There’s been some reporting lately about major tech companies hiring people based on skills rather than degrees. For example, Allana Ahktar’s article “Apple, Google, and Netflix don’t require employees to have 4-year degrees, and this could soon become an industry norm” written for Business Insider makes this point. While this reporting is accurate, I think a little context and nuance is needed here.
First, hiring non-degreed people isn’t a new thing in tech fields. My father is a retired electrical engineer. He last worked for Aerospace Corporation on design for GPS satellites. By his accounts, he’s known people since the 1950s getting engineering jobs without degrees. In fact, he started out that way himself. He discovered through luck and circumstance that he had a knack for electrical engineering design while he was still living in NYC (without a degree), successfully executed several designs, and then relocated to California where he worked as an engineer. Interestingly, once he arrived in California, he had the pleasure of working for a company that was manufacturing a product based on his design — he saw the designs they were working from with his name on it. But, despite already having a job, he still went to school to earn his engineering degree, graduating from Cal State with a B.S. in Engineering.
So before we start talking about “not needing a degree becoming a norm,” we need to know that it has always been a norm, or at least a regular practice. Tech firms have been hiring people without degrees since the 1950s, so it’s no surprise that computer tech firms today are no different. But we also need to know why my Dad went ahead and got an engineering degree anyhow, even though he already had a job. While he knew that he could do the work, he saw firsthand brilliant engineers who were stuck because they didn’t have degrees. They would get a job, get some raises, but then had no professional mobility because they didn’t have a degree: no other company would hire them at the same rate of pay without the degree. And once they hit that point, they quit getting raises. Not having a degree placed a lower ceiling on their wages.
That’s because it’s easier to get hired and promoted if you have a degree. When you’re young, you’re thinking only about getting that first job where you can prove yourself. But we need to think more long term than that. If a company has a choice between two people who look like they can do the same job, but only one of them is degreed, who do you think they’re going to hire? So yes, you can get a job in tech without a degree. But that also places a cap on your wages and professional mobility, because you know the answer to that question. Given two equally capable people, the degreed person will always get the job first.
And that’s not just true in tech industries, but across the boards. That’s why a 2002 federal government study confirmed that people with college degrees earn 75% more over the course of their lives than people with just a high school education: “A 2002 Census Bureau study estimated that in 1999, the average lifetime earnings of a Bachelor’s degree holder was $2.7 million (2009 dollars), 75 percent more than that earned by high school graduates in 1999.” By 2009, that gap increased from 75% to 84% more in lifetime earnings.
Yes, getting a degree matters. Get that first job if you can. But start working toward that degree while you’re working at the job too.