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An unnecessary path to tech: A bachelor's degree

New York report highlights the size of the non-degreed tech workforce in the city

April 14, 2014 06:33 AM ET

Computerworld - Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Edward Snowden all launched tech careers without four-year college degrees, and that may be true for a large percentage of techies.

A study of New York's tech workforce found that 44% of jobs in the city's "tech ecosystem," or 128,000 jobs, "are accessible" to people without a bachelor's degree. The category covers any job that is enabled by, produced or facilitated by technology.

For instance, a technology specific job that doesn't require a bachelor's degree might be a computer user support specialist, earning $28.80 an hour, according to this study. That job requires an associate degree.

Tech industry jobs that do not require a four-year degree include customer services representatives, at $18.50 an hour, telecom line installer, $37.60 an hour, and sales representatives, $33.60 an hour. Those jobs offer on-the job training.

The estimated number of jobs that require an associate degree, or on-the-job training, is based on what the job requires. The study did not look at "who is actually sitting in those jobs and whether people are under-employed," said Kate Wittels, a director at HR&A Advisors, a real-estate and economic-development consulting firm, and author of the report The New York City Tech Ecosystem.

About 75% of the 25 employees who work at New York Computer Help in Manhattan have bachelor's degrees, according to Joe Silverman, who owns the Manhattan-based repair and IT services firm. Of those with bachelor's degrees, about half have IT-related degrees. The balance hold degrees in a broad range of disciplines, including businesses and liberal arts.

Silverman said he looks for experience first, and tends to hire people with at least 15 years in the business, enough to handle any type of customer problem. While he acknowledges that many employees have either a four or two-year degree, he doesn't believe one is critical.

"When they have the degree it helps, it adds credibility," and shows discipline, said Silverman, "but I feel that the experience plus direct certifications speaks higher than just the typical general degree."

Within the support industry, Silverman said today more people without a four-year degree are seeking work. Applicants are likely to just have certifications and experience because the work has gotten much more specialized, he said, citing Web design.

"I think it's more important nowadays to look for direct experience as well as certifications more so than a generalized degree," said Silverman.

The reason for focusing on building the tech ecosystem jobs concerns wages, said Wittels.

Workers in New York's tech ecosystem earn 49% more in hourly wages than the average worker in the city. A retail service clerk and a help desk person may have the same educational attainment, whether it's on-the-job training or an Associate's degree, but a retail worker "is paid significantly less on average," said Wittels.

Overall, the report found that nearly 300,000 people in New York are employed in the tech ecosystem. That includes people with technical skills who work in non-tech industries, such as health care, financial services, and retail.

Citi, which along with Google, were among the groups backing the report, directly employs nearly 17,000 people in New York City, of which 1,860 were part of tech ecosystem as defined by the study.

The study's assessment of education needs also matches national trends. Web developers, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, only require associate's degree, but earn $62,500.

Computer support specialist don't necessarily need a post-secondary degree, and pay ranges from $46,400 to nearly $60,000 for computer network support specialists, according to federal data.

Employment of computer support specialists -- 722,500 in 2012 -- is expected to grow 17% to 845,000 jobs by 2020, according to government data.

covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed Thibodeau RSS. His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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