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Dear CertMag: I’m about to finish high school at the end of May. I have four certs, A+, Network+, Security+ and CCNA from Cisco. I’m in my second year of interning with the helpdesk for a call center. They’ve offered me a full-time job starting at $49,000. I’m getting different advice about college. My counselor says I should at least get a two-year degree. One of my IT teachers says that I don’t really need it. He says job experience and further certification can take it from here. Any thoughts about who I should listen to?
Sara, Omaha, NE
The IT industry is a large, multi-headed hydra that has so many paths to design, administration, business analysis and other roles that still fit under the “Information Technology” umbrella. At the outset, I can share my experience, however even with as diverse a set of perspectives as I have been privileged to see, it is important to realize that a career is an intensely personal experience. Some people have that 1-in-100 opportunity that would counter an entire industry of experience. Some people make all of the “right” moves from the perspective of corporate wisdom, yet may not interview well, or may not find the right hiring manager, or may, for whatever reason, struggle to be hired.
We live in a world where the industry sees the impact of globalization. Organizations large and small have the opportunity to make use of work product generated half a world away in some areas, and require intensely local team members in others. It sounds like you have done many of the right things to separate yourself from the field of your peers. You have demonstrated initiative with credentials to support your formalized knowledge, and can show an employer some basic entry-level experience to enter the field. At the same time, your credentials orient toward a network engineering role like a “junior network administrator” — which is going to be difficult to get into, potentially, from a call center role.
Would you believe that both your counselor and your IT teacher are right? The question is: what do you want to do? How far do you want to go in your career?
The simple fact, plainly stated, is that anyone entering the IT field today will become strongly career-limited without a degree! That day may not be today. It may not be in the next five years for you. You may see the ability to progress with the company for several years. At some point, you will want to move to another field, apply for another position, replace a colleague who is leaving, or start your management path. Many organizations use college graduation as a basic dividing line to make selection decisions — if not at entry level then at some later rung!
If you think about it, the logic is evident: Can you be a senior manager, owning a budget, without exposure to principles of finance? Are you going to be the best candidate to take a management role, when someone else under consideration has classes and training in leadership and the basics of business psychology?
Increasingly, we see a field crowded by unemployed or underemployed graduates. For many firms, not having a college-level degree can be an automatic filter that gets you dismissed from consideration before you ever begin. Combine that with the potential of international sourcing, and the fields where those without degrees succeed most are usually areas of entrepreneurship, creativity and IT architecture — all of which require experience that you do not yet have.
Your best bet is likely the college route. While working towards at least a basic degree, I strongly encourage you to continue working part time, or engaging in internships. If you need some time to build the resources for college, then by all means, consider whether taking a year off to work makes sense for you. Be sure that you do it, however, with the strong goal in mind that college will happen. Otherwise you may have a job today, but industry data today is showing that those without degrees in IT have a higher unemployment rate, and potentially stay unemployed longer, than those with degrees. It’s a strong trend, and I really don’t see anything to indicate a reversal.