Here’s the Degree Employers Really Want You to Have

You need education to land a suitable job in tech. But should you obtain that education via a traditional route (such as a four-year college degree) or a combination of online courses and self-teaching? That’s a complicated question, and the answer hinges largely on what areas of tech interest you as a professional.

In broadest strokes, however, employers want technologists who have a bachelor’s degree, at least according to Burning Glass, which collects and analyzes millions of job postings.    

Between July and September, some 346,282 postings for information technology jobs called out the need for a bachelor’s degree—nearly half (48.9 percent) for roles that required 3 to 5 years experience. That’s far ahead of those jobs asking for master’s degrees (94,095), doctoral degrees (20,671), associate’s degrees (26,088), and high school or vocational training (29,156). Take a look at this handy visualization:

As you might expect, percentages and numbers fluctuate on a quarter-by-quarter basis, but BAs hold such a lead over other educational attainments that it’s clear many employers treat these degrees as the default, no matter what experience level they want to go with it.

But that data also seems to run contrary to a growing trend in tech. For example, companies such as Apple and IBM have increasingly signaled a preference for those who actually know how to do the required tasks—regardless of what degrees they might hold. For instance, earlier this year, at an American Workforce Policy Advisory Board Meeting, Apple CEO Tim Cook suggested that about half of Apple employees don’t have a degree, and the company is “proud of that.” 

Of course, many developers have already gone through the traditional education track. According to the most recent Stack Overflow Developer Survey, 45.3 percent of respondents earned a bachelor’s degree, while 12.2 percent had attended some university/college, and 3.4 percent had earned an associate’s degree. Although a significant percentage (22.7 percent) had secured a master’s degree, relatively few had either a professional degree (1.4 percent) or doctorate (2.8 percent). (This aligns with the Burning Glass data, which doesn’t feature many job postings demanding all applicants have a PhD.)

A degree isn’t necessarily indicative that a job candidate will have the right skills, though: HackerRank’s annual developer survey found that college graduates weren’t taught the languages and frameworks that employers actually need. And while nearly a third (32 percent) of those respondents relied entirely on university to teach them what they needed to know, some 27 percent reported being self-taught—suggesting that many technologists decided to learn something on their own after not getting what they needed in school.

So what can we conclude from Burning Glass’s data? If you have the right mix of skills, you can certainly land a job in tech—especially given the current unemployment rate in the tech industry. Nonetheless, many employers are still slapping a bachelor’s degree as a requirement in their job postings—and it’s on a case-by-case basis whether they’ll prove flexible about it. If you don’t have the right educational requirements for a position, you might be able to land it by emphasizing your experience and previous jobs/projects.  

6 Responses to “Here’s the Degree Employers Really Want You to Have”

  1. Yeah but a bachelor’s degree in what? Under water basket weaving? I work with people that have bachelor’s degrees in business, psychology, and sociology, and they hold several IT certificates that make them very valuable to our company. This article was lazy and pretty worthless. Degrees are nothing more than $35k paper. To bad employers can’t see this.

  2. JackandJi

    I think simply having a diploma isn’t enough. The most important factors is achievement such as awards or recognition. If a person didn’t obtain a bachelor’s degree but have worked extensively and awarded “employee of the year”, that means a lot. If a person went to college and obtained a degree, graduating at the top 5% of the entire graduating class also means a lot. These things show that a person have exceptional work ethic or exceptional intelligence or both.

  3. Harold Hill Morford

    Well, OK, Hell Yes everyone wants to be in the top, what was it, 5% but what if your a genius? A poor genius. I got my start in the Army, did pretty well. Taught communication equipment repair for a couple of years. Left the Army and taught mainframe installation and repair. So I just teach myself what ever I need. But that history is just dust. It doesn’t mean anything. What means something is graduating from a BIG NAME collage at the top 5% two years ago. The rest of us just eat dust.