Is a degree still necessary to get ahead in IT?

With apprenticeships offering on-the-job training and no student debt to deal with, new paths are opening up for candidates and recruiters

This article originally appeared in January's edition of IT Pro 20/20, available here. To sign up to receive each new issue in your inbox, click here.

It could be said the number of life-changing decisions you have to make during your tender teenage years is unreasonable. Trusting a freshly minted adult to make the right career decision, the repercussions of which could be felt for the next 50 years, is absurd when you think about it: They’ve only just been legally trusted to open a bank account!

However, the decision of whether to pursue higher education or not, at least in the world of IT, is becoming less crucial – and less black and white – than it has been in the past.

Once scoffed at with derision, apprenticeships and the more contemporary degree apprenticeships are rapidly becoming not only a viable alternative to the more academic degree acquired through painstaking hours in a university library, but a sought-after one in the industry.

So which route should aspiring IT professionals take? And what do employers think?

Degrees vs. apprenticeships: what’s the difference?

The main difference between the two routes into work is the learning model. University has been the traditional route into the IT industry for decades and for those looking to bolster a CV with a prestigious qualification, nothing else has compared.

It’s not a cheap route, either. At the time of writing £9,250 buys you a year of frolicking around a strange city with new people, but it also resigns you to serious hard work. From lecture theatres to seminars and tutorials, plus coursework and exams, anyone choosing this route will have to fit their fun – and any casual jobs to supplement their meagre student loan – around a lot of study on campus and at home.

On the other hand, apprentices can expect much less bookwork and a more hands-on approach to learning. It will involve choosing a specialism early on and then working in that field while being taught everything about the job, starting from the basics. 

Degree apprenticeships meld the two paths and involve attending university lectures once a week to help with the theoretical understanding of the job, but most of the learning will be in the field and solving real problems alongside other technology apprentices.

Career prospects and preparedness for work

Traditionally, university degrees were regarded as the pinnacle of achievement and the qualification of choice if you wanted the best chance of getting a professional job. But attitudes are changing, especially in the field of IT, and not just because the industry is in dire need of talent.

Instead there’s an increasing recognition that after a little time in the job, a person’s educational background becomes less and less relevant.

“Just from the grapevine and what you tend to hear from our hiring managers in the early career space is that once [young employees] hit that three-year experience mark, the importance of their degree certification, whether it's a history degree or computer science degree, almost becomes obsolete and insignificant,” says Dan Doherty, graduate and apprentice attraction and recruitment manager at Capgemini.

In addition, if the role is particularly technical, such as a software engineer, then university graduates are already down three-to-four years on apprentices in terms of industry experience by the time they reach the point of applying for an entry-level job, says Doherty.

Fujitsu’s EMEIA head of junior talent, Nick White, has a similar outlook. “With our graduate recruitment, we had done some analysis which investigated whether people who get firsts outperform those who don’t get firsts in our organisation and there was no real correlation,” he says. “So, just because you're good academically doesn't always mean that you will be a great performer in the organisation and in the world of work.”

However, White adds that although apprentices may have the interpersonal workplace skills that university graduates lack when they first enter the workforce, often apprentices are taken on at earlier ages and therefore require more pastoral care while under the company’s watch. 

“I think apprenticeships are a viable alternative [to a degree], but I wouldn’t necessarily favour one over the other,” he adds.

Finances and the future

The beauty of the technology industry is that it’s so entrepreneurial and it doesn’t matter which route you took to get into the industry, the hardest workers will always be rewarded. Doherty says Capgemini’s degree apprentices who graduated in 2011 and 2012 have already gone on to get “six-to-seven promotions”, leading teams and entire areas of the business.

From the financial point of view, given equal opportunities within a company a motivated degree apprentice’s situation will be markedly better than a university graduate’s in the earlier years of a career. With no student loan to pay back, they keep the entirety of their net salary, whereas a university graduate will be paying a loan back for years – even decades – after finishing their studies. 

But as White says, there probably isn’t one route which is more attractive than the other to an employer, which means the decision ultimately comes down to what best suits the individual. And for recruiters, the opening up of new routes into the tech industry means there’s an even larger pool of talent to choose from, giving the opportunity to hire people who are highly adept but may previously have found the need for a university degree and insurmountable challenge.

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