Looking back over the past couple of years worth of atomic.edu articles, we’ve noticed an obvious bias towards university. TAFE has been mentioned and the value of experience is always acknowledged, but we’re wondering if we’ve overemphasised the importance of going to university. After all, is it really necessary to go to university to get into the information technology industry?
Now before you jump on that point and scurry off to the feedback section of the forums to tell us we couldn’t be more wrong, let us clarify that statement. You don’t need to go to university for some jobs. While having a degree makes getting most jobs in most companies easier – and certainly helps with advancing up the food chain in most companies – it’s not strictly necessary all of the time. For many jobs, a TAFE certificate or diploma is all that’s required. For many networking jobs, experience and ability – coupled, perhaps, with relevant vendor certifications such as Cisco certificates – is all that’s required. Even for some – note the some – development jobs, experience and ability mean a lot more than a piece of paper.
A degree isn’t so much about giving you vast amounts of practical knowledge, but rather giving you a grounding in the theory behind a discipline. Conceptual knowledge over procedural knowledge – that’s university. That theoretical knowledge is undoubtedly a good thing, whether you’re a coder or maintaining a couple of primary schools’ networks. Most employers obviously regard it is as important, but plenty will say they rate demonstrated practical understanding of the material over book smarts. It’s very possible to come out of a three or four year degree, even out of a Masters programme, with all the right answers to the exam questions but no capacity to put that theory into practice and do something tangible.
Okay, we’ve talked around the question enough. Let’s get specific. Say you want to get into an entry-level networking gig. Do you really need to do a three or four year long Bachelor degree first? Not really. There are decent TAFE courses available that will give you a grounding in both the theory and the practical side of setting up and maintaining network hardware and software. Furthermore, there are the afore-mentioned vendor certificates such those offered by Cisco. Many TAFEs and some universities offer these, either as part of a diploma or degree or as a standalone programme. Some certifications, such as the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer range, are very expensive but generally well-regarded. It’s possible to find employment, particularly in networking, with no more than a Cisco certificate to your name, so long as you clearly know what you’re talking about and have the practical ability.
For coding gigs, it depends. As much as some employers will take someone who fits into the team and has a proven ability – shows off a few things they’ve made themselves, knows what they’re talking about – many will expect to see a piece of paper too. Of course, someone who holds a lower level qualification but clearly knows what they’re on about will do better in a recruitment situation than someone who has a higher-level qualification but has no practical ability. Our advice is to couple whatever qualification you do with some experience. Try and get an entry-level job somewhere relevant while you study. If you’re doing a games development course, put together a couple of fun puzzle games while youíre studying. This sort of thing proves you know what you’re doing in a way a piece of paper doesn’t, and also gives you experience in your field, which is desirable to any employer and will give you an edge over other graduates.
Qualifications will usually bump you up a pay grade or two. You may get a job without any qualifications at all or with just a low level qualification, but don’t expect – unless you have many years of experience, perhaps – to get paid as much as someone with a flashier piece of paper. As a general rule, while practical ability is the most important thing of all, even to employers who really want to see that you have good marks in a high level qualification, pieces of paper give you more money and open more doors for you. Depending on what you want to do, how far you want to advance and what kind of company you want to work for, these pieces of paper may need to be issued by a university. There is no hard and fast rule.
So let’s say you decide not to go to do a degree or diploma. Perhaps you’re figuring you’ll try out the industry for a few years first, to see if it’s worth investing several thousand and a few years in a tertiary course. What are your options?
As mentioned earlier, there are the vendor certifications such as those issued by Cisco and Microsoft. These certifications are valued but are, in general, very expensive to get. Which certification(s) you do depends entirely on what you want to do. Look at job ads on websites like seek.com.au to see what you need to have to do what you’re interested in. If you want to work with Microsoft gear, you should obviously be looking at that company’s range of systems engineer certificates. You can study for and attain certifications through TAFE and some specialised institutes – Google will point you in the right direction – but it’s also possible, at least with some of them, to buy the prescribed textbooks online, study the material at your own pace and pay only to sit the exams. You miss out on the practical workshops but if that sort of study works for you, you can save thousands of dollars.
You could also look into a traineeship, although this an option that is usually open only to those fairly fresh out of school. A traineeship is like an apprenticeship – you work for next to nothing for a while and eventually come away with a Certificate II, III or IV in Information Technology or something similar plus experience and, depending on your ability and where you’re working, the opportunity to stick around as a full-fledged employee. Traineeships can range in length from a few months to a couple of years.
This path can work well if you land in a nice company or government department and can deal with the crappy pay, but it’s just as likely, if not more, to see you work as a slave, almost, doing stupid amounts of work for chicken scratch. The kind of experience you get may or may not be valued by potential employers. If you’re in a government department or large company you might be okay but if you’re just assembling and repairing computers for a retailer, forget about it. Also, understand that if you already have a qualification in the field, you won’t be eligible for a traineeship, no matter how long ago you attained that qualification, how crappy your marks were or how often you bothered showing up for class. Don’t even considering lying about it, either: there are ways to find out if you’ve studied before. Before jumping into a traineeship, talk to the company about what exactly you’ll be doing for them. Some companies, such as Telstra (well, Telstra via Excelior) post fairly detailed descriptions of what trainees do on a day-to-day basis on their websites. The low pay may be worth it if you’re going to get lots of useful experience and it’s a company with a lot of room for advancement.
You could also look at just getting an entry-level job. Look into work at call centres and help desks for internet service providers and the like. These positions can serve as foot-in-the-door. Keep in mind, that advancement does become easier if you have a qualification under your belt. With the amount of distance education and part-time arrangements on offer by TAFEs and universities, though, it’s possible to work full-time while you study so long as you’re prepared to put in the effort and have the capacity to manage your time well.
So, back to our central question. It’s not necessary, strictly speaking, to attain a university or even diploma-level qualification before seeking employment. There are numerous ways to get into the industry before, or while, you get your qualification (or even when you have no plans to study) and many employers will consider someone experienced or clearly very capable but with no degree to their name. But qualifications do open doors. The best situation to be in is to have the ability to put your theoretical knowledge into practice, communicate your understanding and to have a diploma or degree too: this is true of entry-level jobs and it’s especially true once you want to move beyond the lowest pay and responsibility grades.