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You Don't Need a Degree to Work In Tech, and That's Good News

Not only do the majority of STEM jobs in New York City not require a bachelor’s degree, they pay better too.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently visited P-TECH, a nontraditional high school in New York that prepares students directly for work. Image: IBM

You don’t need a bachelor’s degree to work in the tech sector—not in New York City, at least.

A new study published about the city’s technology workforce found that roughly 44 percent of science, technology, engineering, and math jobs in the city require at least a bachelor’s degree. 

Though it doesn’t outright say it, the headline of a New York Times story from this morning about the report ("Half of New York’s Tech Workers Lack College Degrees, Report Says") spins the news as if it’s somehow a bad or unsustainable thing. It’s not. It’s wonderful news for the economy and the job prospects of people who either can’t or won’t get a STEM bachelor’s degree but still want a highly paid, skilled job. And it’s also evidence that some of the city’s workforce training and college alternative programs are beginning to work. 

Thought leaders, economists, President Obama, and college faculty-types have spent much of the past decade hammering home the fact that if the US doesn’t rapidly expand its STEM workforce capability, we’re going to get left in the dust by countries such as China and India. Every couple of weeks, there’s a new report suggesting that students who don’t go into STEM are doomed. For a while, lots of people thought that meant you had to get a master’s degree in computer science or engineering. That’s turned out to not be the case.

“Many tech ecosystem jobs only require short-term or long-term on-the-job training. By removing the barrier of a college degree, opportunities in the tech ecosystem can potentially empower the 2.89 million New Yorkers ages 25 to 64 who do not hold Bachelor’s degrees,” the report states. 

Not only are there plenty of STEM jobs available for people without bachelor’s degrees (roughly 128,000 in New York), those jobs pay an average of $27.75 an hour, about 45 percent higher than non-tech jobs with similar requirements.

Image: The New York City Tech Ecosystem

Companies and schools are learning that most of the skills needed to be a competent employee come from on-the-job training rather than from sitting in a classroom all day. That’s why companies like IBM have bought into alternative ways of filling jobs. For the last couple years, IBM has been directly hiring employees from P-TECH, an alternative, public high school in Brooklyn where students agree to stay two years after their senior year in order to intern at companies and earn an associate’s degree. The original school has been so popular that five similar schools popped up in Chicago, and New York State just announced it would be opening 16 additional P-TECH schools around the state

New York City isn’t unique—there are tech jobs for people without bachelor’s degrees all around the country, at scrappy startups and huge corporations alike.

This is not to say all the jobs at tech companies have something to do with tech, and it doesn’t mean everyone should stop studying computer science and go try to get their foot in the door at Etsy or something. Many of the jobs counted in the report are only tangentially techy—a sales representative or secretary at a startup or a security guard at Google is considered by the report to be a job in the tech “ecosystem.”

To be sure, we still do need more highly skilled workers (most of them with degrees, probably) to start new companies, create new divisions at existing ones, and ultimately create new industries. That’s how a workforce is made, and, as long as you’re savvy about it, you don’t necessarily need to spend tens of thousands of dollars and years of your life hitting the books to go along for the ride.