Cubicle U.

By Martha Heller, CIO |  Career


The New York Times ran a story about technologically talented teens who pass up college degrees in favor of immediate income and on-the-job training. "Why go learn something I already know?" asked Thomas Gaietto, an 18-year-old network administrator, of reporter Matt Richtel. "Everyone I know who is getting a four-year degree is behind the times."

Does Gaietto have a point? Do information technology professionals need college degrees?

Recent reports put out by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics show both a downturn over the past several years in the percentage of high school graduates receiving college degrees and a greater increase in employment in high-tech industries than in other fields. Clearly, some high-tech companies are filling their open positions with high school students.

Organizations like the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) in Arlington, Va., are hoping that high school graduates will actually help solve the IT worker shortage crisis. Together with the Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance of Business and the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center, the ITAA is sponsoring a two-year national school-to-work program that seeks, in part, to help students with strong programming skills find work right after their high school graduation ceremony.

The average salary for all employees in the software industry, according to the Business Software Alliance in Washington, D.C., is more than $68,000 a year (that's more than double the average salaries in all other private industries). Four years of college tuition usually cost far more than that, so it's no wonder more and more students are going straight from the high school cafeteria to the corporate cubicle.

With the potential for technology to change drastically over four years, some students worry that their skills will be obsolete by the time they graduate. On-the-job training, they believe, will serve them better both now and in the long run. So do IT professionals really need college degrees?

A HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA is probably ok for coding-type work, but when it comes to complicated coding projects, understanding the business end of the project becomes more and more important. A college degree in business or MIS would make more sense in the long run. I personally would be hard pressed to hire someone without a college background, unless that candidate was supported by lots and lots of experience. IT personnel need to be able to communicate both verbally and in writing. My company seeks people with MBAs for the kinds of strategic IT work we're doing, and a coder won't be able to fit well at the corporate levels of management where the IT environment is either made or broken.

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