MATTER OF DEGREES

For a career at IBM, you can skip the college education

There’s a lot of good reasons to go to college, but getting a job at a tech firm isn’t one of them.

A range of technology occupations—from front-end developers to network administrators—don’t require college degrees. Instead, employers are looking for specific skills that evolve rapidly and can be acquired through certificate programs or at coding bootcamps.

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, in an open letter to president-elect Trump and in a column written for USA Today, emphasized that many IBM jobs don’t need degrees, but belong to a novel category of “new collar” employment. They’re “entirely new roles in areas such as cybersecurity, data science, artificial intelligence and cognitive business,” she wrote.

In fact, about 10-15% of new hires at IBM don’t have college degrees, Sam Ladah, a vice president for human resources, confirmed in an interview, and many work in the company’s burgeoning cloud-computing business. Pay for IBM’s hundreds of cloud server technicians starts at up to $40,000, and they don’t have four-year degrees, Ladah said.

Laszlo Bock, the former head of human resources at Google, said college too often just prolongs adolescence, while he respects employees who succeed without degrees. “When you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings,” he told the New York Times in 2014. “And we should do everything we can to find those people.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recognizes at least seven computer-related job categories where at least 25% of workers do not have a four-year degree:

BLS job category Percentage with less than a four-year degree
Database administrators 28%
Web developers 31
Network architects 43
Network and computer systems administrators 47
Support specialists 53

A college degree has long been viewed as a near-mandatory credential for economic advancement by educators and most policy makers. The Obama White House has emphasized college attainment and set a goal for the US to lead the world in the percentage of its population with four-year degrees by 2020. The last time the US led the world in this metric was 1990; as of last year, the country is 12th.

College enrollment is as high as it’s ever been in the US, with almost 70% of recent high school graduates enrolled in degree programs. It remains the clearest path to high-paying employment, and the critical thinking skills college provides are an asset in almost any occupation. That’s not to mention the non-financial benefits that come from college, like emotional growth and a lifelong network.

As college costs continue to soar, though, more people are challenging the value of higher education. Notable among them is Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist and Trump advisor, who argues that college funnels many young people into similar career paths, when they could be creating their own futures. Thiel funds $100,000, two-year fellowships for “young people who want to build new things instead of sit in a classroom.” Applicants must be under 22 and willing to drop out of school if they’re accepted.

Job seekers are finding other ways into careers in technology. Bootcamps—which provide intense, 11-week (on average) training in programming languages for an average cost of $11,000—are a booming business, with enrollment climbing to over 16,000 in the US and Canada last year, up from about 2,100 in 2013, according to an industry survey. They’re an option for both high school graduates reluctant to commit four years to higher education, as well as college graduates switching careers.

IBM hires web designers from bootcamps, Ladah said, and it’s helping launch a new model of six-year high schools aimed at training students for Rometty’s “new collar” careers.

The schools will combine “a relevant traditional curriculum with necessary skills from community colleges, mentoring and real-world job experience,” Rometty wrote in USA Today. IBM opened the first one in Brooklyn five years ago, and have “committed to work with states to open at least 20 more…in the next year,” she said.

But IBM still reserves many jobs in computer science, sales, and marketing for holders of bachelor degrees, Ladah said. That’s in part because of the winnowing process of universities: College graduates have made it through the admissions office and years of testing before they can graduate. As long as employers are outsourcing that screening function to colleges, higher education will remain a safe bet.

Correction: A previous version of this article quoted an IBM representative stating that IBM’s cloud server technician jobs starting salary was between $40,000 and $50,000. IBM later clarified to Quartz that pay for that job actually starts at up to $40,000.

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