Tight IT Job Market Leads to Degree Deflation

Are IT certifications becoming comparable in value to college degrees?

Ever since I started learning, teaching, and writing about IT certification in the mid-1990s, a perennial question in the field has been, "Which is better: a college degree or IT certification?"

Until recently, my considered answer to this question — which I feel remains somewhat valid — has been, "Both! A degree provides evidence of a candidate’s ability to learn, and to complete a lengthy prescribed program of study. IT certifications attest to current, marketable IT job skills and knowledge."

Calling Fundamental Assumptions Into Question

On July 8, the Washington Post published a story titled “More workers without degrees are landing jobs. Will it last?” The upshot of the story is nicely laid out in this paragraph, which I reproduce verbatim:

However wide the door opens for workers without degrees, they won’t get through it without sufficient skills. Their success in the labor market depends upon finding an affordable pathway to develop those skills and the willingness of employers to keep prioritizing skills over degrees, even if a recession upends the job market.

Does that sound like an argument for well-vetted and reality-checked certifications, like those with ANSI/ISO/IEC 17024 accreditation? You betcha! (Here’s a complete list  of such credentials; some filtering is needed to separate out those that are IT-focused or contain IT-related elements.)

Are IT certifications becoming comparable in value to college degrees?

All this said, the impetus for the Post story was announcements from the states of Maryland and Colorado to the effect that many of their IT job postings would change (or have been changed) to drop nearly universal requirements for bachelor’s degrees. This means that those who can show a relevant and quality set of skills and knowledge for various IT job roles can now qualify to fill them without necessarily also holding a college diploma.

Why is this happening? The Post correctly takes note of a tight labor market in general. Another clue comes from tech industry association CompTIA, which recently pegged IT unemployment at 1.8 percent for June 2022 (half the national average, which is at an already svelte 3.6 percent).

In fact, CompTIA cites Tim Herbert, its Chief Research Officer, as saying “The stronger than expected job gains reaffirm the critical role of tech across every sector and every business in the economy. It also highlights the limitations in projecting company-specific hiring practices to the broader tech workforce.”

And indeed, dropping the degree requirement seems to be entirely in keeping with his situational assessment of current conditions.

Does This Mean: Drop the Degree, IT Certs Full Speed Ahead?

This is still a little more nuanced than it might appear. Based on the Post’s analysis (which matches that of many other industry observers, educators and labor economists) it certainly means that workers with current IT skills and knowledge will be in constant demand for the foreseeable future.

But the Post story also points to the Maryland governments emphasis on what is calls “STARs,” which means “Skilled Through Alternative Routes.” Typically these include workforce training, community college courses (often based on IT certifications or certificate programs) and job experience.

So, yes, IT pros can now get an interview even if they don’t have a college degree. But they’ll have to be prepared to prove and sell their skills and knowledge — to show their STARs, as it were — to get the job after landing the interview.

Where Do You Want to Go From There?

Are IT certifications becoming comparable in value to college degrees?

One more thing: Long-term employment in IT usually means climbing a career ladder of some kind, from entry and junior levels, to mid-career grades, and then into senior level or management positions. At each higher rung of the ladder, a degree can provide additional payoffs and benefits.

The same, of course, can be said for climbing relevant certification ladders (like those from CompTIA, Cisco, VMware, ISACA, ISC-squared, and so on). But if you want to advance and be recognized as a professional, a degree still has (increasing) value as you climb from rung to rung.

Keep that in mind as you make your way through the various steps of your IT career, and enjoy the ride along the way.

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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.