Do employers prefer degrees or certifications?

There traditionally have been two routes for high school graduates looking towards careers in IT: University, or TAFE. But recent changes in employer preferences have given rise to accelerated training courses that present a third, more practical option.

Getting a job in the IT industry isn't necessarily easy for university graduates. Employers value a balance between theory and practical knowledge and the usual three to four years at university just aren't providing graduates with the skills that specific IT roles demand, according to Cassandra Ashworth, national manager of EXCOM Education's EXpress IT program.

"The current course syllabus and content that universities run are not in line with industry requirements," she said. "Universities and TAFEs are trying to teach them everything, they are not teaching them to specialize."

In fact, according to Ashworth, there are some major TAFEs and universities that are now employing EXpress IT graduates above their own.

The $11,000, 4-month-long program guarantees work placement for more than 1,000 students it enrolls each year, who have so far been enjoying an average annual salary of $35,000.

Major banks, vendors, government departments and network integrators are among the usual employers of EXpress IT graduates. Although these companies could not be named, Ashworth mentioned that some were ranked on the Fortune 1000 list.

And as it requires only basic knowledge of "how to use a computer and an interest in learning about IT", EXpress IT students range from 16 to 57 in age, and are typically high school graduates, university graduates, or working people looking for a career change.

"No Uni? No worries," read an EXCOM advertisement on Sydney's MX newspaper in February this year. But John Shepherd, senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales' school of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE), is skeptical.

"No Uni? No worries - until the next system release," he said.

"Training courses take a short-term view and train people to use something that exists right now. They don't care whether you can learn to use the next version that comes along. In fact, it's in their best interests if you can't, because you'll go back to them to get trained on version X+1 when it's released."

Over the course of their studies, CSE students are exposed to an extensive range of systems, standards and programming languages in theoretical as well as practical contexts.

So while graduates may not initially be familiar with industry-specific roles, Shepherd argues that they should have the depth of understanding and the experience to adapt to any new scenario that is thrown at them.

"I'm sure industry has issues with graduates who don't know the particular system, version or configuration that they have installed in their business, but I bet one of our students could get up to speed in way less than six weeks," he said.

This year, the University of NSW's CSE graduates reported an average starting salary of $50,056. Once again, employers could not be named, but Brad Hall, development manager at the school, said CSE graduates tend to be popular with industrial research companies, financial institutions and large IT organizations.

Although she remains firm in her belief that there are better ways of getting into IT than university, Ashworth agrees that a university education ultimately provides a deeper understanding that is important in later stages of an IT career.

"I think that if [job seekers] are wanting to get into the IT industry, EXpress IT will give them a guaranteed outcome and the skills that employees look for," she said. "Where a University degree is important is when an IT professional wants to advance his career and get into management."

But according to Hall, a one-size-fit-all prescription simply does not exist.

"Training programs are the answer for some people and University the answer for others - it would be misleading to try to claim that one covers all possibilities," he said.

"I often compare careers in the IT industry to those in the medical field. The diversity of jobs is just as broad as medicine, and similarly the required level of education is also as broad. Potential students need to assess where they want to fit in on the spectrum and then aim for the level of education required."

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