Read more about this analysis in the Wall Street Journal’s Real-Time Economics blog.

Employers prefer college graduates when hiring software developers—and if anything the preference is stronger in the tech industry.

As technology spreads throughout the economy, all kinds of companies now hire software developers, from defense contractors to retailers. But Silicon Valley remains the center of this work, and has always been seen as a place more concerned about skills and ideas than credentials. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg all built tech empires without a bachelor’s degree.

Yet analysis of job postings by Burning Glass finds that tech employers are both more likely than others to specify a minimum education level when seeking developers and more likely to prefer a bachelor’s degree when they do.

 

  Sub-B.A. B.A. Master’s or above
All employers seeking developers 8% 89% 3%
Tech Sector 5% 92% 3%
Silicon Valley Tech Sector (San Francisco and San Jose MSAs) 2% 92% 6%

 

Posts with education not specified
All employers seeking developers 42%
Tech Sector 25%
Silicon Valley Tech Sector 23%

 

Nationally, among all employers, 42% of job postings for software developers don’t specify a minimum education level. But of the employers who do mention education, 89% request a B.A.

By contrast, tech sector employers are much more likely to set an educational hurdle for candidates. Only 25% of software developer postings in the tech sector fail to specify an education level. Almost all of the remaining job postings—92%—request a bachelor’s degree. Only 5% of developer postings in the tech sector are open to those without a college degree, while 3% require a master’s degree or higher.

Silicon Valley employers follow this pattern closely. In the San Francisco and San Jose metropolitan statistical areas, 23% of developer postings do not specify the required education. Among the remainder, 92% of developer job postings ask for a bachelor’s, 6% ask for a master’s or above, and only 2% are positions open to those without a college degree.

Technology employers in some parts of the country, however, are much less likely to specify an education level than in Silicon Valley. In the New York City metropolitan area, 38% of postings don’t call for a particular educational credential, while 53% of postings in Virginia Beach, VA make no mention of a preference. When employers in these cities do set an educational bar, they are just as likely to ask for a B.A. as tech employers anywhere else.

When employers don’t ask for a specific degree or diploma, it could mean that the employer is open to hiring people at any educational level, or it might mean that the need for a degree is so widespread that it is assumed. Aerospace engineering, for example, requires a college degree, yet 31% of all ads for aerospace engineers don’t mention it.  Similarly, 14% of CPA jobs are listed without specifying a minimum educational qualification.

There is also a significant salary premium for software developer posts that require a college degree. Posts that require a bachelor’s show 29% higher advertised salaries nationally, and 36% higher among tech sector employers.

 

Average Posted Salaries: All employers seeking software developers
Sub-B.A. salary B.A.-plus salary B.A. salary premium
$70,648 $90,942 29%

 

Average Posted Salaries: Tech sector employers
Sub-B.A. salary B.A.-plus salary B.A. salary premium
$69,582 $94,717 36%

 

What is also striking is that the specific skills requested in job postings for developers are not particularly different, whether they ask for a bachelor’s degree or not. In both cases, the top five skills in demand are the same, although sub-B.A. positions are more likely to call for project management and .Net programming, while B.A. positions are more likely to ask for Linux and Object Oriented Analysis and Design.

In other fields, employers often use the bachelor’s degree as a proxy for “soft skills,” the abilities in communication and collaboration that are critical in group projects. While it isn’t certain what is driving this trend in tech, software development certainly falls into the category of collaborative work.

NB:  This analysis is based on all job postings collected by Burning Glass from calendar year 2015 for the following O*NET occupations: Software Developers, Applications; Web Developers; Software Developers, Systems Software; Computer Programmers; Software Quality Assurance Engineers and Testers.

Matthew Sigelman is CEO of Burning Glass Technologies.
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