Teen techies chuck college for jobs

While most IT experts agree that a college degree is important, some teens are choosing higher salaries over higher education. In this week's Tech Watch, Bob Weinstein shares the success story of one IT whiz who skipped college and didn't regret it.

Kit Mobley is only 20 years old, and he’s well on his way to becoming a millionaire. His goal is to retire when he hits age 25. I’ll bet he achieves that goal.

Mobley’s life changed when his parents bought him a Commodore 64/128 computer at age 11. The moment he booted up his computer, he was addicted—an instantaneous convert. Computers became his obsession. As soon as he came home from school, he could be found hunched over his keyboard downloading software or writing code until three or four o’clock in the morning. On weekends, he practically worked around the clock. “If I could have created an eighth day, I would have,” he jokes.
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Mobley is a self-taught geek. By age 12, he had taught himself how to program, and when he was 16 years old, he launched the Web site design company When he wasn’t in school, he was designing Web sites and making decent money in the bargain.

By the time he graduated from high school, he was proficient in Visual Basic and Web-based programming languages CGI (Common Gateway Interface), ASP (Active Server Pages), Java, and JavaScript. And he was earning more than $15,000 a year from his part-time Web site design business.

Mobley had the next five years planned, and college wasn’t part of it. “I didn’t see any point in going to college when I could be out in the world making a lot of money building Web sites,” he says. But he bowed to parental pressure and agreed to give the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale a try. All it took was one lecture to convince him it was a waste of time. “The professor was teaching Flash [software used for developing multimedia Web sites] that I had mastered three years earlier,” says Mobley.

So much for Mobley’s brief college stint. Now he’s the technical director at Twin Teach, Inc., a company that makes interactive CD-ROMs in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. He earns $40,000 at Twin Teach and another $70,000 running

How valuable is that sheepskin?
Mobley isn’t alone. Even though teens represent a tiny fraction of the IT workforce, the number of teen techies forsaking college for work increases each year. The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics reports that there were 36,000 16-year-olds to 19-year-olds working in the data processing and computer industries in 2000 compared to 30,000 in 1999. But that number accounts for only a tiny percentage of the total 7.3 million 16-year-old to 19-year-old population employed in 2000.

Many experts argue that ultimately a college degree is essential for building a career. “I wouldn’t discourage young people from moonlighting,” says Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITTA), an Arlington, VA-based trade association representing technology companies. “But you have to think long term,” he says. “Ultimately, their long-term career options are limited because they lack business and communication skills as well as life experience, which is critical for success.”

Then there is Wayne Hulehan, information systems director at the 4-H national headquarters in Chevy Chase, MD. Hulehan has been hiring teen techies for years for special projects. He maintains most teen techies are at the cutting edge of the technology curve and are often a step ahead of the educational system.

“The culture is changing, and we ought to get beyond thinking that it takes a college degree to forge a career,” Hulehan adds. “Not everyone can afford to go to college. Many teens are spending between $1,000 and $10,000 for MCSE [Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer] or Cisco certification and getting jobs paying $45,000 to $60,000 a year.”

Still, Mobley is the exception, not the rule. Not only does he have enormous technical expertise, but he’s also entrepreneurial and has been getting life experience since he was 16 years old.

Yet even Hulehan advises the teen techies he’s worked with to go back to school, learn business skills, and find out how the global economy works. “It’s important to balance your life,” he says. “Once you’ve worked for several years, it’s a good idea to take some courses or even get a degree from a two- or four-year college.”

Going beyond convention
College or work? It depends upon the person. Yes, balance is important, but as Hulehan points out, it’s time to get beyond the conventional notion that a college education is good for everyone. Many enterprising technical whizzes have launched wildly successful companies without getting a college diploma. For examples, look no further than billionaires Bill Gates and Michael Dell.
Are tech-savvy teens held back by slowly evolving academic programs? Or does college provide a broad-based education that even technologists need? Is the role of college changing for people just starting a career? Let us know your thoughts. Post a comment below or send us an e-mail.

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