Employers Still Want Degrees But Many Will Accept Certs Instead

Do you need a four-year degree to work in IT, or are certifications enough?

In answering the popular perennial question from current and aspiring IT workers — namely, "Which is better, a degree or IT certification?" — my longstanding answer has been "Both!" And while I think this answer still holds some truth, my sense is that the balance is shifting more toward certification as the job market continues to tighten up.

According to the latest CompTIA IT employment analysis, IT unemployment currently stands at 4.6 percent, or about 0.9 percent higher than the overall unemployment level as per the August 2022 employment situation summary from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Even so, there is a critical shortage of IT workers in many areas. The workforce needs more cybersecurity professionals, software developers, IT support technicians, systems analysts, architects, engineers, and IT project managers.

The Balance Is Tilting Toward Certification

On Sept. 15, CIO Magazine released a story with the headline "IT Certifications ease tech job access as employers lower degree requirements." This is just one of many similar screeds that have appeared in the computer trade press this year. It struck me harder than others I have seen, however, because it offers up a great many interesting data points.

These include the following:

— A sort-of-success-story that recites how a person found work in IT through the certification route after striking out in his college major area of (corporate) communications. He took the A+ as a first step into IT, and has been able to find meaningful work at an IT consulting company with "a couple of IT certifications in his toolbox." He plans to add a half-dozen more.

Do you need a four-year degree to work in IT, or are certifications enough?

— A recent Stack Overflow survey reveals that for software developers aged 18-24, more than half learned to code through online courses and certifications rather than academia. That drops to one-third (which is still substantial) for those in the "oldest working cohort" (aged 55-64, which is actually one step below the seldom tracked "65 and older cohort").

The same section of the CIO story also cites CoderPad’s Global VP of Engineering, Nathan Sutter, as saying, "I think the standard path to becoming a developer [through] a four-year degree is, for the most part, going to go away in the next 20 years."

— "Employers lower degree requirements" heads the next section of the CIO story, which recounts how "many big players in the industry have started to phase out degree requirements … to appeal to a larger demographic."

It makes specific mention of household names such as Amazon, Accenture, IBM and HP (and cites a supporting 2021 Burning Glass Institute study). A chart shows how 3 out of 4 of those companies have reduced degree requirements in job postings over the period from 2017 to 2021.

The story sums up these findings by saying, "The reduced demand for educational requirements lets potential prospects lean on certifications and experience to prove their skills, rather than a diploma." Indeed!

Adding a Sense of Urgency

Interestingly, I had a discussion with my sister last week while visiting her in Maine at the tail end of dropping my son off to start college. She told me her 24-year-old son wants to work in IT, but doesn’t really want to take four years to go the traditional degree route.

Do you need a four-year degree to work in IT, or are certifications enough?

My sister's son is a longtime gamer who is more than moderately computer savvy, and already understands the basics of computing, programming and analytics through personal interaction and experience. I suspect many recent high school grads are in the same boat.

And if the Stack Overflow survey cited earlier is indeed an indicator, then most of these younger IT aspirants aren’t shy about taking the online learning and certification route. That leads me to make a recommendation to any and all such folk as might be interested, as well as the older fogies (including yours truly) who might have cause to proffer a bit of career planning and development advice.

A Modest IT Career Development Recommendation

I recommend that anybody interested in following a certification-based training path to IT employment first earn the "CompTIA trifecta" to get themselves started. These fundamental certs will be beneficial and grounding for anybody who wants to work in IT across the entire spectrum of possible job roles and positions. They are: A+, Network+ and Security+.

Those completely lacking in background and context (NOT my nephew, in other words, who’s been twiddling keys since age 9 or 10, and has served as the unofficial "family IT expert" since age 13) might also benefit from completing the dead basic CompTIA IT Fundamentals+ cert as well.

This approach also works for people like the success story person mentioned in the first bullet item a couple of sections back. That is, this foundation is also good for people with degrees outside the IT umbrella who’ve decided they want to find work in IT.

Do you need a four-year degree to work in IT, or are certifications enough?

There is some time and expense involved in following this path. The expense side works out to around $340 (and up; look for voucher deals) for A+, Network+ and Security+. To find exam savings, enter "lowest-cost (Name of exam) exam voucher" in your favorite search engine.

Practice exams and study guides usually add between $75 and $150 to such costs, depending on sources and numbers of references involved. It will also take from three months to a year to work through this curriculum part time and pass the exams. That's a 90 to 365 day timeframe, and overall expenses from $1,100 to $1,500 to get started.

Commercial training could add to those costs, but those seeking the best low-budget approach would be well-advised to sign up for a subscription via LinkedIn, PluralSight, or other similar sources which will cover all those topics (and much, much more to echo Ron Popeil) for about $40 a month.

After this first foundational step is covered, a search for IT work can begin at the same time one starts climbing some cert ladder, or tracing out some specific learning path. Coding, DevOps, and IT Project Management are all well covered by numerous certs, and offer easy ways to start building a lifetime career with significant earning potential.

This is just the tip of a massive IT certification iceberg, with lots of other opportunities also possible. These developments offer strong fodder for future GoCertify articles in this vein. Stay tuned for further details to come!

Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran who's worked as a software developer, technical marketer, consultant, author, and researcher. Author of many books and articles, Ed also writes on certification topics for Tech Target, ComputerWorld and Win10.Guru. Check out his website at www.edtittel.com, where he also blogs daily on Windows 10 and 11 topics.