What’s Better: Online IT Certifications or Advanced Degrees?

I’ve been a bit lucky in my career. I graduated in 1981 and quickly got a job creating software at Price Waterhouse. Apart from a couple of layoffs, including six companies going out of business, I’ve spent the last three decades writing software for banking, finance, accounting, and game programming and design companies, as well as working as a software engineer. But over those years, as the technology and job market has continued to change, I’ve noticed that credentialism — the excessive reliance on degrees in determining hiring, promotion and status — is increasing across the board.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, it was possible to get a programming job with an ordinary degree. Now, despite my 31 years of  experience, which includes an impressive skill-set, I can no longer apply for many of the jobs offered because they require a higher degree than mine. These days you won’t get past the recruiter without surmounting that ever rising bar.

Over the last couple of years, there has been a flood of online programs for those of us who are looking to sharpen our skills.  The best of the free online courses are offered by Coursera, Udacity, Edx and Codeacademy. There’s also the University of the People, a nonprofit organization that offers accredited courses for a small membership fee and exam fees of $100 per course. They offer Associate and Bachelor degrees in Computer Science and Business Administration.

I’ve made the online learning leap. I’m currently taking Python for Games programming with Coursera, and I’m really enjoying it. The class takes 7-8 hours a week, over eight weeks and includes an hour of videos, two quizzes and an assigned program to write each week. The program uses their online IDE which runs Python in a browser.

I’d also like to give those of you considering online learning a hot tip. Next year Udacity will be running a course on high performance HTML5 game development. The class is being created and run by Google staff and should fill early.

There’s a plethora of free courses available. Some aren’t that great, so do your research. The biggest issue is that while many of these classes offer in-demand skills, they don’t offer credentials, which may leave you no nearer to getting a job. That’s credentialism in action, as well as a sad irony. Employers say they can’t get enough experienced staff and need more H1B visas to bring in foreign graduates. However, there’s a growing pool of job seekers who may be well qualified for the work and have attained a high level of expertise through their online adventures. It would be a prudent business decision if recruiters and employers would relax their credential standards, acknowledge the advances in online learning and look closer to home.

17 Responses to “What’s Better: Online IT Certifications or Advanced Degrees?”

  1. >Employers say they can’t get enough experienced staff and need more H1B visas to bring in foreign graduates.

    Ironic isn’t it? There’s plenty of talent out there, and lots of opportunity for these employers to verify it, but there are all sorts of govt rules in place to prevent them from talking to your former employers so they have to take your word on your skills. So they try to use bogus (as in unproven) tests to determine how many buzzwords you know. And when you don’t know the buzzwords, you must know nothing about how to build the entire businesses’ computer system that you said you did at the last 5 companies.

    • With all do respect to the foreign policy and all. Staff can be trained; but where are the credentials of these foreign employees. I am a foreigner myself; but I arrive when I was 12. The first one to graduate college with honors in my family. The first to graduate college period. I had a third cousin arrived several years back, took some it courses which the U.S. employer paid for and earns more than I ever did. I am still looking for my professional experience. He has no college degree, he barely made it through High School. Yet I am the one with no job and with 80000 student loan debt. These companies need to take a second look at these candidates. Maybe I should step back ten years and decide not to go to college and take a couple IT classes. Maybe I would be better off; many individuals will who are unemployed might be as well. If Only we could do that.

  2. Dino Londis

    David, do you think credentialism is a subtle form of ageism? Older workers are not likely to have the credential and can’t even apply so the employer doesn’t have to incorporate them into the interview process.

    • Credentialism is just another way for non-accredited companies to make money. Not only that usually the accrediation expires and you have to retest inorder to maintain your ‘certificate’. It’s phoney, it’s a scam.

  3. I must admit its tuff out there now. I read the same story online not enough qualified people to find. I laugh at that because its funny i read on a blog some where where they was looking for someone with a BA and 2-3 years experience for $9.50 an hour.. wtf???? its a joke..

    I have an associates and my CCNA, Net+ and that isnt good enough to move forward into the hiring process for 80% of jobs that are looking for no experience entry level, high school graduate IT personnel. Guess what i get ? Rejection letters.. ( well i had two jobs tell me i wasn’t qualified although they was looking for people with no experience or degrees)..

    Its kinda sad now because now im in my BA and studying CCNP, its in my college curriculum ..I test in December. It will be sad if a CCNP will have to work for free to gain some work experience. I tried applying for intern jobs but some of them already want people with advance knowledge of this or that or a year or two experience with that.. Im looking like is suppose to be an intern job ??????

    Today’s work force is gear for the employer.. Most jobs want someone with 3 years experience with an CCIE .. Or a BA with a CCNP and at least an year experience.. that will get your foot in the door in today’s world. An Associates degree in today world is only good for nurses or the health professional other than that its a paper weight.

