization finding around one-fifth to one-fourth of those actually employed in those roles having alternative qualifications.

According to a 2022 study from Burning Glass Institute, 46% of middle-skill and 31% of high-skill occupations underwent “degree resets” between 2017 and 2019, with 63% of those resets being “structural,” or “representing a measured and potentially permanent shift in hiring practices.” While it found that a sampling of big tech firms still listed degree requirements for IT roles above the national average, the percentage of listings with those requirements fell at all of those companies except IBM and Intel from 2017 to 2021.

Seth Robinson, VP of industry research at nonprofit IT certification provider CompTIA, told IT Brew that with competition for personnel high, organizations have had to become more resourceful in seeking IT talent.

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CompTIA research has shown tech unemployment is well below the national average and the sector will continue outpacing growth in other jobs.

“The biggest factor is just the supply-and-demand imbalance that's out there,” Robinson told IT Brew. “Employers are looking for a lot of technical help. They're trying to get people started on technical journeys.”

Alternate routes. Technology services provider Accenture, which the Burning Glass Institute report listed as requiring degrees for just 26% of software QA engineer jobs and 40% of software developer postings, started an apprenticeship program in 2016. Accenture North America CEO Jimmy Etheredge told IT Brew it has since hired over 2,000 of those apprentices, and an “overwhelming majority” become long-term employees. Forty-five percent of its entry-level roles don’t have degree requirements.

Etheredge said the program helps Accenture avoid a widespread problem in tech hiring—desire for experience in skills that are still emerging.

“Today, skills are the new currency, at any level,” Etheredge wrote via email. “The skills required to drive business results are dynamic and rapidly changing due to new and accelerating technologies.”

Amanda Day, director of people enablement at HR tech provider Remote, told IT Brew the company—which itself has a 100% remote workforce—has definitely seen an increase in the number of clients asking for “equivalent” experience as an alternative to four-year degrees.

“These days, I see that more traditionally corporate companies tend to be most likely to require a degree, while younger, more fast-moving and globally-minded startups are more focused on relevant experience,” Day wrote via email. “I think we’re seeing more startups follow this approach as they hire for tech roles, because they are experiencing that university education is not the only way to prepare for the working world.

Correction 07/19/23: The name of Veritas Technologies CIO is Jane Zhu, not Jay. We apologize for the error.

Top insights for IT pros

From cybersecurity and big data to cloud computing, IT Brew covers the latest trends shaping business tech in our 4x weekly newsletter, virtual events with industry experts, and digital guides.