Apple CEO Reminds Us Tech Degrees Aren’t Delivering Necessary Skills

Apple CEO Tim Apple Tim Cook has a reminder for us: Tech degrees might be a waste of time.

At the most recent American Workforce Policy Advisory Board Meeting, Cook noted about half of Apple employees don’t have a degree, and the company is “proud of that.” He also isolated “coding” as a skill Apple believes can be mastered without a degree, and that kids should have proficiency in it before leaving high school. From Cook:

…we’ve never really thought that a college degree was the thing that you had to have to do well. We’ve always tried to expand our horizons.

And so that degree — about half of our U.S. employment last year were people that did not have a four-year degree. And we’re very proud of that, but we want to go further.

And so to that end, as we’ve looked at the — sort of, the mismatch between the skills that are coming out of colleges and what the skills are that we believe we need in the future, and many other businesses do, we’ve identified coding as a very key one.

And we believe strongly that it should be a requirement in the United States for every kid to have coding before they graduate from K-12, and become somewhat proficient at it.

(One thing to keep in mind with Cook’s comments: He’s speaking of Apple’s entire workforce, which includes Apple Store employees. We’re sure some Apple Store staffers hold degrees, but you don’t need a degree to work in retail.)

Cook went on to highlight Apple’s push into coding education with services for teachers, as well as apps such as Swift Playgrounds. He’s making the case for Apple services, but also suggesting software developers don’t always need to go to university. Overall, his stance is that the next generation should have some ingrained proficiency in programming, thanks to some combination of self-teaching, high-school education, and other sources.

Cook isn’t alone. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty – who was at the same advisory board meeting as Cook (but offered nothing substantive) – spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland earlier this year. At that event, she commented on the same skills gap, noting: “I think businesses have to believe I’ll hire for skills, not just their degrees or their diplomas. Because otherwise we’ll never bridge this gap.”

HackerRank’s annual developer survey underscores Rommety and Cook’s position. It found that college graduates weren’t being taught the languages and frameworks employers need; 32 percent of its respondents relied entirely on university to teach them what they needed to know, while 27 percent reported being self-taught. (An even higher number, 38 percent, combined schooling and self-learning.)

As a study from DigitalOcean points out, tech bootcamp graduates feel far more prepared for the ‘real world’ than college degree holders (61 percent to 36 percent, respectively).

And if you want still more evidence, the Dice Salary Survey proves the point that skills matter more than degrees. The average tech pro earns $93,244 annually, but adding a skill like GoLang can help you earn $132,827 per year. (When HackerRank asked students which languages they planned to learn outside of school, GoLang also ranked near the top.)

You could make a viable argument that university curriculums move far too slowly for tech. We told you a college degree might be unnecessary in 2015. And 2016. 2017, too. 2018? Check. Now it’s 2019, and we’re seeing the strongest signs that skills matter in tech, not degrees. Many tech jobs still ask for a degree, and that’ll help get you hired – but skills will keep you employed, and paid well.

14 Responses to “Apple CEO Reminds Us Tech Degrees Aren’t Delivering Necessary Skills”

  1. What a joke! Tim APPLE wants the public to BLAME US workers for him “needing” cheap foreign h1b’s ..those willing to LIE to get the job. Tim APPLE should be willing to go live in the country he supports and that isn’t the United States.

  2. Jeff Silverman

    Of course Tim Cook advances same line pushed by Bill Gates – everyone can code, everyone needs to be taught coding and don’t bother with college degree. Very self-serving, disingenuous and meant to fool people outside of IT, particularly policy makers. This is obviously to commoditize IT skills, but also to push stale narrative that there is shortage of IT skills in US to disorient young generation and policymakers while lobbying for more H1-B visa. I’ve been in industry for over 25 years and I am amazed how, in spite of dramatic pace of changes in technology, my CS college degree is still very relevant to me. Particularly during interviews. Yes, someone can just learn a popular language de-jour without college degree to land a job, but in my observation those people are unable to sustain careers in IT due to lack of fundamental CS knowledge. Once that language or particular tech is deprecated they usually struggle to move on. And whether you think it is relevant or not to your job, If you go to interviews you still are very likely to be asked such basic fundamental things like data structures (stacks, queues, trees, maps, etc), algos (quick, merge sort, etc..) and simple relational DB design (put two relational tables and do SQL on them). This is all stuff of college CS degrees even if you don’t care about being well rounded and well educated person in general as its own merit.