    • I am having the same problem. Despite having two business degrees, I was told to take a BA route. Now I am getting, you don’t have the experience. I understand everyone is looking for cheap labor, with all these H1 visas. What about the people who live in this country and actually put a great deal of hard work into earning these degrees? People with no IT background, no language skills are getting the jobs that us Americans should be getting. In fact before you apply for a job, the very first question you are asked is that which visa do you hold?
      I have been out of college for two years, I am still looking for a job.

      • A lot has change since I post my earlier comment, I have Finally gotten into IT, I work tech support for a huge IT company I will not post here, plenty of room to grow. I’m about to leave them in a few days as I wait for a follow up with an networking company my friend got me into, huge upgrade.
        But I’m going to tell you how I was able to get in, I relocated to a bigger city and took less than what I thought I should get, only because that was the only pay grade they were offering. I’m not sure where your located but that is what work for me. And I must say once you get in you are surprise by the amount of unqualified IT you run into regardless if they have visas or not. But good luck in your search if you need any help just email me.

  4. This kind of education or experience run around is what makes me wonder if I am really going to be able to get a job after school. I have the experience, but not in what is hot today for the IT industry. I learn quickly on something new and then the foreign visas come in and I’m out of the running, since I want more than what a foreign visa can offer. Even credibility from an online school versus a brick and mortar school is no match. It makes me sick that I’m wasting my time in going to school for something that is basically catching me up with the current technology and not having any certifications isn’t helping much either.
    Buzzwords are useless unless you can back them up. Companies using this tactic will only be hurting themselves in the long run, since they will eventually have to hire again for the lack of production in a short attention span world.

  5. Jason Lee

    I absolutely disagree with all the comments expressing concern about certifications, ageism, lack of experience etc.

    Let me spell it out for some of you. You want a job, learn to play their game. Do credentials mean much? They COULD, which is your foot in the door. If you are a CCNP with less than 2 years of experience, good luck finding a job. Do not waste your time.. prove yourself first. You know what I did? I busted my tail at $8.00/hr on a second shift helpdesk, when I had my CCNA. After 3 years of doing that garbage, in the trenches, I continued studying. I learned deep level packet analysis, learned how to talk the talk, and used my spare time to walk the walk. When my opportunity came, I was ready, and able to show some skill on the spot.

    The amount of credentialed candidates, who have this elitist attitude with the credentials, are ruining the American job market. You know why? I can count the number of instances where a CCNP level network engineer got hit with a level 1 issue for a company, and he was like a deer in headlights. It is not longer the responsibility of the company to bring you up to speed.. you need to hit the ground running, and don’t complain when the going gets rough. My god, working hard is not a terrible disease. That’s our problem!

    You don’t have experience? Start a blog, discuss your lab environments you are creating and let people give suggestions. Give yourself harder and harder scenarios, and post your failures and successes online. You may get 10 views a month, but 2 of those views maybe someone interested in hiring you.

    Take $500, and go to a tech conference. Wear a suit and tie- its 2012, look like you belong in the business world. Tech people, should figure out that you better make the business LOOK and FUNCTION well.

    I put my $ where my mouth is, and stayed employed during the reception, without taking a pay cut. I spent $ getting certifications, and PROVING during the day I was who I claimed to be.

    For those that are trying hard and coming up short, learn a new skill like marketing. Being able to sell yourself (through talk, through web, through resume, through the phone, etc) is just as important as being so good at technology.

    I find the elitist attitude of some of my peers to be disturbing.

  6. Larry Dennis

    Whenever I see articles like this it frequently brings to mind what the Red Queen said to Alice – “You have to run twice as fast to get anywhere”.

    The other quote that comes to mind is what the farmer said to the guy looking for directions – “You can’t get there from here”.

  7. Well, let me give you my thoughts. But before I do this, I will agree with the comment someone made about BEING IN AN EMPLOYER’S WORLD. This phenomenon is here to stay, not only in the United States but globally as well. Why , you might say? Simple enough.!! Money $$$.

    The degrees should be aquired prior to work (if you can) and the more specific credentials while on the job while gaining actual experience. However, there are so many levels of IT layers that not everything is created equal. It really depends at which level you operate. A technician is not at the same level as a Manager or a Director. Will an employer ask a Director to have a Master’s Degree, I would say yes. So it all depends. I work as a contractor (Lead InfoSec Architecture) for a large global corporation because I lost my job 4 years ago when the economy took a dive. I am looking for another opportunity but at a higher level but its not easy and my experience has both technical, consulting and compliance elements. Ahhh yes the Degrees…A B.S in Information Systems, an MBA (Info Systems Concentration), a Master of Science in Information Security and Assurance and a Master of Science in Information Systems…Ahh I also teach part time Information Security courses for an online University….. Do you think its easy to get a good technical management Job? Think again…..Many will “scream”, overqualified BUT thats not the case.

  8. Well to give an update I landed my first IT gig in March. Pretty much a help desk job with a major computer company. They have room for growth and the pay is twice as much I made at my old job. I must admit my degree had a major role to play in this job. Everyone in my hiring class had at least an A.A.S , military exp, or pure experience. Any advice I can give anyone who is trying to break into IT is to network yourself or target large cities.