In December, Mike Aulert will graduate from Kirkwood Community College with an associate degree in nursing.
The 22-year-old Iowa City resident then intends to continue working at Mercy Iowa City, where he is a nurse technician and lab technician in the emergency room to pay off his student loans, he said.
Although Aulert believes he would be able to find a nursing job with his two-year associate’s degree, not having his four-year bachelor’s degree will limit him in the long run, he said.
“Right now an associate’s degree is enough, but I think in the future … a bachelor’s degree will help you do so much more,” he said. “It opens more doors.”
But is a four-year degree required for success in all fields? Corridor employers say the answer depends on what field an individual wants to pursue after graduation.
What do employers want?
Students and parents need to think outside just a four-year degree in terms of paths to employment, said Kristie Fisher, Kirkwood’s vice president of student services.
“There’s a lot of really good middle-skill, good paying jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but they don’t require the four-year degree and to make sure that people explore those as they’re deciding what their educational path will be,” she said.
According to Careerbuilder.com, four-year college graduates will earn $1 million more in their lifetime than those with a high-school diploma. Not all majors will end up earning the same salary, though.
On its list of top-paying majors in 2012, with average starting salaries of more than $50,000, the National Association of Colleges and Employers lists computer engineering as the top-paying major. Its average starting salary in 2012 was $70,400.
Chemical engineering came in second, with an average starting salary of $66,400.
The top five also included computer science, which has an average starting salary of $64,400 and aerospace/ aeronautical/astronautical engineering with an average starting salary of $64,000.
Rounding out the top five is mechanical engineering, which has an average starting salary of $62,900.
Katie Bardaro, a lead economist at compensation research company PayScale, said in a May 2012 Forbes magazine article that “the new data-driven market makes math skills, particularly statistics, more and more valuable to employers.”
According to Georgetown University in its “Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020″ report, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), health care professions, health care support and community services will be the fastest growing occupations.
These areas also require high levels of post-secondary education.
The Recovery 2020 report found that 35 percent of the job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree, 30 percent will require some college or an associate’s degree and 36 percent will not require education beyond high school.
When it comes to what employers are looking for, the need for soft skills remains constant, Fisher said.
“We continually hear from employers … they need people to be able to show up on time, work in teams, be deadline driven,” she said. “We also hear a lot from employers, there are specialized technical skills. If you look at our area, advanced manufacturing, there’s a huge need.”
Employers want individuals who take time when filling out applications, resumes and cover letters, said Kim Johnson, Kirkwood’s vice president of continuing education and training services. Employers want to see that an application has been tailored to the specific company a candidate is applying to, she added.
“They also want to see evidence, either through their documents or during the straining and interview process of communication, problem solving, critical thinking, the ability to pick up on non-verbals, awareness in how your message is coming across,” Johnson said.
Employers look for the credential or the technical capability to “at least be positioned to effectively on board them with additional training,” she said.
That’s what Jeff Lord, director of Shasta QA, is looking for in a potential hire. The Redding, Calif.-based software testing company announced in mid-September it planned to open an office in Iowa City, near the University of Iowa.
The company plans to immediately hire three to five employees.
“I look for aptitude as much as I look for some background,” Lord said. “The background really tells me that they’ve been immersed in the industry enough to indicate I want to talk to them. From there, I really look more for aptitude than anything else.”
So how crucial is a degree in Lord’s opinion as he considers potential new hires?
“I use the degree more for peripheral value than the direct degree itself,” he said. “Some folks come in with computer science degrees, great. What that tells me is they have the aptitude, they have the fortitude to stick through the duration of school.”
However, a degree is not a requirement for consideration, he said.
Coralville-based Higher Learning Technologies is seeking innovative candidates with a passion for what they are doing, said Adam Keune, a co-founder and the company’s chief marketing officer.
“We want to have employees who like coming to work everyday because we know they’ll work harder,” he said. “For college degree level, we look at that and would take it into consideration, but I would say it is not our biggest factor by any means.”
The company looks for individuals with experience in a certain field, he said.
‘Drive and initiative’
TrueNorth Insurance and Financial Strategies most likely would require a college degree in specialty areas or those that require more technical knowledge, said Dru Bridges, the company’s chief operating officer. TrueNorth looks for individuals with a positive attitude and the ability to grow.
“I think we always look at, why did they not have a degree?” Bridges said, noting it “is a reflection perhaps of just their drive and initiative. We have an overall belief that an individual with a four-year degree has been involved and engaged in some of the skill sets that you need to be successful in corporate settings, so we certainly value four-year degrees but they’re not absolutely necessary.”
Lord, Shasta QA’s director, said he did not have a hard time finding his first job, although he had not completed his bachelor’s degree. In his field, a degree didn’t have the relevance he needed, Lord said.
“Now that I’m in executive management, the only value a degree really would hold for me … is more about how my peers look at me when they view my profile,” he said. “If they looked me up on LinkedIn or through my company’s website and saw my bio, it would be more sexy if it said Stanford computer science degree, or any other university, but that’s really about it.
“Give me 10 minutes and I can demonstrate to you and you have every reason to be confident.”