  3. James Igoe

    Although there is some griping from others about H1B’s, Job’s was supposedly big on liberal arts degrees. My first undergrad was for CS – for funding reasons didn’t finish – and later wound up with a liberal arts degree. I was still able to use my coding skills in the social sciences, mostly for statistical work on my small-scale studies. Later, although working in tech, I often coded automation in various scripting languages and tools. I never did complete the CS degree, and finished only half an MBA – again, funding issues – and am largely self-taught bolstered by broad experience, extensive reading, and numerous projects, but I think my general knowledge has been useful. My background covers business analysis, UI/coding, project management, and leadership, all of which are useful for successful tech implementations and environments, so depending on the focus of Cook’s comments, one can see how a terch degree isn’t necessary. Many of these roles cover general abilities where tech is not necessarily the most important understanding.

    • Exactly! I once worked with a senior software engineer (senior level)…pretty sure she had an H1B. She had her master’s degree (in fact she had only recently taken a break from pursing her phd) and a few years of experience. She left for a job at Apple where they offered her a position in tech support! TECH SUPPORT! At that moment I knew, ok…I’m never applying to Apple!

  4. Most of the younger developers have no people skills. How is it that these companies claim to value diversity but they want everyone to be cloned coders? You can learn coding using bootcamps easily, but can you can’t teach real leadership. The “gap” in tech skills is also nonsense.

    • Agreed, and if you are unfortunate enough to be interviewed by one, you are 1. Not going to get the job, because they want other H1Bs, and 2. Even if your answer is correct, but not their memorized answer from CTCI or the coding practice websites, they mark you as highly unqualified. It’s insulting and degrading. I had an interview at MS and nailed the question, but because it wasn’t the answer the interviewer was looking for, down to the variable, he marked me down and my recruiter informed me I had received the lowest possible score for that interview and was stated to have no understanding. It was racially and personally motivated and no bearing on my ability. And it was the classic rotated array, with the unsorted twist. Binary search then iterate as necessary.

    • This is getting very sick


      I got an interview with Apple IT Manager, the dude is from India, wells and the temp. agency also form Indian, the asked me my citizenship to work here. I told them that,,,and that,,,. you know US Citizen. not only they asked for a Degree and then asked me for Certificates and then Experiences.s.SS. The IT manager told me that he very happy with the interview and will get back to me in two weeks. The temp agency also get an cc email as well, he forward me same info. – I am not sure what happen, I did not get a job there at Apple. and I am not sure what the CEO is saying right now

    • Marsha Davis

      Agreed. My response is a little off topic but I felt compelled to speak out about what I’ve experienced at Apple and other large organizations. I have three degrees (2 of the 3 have concentrations in a technical discipline), I’m pretty proficient in SQL and I’ve contracted at Apple for about 9 months. With all that under my belt I still have difficulty landing a permanent job. Employers want you to have all the bells and whistles but still don’t want to pay you what you’re worth. So it really worth in the long run to spend all your time and money getting degrees when they may not even help you land that job?

  5. Higher education develops critical thinking skills. Such employers do not want well rounded employees that can think for themselves, just code drones grateful to have a job. The quality produced of discount labor is evident and dangerous. It has been made increasingly difficult to obtain an education, when that should be a priority investment.

  6. Brad Adams

    Education (book smarts) are good but real world knowledge and drive (street smarts) goes along ways! That is what I think TC is stating. I would love to work for Apple but they may be too book smart driven nowadays. I do not think that way.

  7. University degrees are NOT vocational degrees – they are NOT the way to develop marketand -ready skills, but should make the degree holder ready to understand and use workplace tools. BIG difference Mr Cook. Anyone can ‘learn’ how to code – but can they explain why or what the code is doing or how it should work better? Any employer knows this truth but the cost of a foreign worker is so much lower… At this point, I have a job not because I can code in all the tools, but because I UNDERSTAND things. And that is the value of a degree for the employer.