Cubicle U.

IN EARLY SEPTEMBER, 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.

John Benink
Senior Consultant and Strategist
Titan Technology Partners
Charlotte, N.C.

AS AN I.T. MANAGER, I would never hire someone without a minimal college education unless the position was entry level, nonprofessional. College is not there to teach students to be programmers, system administrators and so on. College is there to teach students to think, write and speak at a level that will aid them in beginning a career that should last a lifetime. High school grads who skip this advanced education are only hurting themselves in the long run. What are these whiz kids going to do when they aren't competitive for management positions because they only have technical skills? They can't remain Web developers or system administrators for 30 years.

Amy Jessup
Director of IT
Department of Defense
Heidelberg, Germany

I FEEL VERY STRONGLY ABOUT THIS SUBJECT. Not having a completed undergraduate degree has held me back from moving from the public sector, which does not have the same prejudices about degrees, to the private sector, where my experience and skills could command a much higher salary. I am happy to see a trend toward hiring for results rather than what is on a piece of paper. Having been in the IT field as a programmer, analyst and project manager for more than 25 years, I can tell you from experience that a degree doesn't count for anything if the individual can't do the work. I hire for experience and the individual's ability to think and reason, not for a piece of paper that says she sat in classes for four years. How do I know she learned anything?

C. Hale
Director of IT Operations
Texas Department of Human Services
Austin, Texas

MORE AND MORE COMPANIES ARE ACCEPTING EXPERIENCE or a combination of education and experience. Classroom education will probably never keep up with good ol' hands-on experience. I'll take a candidate with experience any day over one with a college education.

Brad Cantwell
Director, IT Recruiting
Chase Technologies
Overland Park, Kan.

I.T. PROFESSIONALS IN TODAY'S hypercompetitive market need education but not necessarily degrees. More and more the two are not always synonymous: College education provides a broadly generalized knowledge of computing concepts and precepts but not the focused skills that today's employers demand.

In fact, two of my most valuable IS managers do not have bachelor's degrees. And they run circles around many more well-heeled, traditionally educated peers. In all honesty, I lack a bachelor's degree as well, and while it may be an obstacle to getting one's foot in the door, once the door is open, it is an individual's performance and professionalism that are key.

Knowledge is acquired in many different ways, and each human being learns in a unique manner. Who is to judge that one man's college education does or does not equal or surpass another's autodidactic experience? It is, in my mind, simply one of many criteria by which a candidate is evaluated -- an increasingly minor one.

Morgan A. Gebhardt
Director, Information Technology
Macy's East Advertising
New York City

This story, "Cubicle U." was originally published by CIO.

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