The Two-Year Degree: A Happy Medium?

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In today’s economic climate, it’s not just about finding work; it’s about being the right person for the job. But with time and money at a premium, those preparing to enter the workforce need to do that in the fastest, most cost-effective way.

For many, a traditional four-year degree program may not be practical. However, skipping formal education and pursuing IT certifications a la carte is also less than desirable, since most corporations today are looking for well-rounded candidates with the kind of soft skills and business knowledge that gaining a college degree imparts.

For this reason, aspiring IT professionals may want to consider certification via two-year degree programs at local community colleges, said Ernest Friend, director of academic systems and manager of the computer networking, manufacturing and biomedicine programs for Florida State College at Jacksonville.

“Having a certification will help you get the job — but having the foundational skills will help you keep it,” Friend said. “They need to work in tandem.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the occupation with the highest projected growth between now and 2016 is data networking and communications. There’s plenty of opportunity out there; candidates just need to position themselves properly.

“Even in this economic downturn, there are many jobs that go unfilled because employers can’t find the right skills in the marketplace,” said Fred Weiller, director of marketing for Learning@Cisco. “A couple of years ago, we did research with Forrester Consulting. What came up strongly from hiring managers was they consider a four-year degree and a professional certification at the same level. [But] if you had both, well, you were probably even higher on the [resume] pile.”

When a four-year degree isn’t feasible, a two-year program at a community college could prepare a student for IT certifications but also impart some fundamental job skills training, “so [that individual would] have a more comprehensive set of skills that is not restricted to just the networking piece,” Weiller said.

Friend said he’s seen enrollment in Florida State College’s two-year networking program increase about 15 percent since the economic downturn. He added that one of the biggest advantages of attending college for would-be IT professionals is the career network it provides.

“On an average week, I’ll have one or two companies e-mail me — before they even post it anywhere online — with a list of openings they have and the skill sets they need,” Friend said. “I pass that to my faculty and we handpick people for those individual situations. We’ve got 20 to 40 companies that do that. [Our] job placement rate is 100 percent of all the students that wanted a job.”

So how would an aspiring IT professional find a community college program that suits him or her? Friend said one of the easiest ways to narrow it down would be to run a search on the Cisco Networking Academy Web page.

“There’s a pretty good chance that if the community college is teaching the Cisco Academy CCNA and CCNP, they’re probably doing everything else as well,” he said. Students can use the search results as a starting point, then click around the schools’ Web sites to see what other certifications they offer.

“Obviously, there are many jobs where you need a bachelor’s degree before your resume will even get reviewed,” Friend said. “But for every one of those, there are probably 10 where you don’t need a bachelor’s; you just need experience and a certification. And if you don’t have that cert, I would suggest that [you] look at [your] local community college first.”

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