Experience vs. degree debate to heat up in the future

The landscape for IT professionals has changed much over the last decade.  Most new entrants in the field today arrived by way of college degree in Information Science – ready and eager to get their careers started, but noticeably “green” with inexperience.  The seasoned pro may even snicker a bit at just how inexperienced some of the new recruits are.  But you shouldn’t laugh too loudly because situations often turn out as we least expect it, and that newbie you laughed at yesterday could pass you on the career ladder in the near future.  Experienced pros should consider going back to get their IS degrees now to avoid career roadblocks later.

I see team dynamics changing in corporate IT environments; a division between those who got to where they are based solely on experience and those more recent to the field with an academic foundation in IT.  When I entered the field in the early ‘90s, most of the pros in place got to their position through pure raw experience; years in the trenches performing complicated upgrades and working at customer sites to troubleshoot issues that the customer’s IT staff couldn’t fix.  Beginning an IT career usually meant knowing someone at a company who could help get you hired, and thus your foot in the door, or it meant taking a low paying job and working up from the bottom.  Though once you were in, you were in.

Many of the experienced pros had college degrees, but very few had degrees specifically in Information Science.  It just wasn’t needed at the time, and IT workers were in such high demand that it was very rarely listed as a requirement.  In fact, certifications were probably looked for more than most college degrees because the curriculum at many colleges was still geared toward older programming skills such as COBOL.  The assumption back then was, if a person majored in IS he was probably going to be a programmer.  Now, students actually have many more available options to prepare them to compete in the marketplace; options to prepare them to become a system analyst, network analyst, project manager, database analyst and programmer to name a few.  Most even earn industry certifications as part of their curriculum.

Because of the influx of new IT workers sporting IS degrees today, the average seasoned pro will soon face a dilemma – continue to rely on experience and reputation to keep their career moving in the right direction, or bite the bullet and return to college to earn a degree specific to their field.  The consequence of inaction is to become stagnant and get passed by those with far less experience.  Think about it.  Many will soon find themselves at a significant disadvantage when applying for future positions, especially management positions, if they don’t have the diploma to accompany their experience.  It will be dictated by the competition.

It may not bite you until you have to compete for a new job at a new company.  Have you looked at some of the requirements for posted jobs lately?  Besides becoming very specific with desired skill sets and experience with particular vendors, even to the point of specific vendors within specific industries, many new jobs are also requiring a degree in IS.  The competition is fierce.  The biggest example I see of the changing tide is with government jobs.  State and federal jobs are listing a Bachelor or Master degree in Information Science as a requirement for most IT jobs.  There usually are no exceptions for the requirements on a government posted job.  Either you have it or you don’t.  The rule used to be “degree in lieu of experience,” but it is quickly becoming “degree in addition to experience.”

I’ll part with one last example.  I provided advice to a friend five years ago on how to break into the IT field.  He listened and found an entry-level position so he could gain experience while he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science.  After he earned his degree, his low paying position turned into an intermediate grade position making decent money.  He is now scheduled to complete his Master’s degree later this year.  The irony for me is the fact that this friend that I helped get into the field will be better positioned for future IT jobs than I will, even though I have far more experience. 

My failure to keep pace with incoming competition will catch-up with me if I don’t plan for my future success.  I have to go now.  Class is about to begin.

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