By Dr. Kurt Linberg

Dean, School of Technology, Capella University

It’s called a market correction. Sometime following irrational exuberance, economic reality sets in, and lifestyles are changed.

Sound familiar? But this time we are not talking about Alan Greenspan, price-earning ratios, and stock portfolios. This time, it’s about the IT job market.

Hidden behind the headlines about layoffs, bankruptcies, and Web site closures is this reality: The sliding economy has put experienced IT engineers on the street looking for jobs. An survey found that 66 percent of respondents are currently looking for a job, although not all of those respondents identified themselves as unemployed.
Dr. Linberg is the dean of the school of technology at Capella University, an accredited online learning institution in Minneapolis. In this editorial, Linberg explains why IT professionals who wish to advance their careers should pursue a college degree rather than further certifications.
What once was an employees’ market for IT professionals has now turned into an employers’ market. Jobs that paid six figures for programming now pay tens of thousands less. Gone also are the potentially lucrative stock options, generous vacation packages, and other sports-star-like incentives that were used to lure good people to IT jobs. And contract work is paying much less than it was before, if not disappearing.

A once wide-open job market has suddenly turned competitive—and much faster than many IT engineers have expected. Such changes are leaving IT engineers and technicians wondering how they can differentiate themselves in a competitive market.

I contend that part of the solution lies in obtaining a degree and not simply adding more certifications. As an IT manager, whether you’re planning training for yourself or your staff, you only have so much time and money. Here’s why a degree is a better investment for IT professionals.

A degree: A value proposition
What is the value of a degree?

An IT professional with a bachelor’s or master’s degree is seen as an engineer and has a career. Certification only provides a job, branding the professional as a technician.

At first glance, this difference carries little meaning. Whether you hold a degree or certification, high starting salaries and good benefits are available to IT professionals from both backgrounds. For many workers entering the job market, some not long out of high school, such criteria is all that matters.

But IT is not just about technology for the sake of technology; it is about using technology to achieve results. Companies see value in an engineer who is involved in the entire project, from conception to implementation; a technician’s value is not seen beyond the IT department.

At Capella University, when we researched our program for the School of Technology, we established an advisory panel of Fortune 500 IT executives to determine what companies are looking for in technology professionals. Their answer was clear: They wanted more than technical skills. They wanted graduates who can think about using technology to solve real business problems. This requires skills beyond what certification courses teach.

This situation becomes more clear as the IT job market softens. Recent postings on discussion boards by managers and network administrators involved in the hiring process confirm that the educational background IT professionals need in a more competitive job market is a degree, not just more certifications. Companies and managers can provide the experience. The theoretical grounding behind the process has to be picked up in college.

Degrees also hold monetary value. At one Fortune 500 company, starting pay for an engineer with a master’s degree is $20,000 higher than for a person with only a bachelor’s degree.

Many Fortune 1000 companies also do not hire people without a degree. While Internet startups often considered skills above education, more traditional businesses give special preference to people with degrees, finding that colleges provide the right balance of practical and theoretical training. Work experience counts but only for candidates with several years of experience, and even then, experience can pigeonhole a professional in a technician’s career track if he or she doesn’t have a degree to back up that experience.

Why certifications won’t be enough
This is not to say that certifications are not worth anything. IT professionals with Microsoft, Sun, Oracle, and other certifications still will find jobs and earn more-than-livable wages. But results-oriented individuals who want to move beyond just technician work will find it’s frustrating and difficult to make that step without a degree.

After working more than 20 years in the defense and medical industries, I have found that it is possible to get a job and advance to a certain point without a degree, but technicians eventually hit a barrier.

This is not to say that every IT job seeker is looking to be a business executive. But having a background that includes some education outside of technology makes the IT professional more desirable, simply because that person can contribute more than technical expertise to the business process.

Not all IT professionals want to participate in the business process. There are many programmers and engineers who admit they like working in the trenches. These people must then evaluate the return on investment with their own ambitions and aspirations: How far does one want to take a career, and at what levels in a career does that person define success?

That group is the minority, though. For those who see themselves being more than technicians, a diploma from an accredited university brings with it better job offers and chances for advancement outside of the IT department. A degree also offers some measure of job security, because a degreed worker will be seen as more multidimensional.

Degrees improve your chances of success
Degrees pave that road to success, even for IT professionals.

The IT job market is not flat nor will it ever subside. But the gold rush days are over. Companies are still going to require certifications, especially to show employers where IT professionals can contribute specific skills, but increasingly they will also require a degree, not just to get the interview but to show a company how the IT professional can contribute to the business’ goals and success.
Previously, TechRepublic featured the comments of an IT professional who contended that certifications are still a sound investment, (see “Does the recent market affect the value of certifications?”) As an IT manager, have current economic conditions affected your criteria for hiring new employees? Do you give more weight to a degree over certifications? Post your comments below.