Everyone knows that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Larry Ellison became tech billionaires without the benefit of a college degree. What about on the front lines? Does a high school grad hell-bent on technology as a career, specifically IT infrastructure, need to go to college? And should you consider taking a chance on a tech prodigy right out of high school?
This is a situation that seems to be getting more common and based on feedback from those who have pulled the trigger on young employees, there are some success stories. It may make sense for you, and for the kid you hire.
College Value Lagging: With college costs far outpacing the rate of inflation, and wages lagging, there is broad agreement that for the student, a college degree likely doesn’t possess the value it once had.
Only half of all college grads in a Gallup-Purdue University study of college graduates “strongly agree” that their education was worth what they paid. Among those who graduated in the past decade, from 2006-2015, only 38% strongly agreed that they got their money’s worth. As you would expect, those who graduated with student loans to repay were less satisfied with their investment than those who graduated debt free.
A Goldman Sachs research note in early December reported that in 2010 students could expect to break even within eight years of graduating, which has now reached nine years. They project that if current tuition and wage trends continue, a student who starts college in 2030 may not reach the breakeven point for about 15 years.
STEM Majors Most Valuable: While the economics of college are trending against the student, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills are certainly more marketable than an art history degree. One study ranking the most marketable majors lists computer information systems and software engineering degrees as among the most valuable, and both of those certainly are welcome in various data center, cloud computing and IT infrastructure environments.
While research seems to indicate a college degree is not the no-brainer financially that it once was, there is a strong likelihood that STEM majors, and computer-oriented majors in particular, will have employers lining up with solid offers for the right candidates.
The Specific Skill Sets of Infrastructure: Even with an undergraduate degree, there is something of a void in specific IT infrastructure education. Colleges and universities have closed that gap with specific cloud computing concentrations in computer science programs, but data center and IT infrastructure graduates are not being produced at the pace that employers would like.
With more demand than supply, many employers are looking for smart technologists with a willingness to learn. At Amazon Web Services re:Invent conference in December, many enterprises attended specifically to look for potential engineers with specialized knowledge in architecting and operating applications within AWS environments, a qualification that they likely cared about more than the possession of a college degree.
Learning on the Job: Asked about his lack of a college degree, Bill Gates once answered: “The best way to prepare [to be a programmer] is to write programs, and to study great programs that other people have written.”
With more demand than qualified applicants, why wouldn’t an employer be interested in having a smart kid who is willing to learn? There’s an advantage to hiring the right young person and instilling in them from Day 1 the way that your organization operates. Not having to “unlearn” bad habits can be helpful.
Maturity Required: An 18 or 19-year old probably has some moments that he or she would wish they were hanging out on campus without much in the way or real life responsibility, but chances are the decision they’ve made shows a seriousness of purpose and a logical thought process.
But they are still young, and in their first professional job. The step from high school to a professional environment is a big one. Missteps are possible, and even to be expected. It is likely that giving them a little more leeway than an experienced employee will occasionally be necessary.
A Real Trend? Meaningful data on employees going from high school directly into data center and cloud computing is hard to come by. But those who have done so seem to be pleased with their decisions and the results. Enthusiasm, the ability to educate from scratch, and buying low on a young talent are all potential benefits to the employer.
The employee is likely doing what he or she wants to do, may be making $40-$60K per year instead of spending the same amount on tuition and fees, and gets a meaningful head start on his contemporaries. When the collegians are looking for a job the four-year veteran has professional accomplishments to discuss and a four-year lead on a promising career.
There are reasons to go to college, including personal growth, developing better social skills, gaining leadership experience within campus organizations, big picture thinking from STEM professors, and gaining an alumni network.
But if the clear goal for a young person is the highly specialized world of IT infrastructure, data center, and cloud, heading right into the work force may be worth considering.