No Degree? No Problem. Non-Traditional Paths Lead to Great Tech Careers

Where there's a will, there's a way

What to Know

  • Google has partnered with multiple companies to help the average person get into a technology career.
  • Four-year degrees are important but those without one can still build long careers in technology.
  • Workers with high digital skills earn the highest wages; free programs beyond Google's exist to help you get those skills.

Do you really need a college degree to get a great paying job in technology? Google says no and, increasingly, so do many other employers in the tech industry. Still, the share of industry jobs requiring high digital skills is on the rise, so there is clearly a need to educate rising generations in some way to meet continuing demand.

Workers with the highest digital skills (regardless of industry) earn higher wages, according to a report from Brookings. So where do you (or your child) get these skills, particularly on a budget when a four-year college degree is out of reach?

The Winding Road to Technology Riches

Most of us have been conditioned to assume that high school students are either on a path to college and a 'good' career or, sadly, on any other path which will lead to a 'not-so-good' career. In today's digital world, that notion is not only outdated but, in many ways, laughable.

That's because today's tech is not your father's multi-room server. Technology is everywhere, from the car to the desk to the living room to your wrist. The next decade in tech is expected to be an explosive one, with careers in areas most of us know little about, like nanotechnology, artificial brains, and retina displays.

Heck, you only need to look back at the history of technology to know that it will look wildly different thirty years from now. While highly-trained software or hardware engineers with advanced degrees will always be needed, the truth is that technology careers have now broken wide open for pretty much anyone to take advantage of.

The road to technology career success is littered with great ideas, hard work, and college drop-outs.

It's actually been that way for decades, although we tend to gloss over that fact. Who remembers that Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to launch Microsoft from his garage? And that Paul Allen left Washington State University sans degree to join him?

Steve Jobs was a college dropout, too, though he credited a basic calligraphy class he took for giving him the typography idea behind his first Macintosh computer. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg blew off college to become the world's youngest billionaire until high school grad Kylie Jenner (supposedly) dethroned him with her Instagram-based empire.

The point is that the road to technology career success is littered with great ideas, hard work, and college drop-outs (or never wases—is that even a word?) who persevered and used technology to their advantage. Clearly there's a bit of a rebellious bent in many people with technology careers, even though the basics of it are solidly built on scientific premises.

If you like to take the known and twist it into something new and exciting, technology is the place to do it. The entire industry is ripe for new ideas and thought processes, which is really why non-traditional paths into it can be so successful.

Woman working on a computer motherboard.
 StefaNikolic/Getty Images

Non-traditional Tech Job Programs and Supports

If you're thinking about a career in tech, take a look at a few of the programs available right now to non-traditional technology learners.

  • Girls in Tech is a free program that offers professional development, connections, and guidance to women through bootcamps, workshops, and other opportunities designed to build tech skills needed for success.
  • Google Career Certificates program helps participants qualify for jobs with a median average salary of over $50,000. Google also partners with dozens of employers who hire entry-level IT positions; certificate recipients get first access to many of these partnership job postings.
  • Tech Qualled offers veterans a path to sales positions in the high tech industry. If you're not really a geek but you want to work side-by-side with them, this program offers industry and product training at no cost along with job offers to most who complete the program.
  • NPower is a free tech training nonprofit for young adults, women of color, and veterans from underserved communities. It offers a six-month program that helps participants earn industry-recognized certifications that equal one to two years of IT experience.
  • LaunchCode offers apprenticeships to people who show drive, the potential to learn new skills quickly, have an ability to work with others, and can demonstrate basic coding skills. No high school degree is needed to apply.

Understanding Available Technology Jobs is Key

What all of these programs have in common is that they help people discover more about technology careers to find paths they'll enjoy.

Not sure which qualifications are needed for certain types of jobs? Take a look at any job search engine and review a variety of IT job titles and requested experience levels.

Once you see the types of jobs available, think about what really made your heart and head say 'oh, interesting!'

Technology Certifications Are Everywhere

You can take an introductory course at any community college to see where your personal interests might lie. Coding is fairly over-hyped as a career, for example, but knowing the basics does help provide an understanding of how computers work, which creates a good base for any IT career.

Beyond a few classes, specialized programs or apprenticeships, there are numerous IT certifications anyone can take that don't require a college degree. This Video Game Developer Certificate from a community college can help jump-start a career and so can lots of other IT certificates that take less than a year to complete.

A four-year college degree just isn't for everyone and, these days, it's not even required to get a good-paying job in technology. Even the most advanced self-taught learner should obtain certifications, though; showing others that you can complete a program and accomplish goals is always a smart step.

A great tech career is out there waiting for someone. Why not you?