‘Degree inflation’ has long been a cause of concern: for workers, economists, governments, and others.
It refers to the fact that a university degree has gradually become a prerequisite for an increasing range of employment roles.
In January 2021, a BBC article asked: “How did a four-year degree become compulsory for nearly every job – and could the need to reboot the economy help tackle this problem?”
Degree inflation is much less of a problem in the IT sector.
The simple fact is, there are nowhere near enough skilled professionals coming out of universities to fulfill all the IT roles needed in Australian organisations, especially in areas such as cyber security.
The belief that a degree is a prerequisite to an IT career is a myth that needs busting.
In fact, we now need to consider the opposite principle of “degree deflation”.
A recent report by market research firm IDC notes that in a 'degree deflated' world, IT organisations could expect to have an easier time locating and hiring candidates, therefore reducing the impact of IT skills gaps.
There have been other moves taken at the highest levels to counter degree inflation in IT.
IBM Chairman, President and CEO, Ginny Rometty, wrote an open letter to then president-elect Donald Trump in November 2016, coining the term ‘new collar’ for “entirely new roles in areas such as cybersecurity, data science, artificial intelligence and cognitive business.”
She elaborated: “Getting a job at today’s IBM does not always require a college degree. … What matters most is relevant skills, sometimes obtained through vocational training.”
Many IT executives share this view, suggesting that, in IT at least, degree deflation is well and truly underway.
Global Knowledge’s 2020 Skills and Salary Report, based on responses from over 9,500 IT professionals across 159 countries, found a relevant degree to be the main focus of just two percent of IT managers.
There is a ‘renewed emphasis on degree deflation, which suggests that relevant training and certification should be emphasised more highly during the hiring process’.
The fact is, IT managers are desperately trying to attract talent in a highly competitive climate, with job positions often staying open for months on end without any suitable candidates applying.
As a result, IT managers have adopted the age-old sentiment of ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ – the vast majority are no longer requiring candidates to have undertaken a lengthy university degree.
They just want access to real-world skills and experience.
A university degree is no substitute for real skills and experience developed on the job.
So, the question is, what training and education should IT professionals be undertaking instead of traditional bachelor degrees?
The answer is industry and vendor certifications; shorter courses offering highly targeted and in-demand skillsets in areas such as cloud computing and cyber security.
Global Knowledge identified almost unanimous support for industry certifications from its respondents, with 94 per cent of decision-makers worldwide saying that certified team members provide added value above and beyond the cost of certification.
Over half of those surveyed estimate the annual economic benefit of a certified employee is more than $US10,000.
Sixteen per cent estimate the benefit is $US30,000 or higher.
Respondents also reported the skills gained via certification provide a tremendous amount of transferrable value to other team members.
Aside from the many benefits industry certifications offer to organisations, IT professionals are clearly on board as well, with respondents experiencing two main certification benefits: better job performance and higher salaries.
Over half of IT professionals said the quality of their work improved, while one-third found their work more engaging post-certification.
Another 15 per cent said they made fewer errors.
It’s not hard to make a case for career pathways other than university in the IT sector.
For the student, the perceived benefits of a university degree (entering employment at a higher level and receiving a higher salary) must be weighed up against the reality of earning little or no income during the three- or four-year study period, and, in Australia, running up a significant HECS debt.
And in today’s rapidly evolving IT industry, a university curriculum centred on a multi-year degree can never hope to be as up to date as short courses and industry certifications, which are updated continuously as new technologies enter the market.
In addition, those individuals that enter the IT workforce years earlier than their counterparts with university degrees, earn far more real-world experience and soft skills required for a successful career during that time, such as teamwork, communication and the ability to deal with crises.
Locally, research undertaken by IT Professionals Australia suggests employers share these views and do not see a university degree as the best starting point for a career in IT.
Its ICT Professionals Employment and Remuneration Report 2020-21, found: ‘Employment prospects for IT graduates remain lukewarm with many IT graduates struggling to find full-time work following graduation and a significant number working in areas not related to their qualification. Employers have also suggested that they struggle to find IT graduates with suitable skills suggesting a mismatch between what is being taught in IT degrees and the needs of industry.’
At this stage, there are simply not enough skilled professionals to fill IT skills gaps in Australia – and university degrees are far from the best way to fix this gap.
As a compelling report from the Institute for Working Futures and IBM notes, many IT and STEM roles in general neither require nor benefit from employees completing a three- or four-year bachelor degree that may not place equal emphasis on technical and non-technical human capabilities.
In other words, non-university education options are a better fit for many IT careers.
We must recalibrate our understanding of education and move away from the traditional perspective that university degrees are the superior option.
Only then can we start to widen the talent pipeline and address the long-term supply and demand imbalances in our IT and cyber security sectors specifically.
Jon Lang is the CEO of DDLS, an Australian corporate IT and process trainer.