How to get a career in I.T with no university degree

I.T is a rapidly growing sector forever on the lookout for new talent. For many, it seems jobs in I.T can be truly ideal – boasting great salaries, plenty of progression opportunities and with a number of other perks such as working from home, bonus schemes, generous pension contributions and training budgets, what is there not to like? The field can be somewhat intimidating however, for people who have not previously pursued  an education within I.T related subjects or have never considered themselves as being ‘good with technology’. 

Yes, working in I.T does require a specific mindset, and if you are already a computer whizz or find that you simply prefer working in front of a computer and get a kick out of solving difficult problems you are definitely in an advantageous position. However, the truth is, there is no one out there who is unsuitable for I.T after receiving the right guidance and training. If you think that a career within the sector might be for you but don’t know where to start, we are here to help you out. 

 

Alternatives to University 

STEM subjects, with particular focus on I.T and technology are being brought to the forefront now more than ever. With a vast amount of incentives, resources and also better equipment available in schools to help guide young students through developing an interest in a topic to being able to explore and practice means many high school leavers decide to go straight into university post the completion of their A levels. As much as this is a completely valid option, the common misconception is that this is the only route to get a high level of I.T related education, which could not be any further from the truth. 

There are many pathways individuals can take when wanting to pursue a career in I.T that are suitable for a diverse range of people from different backgrounds. The field is open to an extraordinarily varied range of people, meaning individuals who are considering a career change, those who cannot commit to working full time, or those who may require alternative working hours such as evenings or weekends all have options available to them. We have outlined some of the most popular means of getting qualified in I.T below. 

 

Further Education College 

Northern Ireland has a plethora of Further Education Colleges per region:

  • Belfast Metropolitan College with four campuses across Belfast
  • North West Regional College with campuses in Derry/Londonderry, Limavady and Strabane
  • Northern Regional College with campuses in Ballymena, Ballymoney, Coleraine, Larne, Magherafelt and Newtownabbey
  • South Eastern Regional College with campuses in Ballinahinch, Bangor, Downpatrick, Lisburn, Newcastle, Newtownwards, Carrowdore and Holywood
  • South West College with campuses in Cookstown, Dungannon, Enniskillen and Omagh
  • Southern Regional College with campuses in Armagh, Banbridge, Kilkeel, Lurgan, Newry, Portadown

What differentiates Universities and Further Education Colleges is that Universities offer undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, whilst FE colleges provide a range of courses varying in qualifications.  FE courses are usually assigned a level, based on how advanced they are, which is equivalent to a high school area of study. For example, a level 2 course in I.T would be the equivalent to what we commonly recognise as GCSEs. Level 3 is often described as the equivalent to A-Levels, and some courses are available all the way up to Level 5 (HND) which is often compared to the first year at University or a foundation degree in terms of curriculum.

There is no age limit for any courses in FE Colleges – people who have been long out of education, and even those who are retired, are welcome as long as they meet the basic entry criteria which is unique to every course. Because many courses are available at Level 2 and 3, you can pick up an I.T related course of your choice with no previous qualifications in the field and work your way up. 

For example, if you are looking for a career change and decide to get qualified in I.T but the last qualification you have earned are your GCSEs, you can study subjects such as: Level 3 in I.T , Level 3 in Creative Media, Level 3 in I.T Application Data Practice or I.T Infrastructure. Courses can be available on part time or full time basis, and can help you land an entry level I.T job such as support technician or help desk associate. 

If you wish to progress with your studies further, you can do so by completing a Higher National Diploma (HND) or access course, which will also make you eligible to apply for University courses in line with the subject you have studied. Further Education colleges are a fantastic option for those wishing to try something new, or those who cannot commit to full time education because of other commitments. Many campuses also offer student support services, career consultants and student finance advisors that can help you stay on track!

 

Traineeship 

A traineeship is a skill development programme with a work placement; there are many different types of traineeships which can have very different entry requirements and outcomes. This can depend on whether the traineeship programme was created by the government with association with local FE colleges, or whether it is an independent traineeship programme created in-house by a company to attract entry level employees. 

Traineeship programmes in Northern Ireland are most often organised through one of the six Further Education Colleges that will connect you with an employer from your industry of choice. The duration of your contract is dependent on the terms and conditions of the traineeship programme you are participating in, however, can be anywhere up to two years long to ensure an adequate amount of time for you to gain experience. You don’t usually receive any type of salary or wages during this period, however you are provided with a valuable Level 2 qualification relevant to your chosen industry and a traineeship certificate. 

There is financial help available for those who meet criteria, such as Educational Maintenance Allowance, Further Education Grant or a Hardship Fund to help with any costs of living and travel. 

Many companies organise their own traineeships and trainee programmes that hold their own entry criteria, and can pay a living or minimum wage. This is particularly popular in the Tech sector where many large scale companies create their own entry level trainee programs for people with minimal experience in the field. It’s always worth keeping an eye out on the websites and social media channels of local I.T market leaders to find such opportunities. If you’re really keen you could simply reach out via email or phone to ask if they will be willing to take you on as a trainee! 

You can Find out more about government led traineeships in Northern Ireland here: https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/traineeships-explained 

 

Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are a fantastic opportunity for those who would like to gain qualifications, whilst simultaneously gaining experience and earning money at the same time. There are three main types of apprenticeships available:

  • Level 2 Apprenticeships 
  • Level 3 Apprenticeships 
  • Higher Level apprenticeships (level 4 – 8)

Depending on your qualifications and age group, you may not necessarily start at Level 2 but could go straight to a higher level apprenticeship. This is a perfect option for those who do not want to take out a student loan as apprenticeships are government funded and do not require you to make any financial contributions. 

Most often, an apprenticeship is structured so that you will combine paid work along with study and therefore you can gain experience alongside working towards a relevant qualification. Over the duration of your apprenticeship you are required to spend 20% of your working hours on theory to gain your qualification. 

You will always get paid when taking part in an Apprenticeship, with wages dependent on your age and the type of apprenticeship you are participating in. The minimum wage for a Level 2 or 3 apprenticeship starts at £4.30 per hour, or a national minimum wage if you are 19 years or older and have successfully completed the first year of your apprenticeship. When studying a Higher Level Apprenticeship, your employer is required to pay you the minimum living wage for your age, however you must first hold at a relevant Level 3 qualification to be able to apply. 

You can find out more about The Northern Irish Apprenticeship scheme and different types of apprenticeships currently available here: https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/types-apprenticeships 

 

Online / Independent Study 

Many people can enter I.T by teaching themselves the relevant skills in their own time online. This is a particularly good option if you already have some base qualifications, but are looking to divert your career in a different direction. For example, you could have a degree in English, Engineering or Sciences and decide you would actually like to become a developer. Or, perhaps you are already working within a digital field such as marketing, project management or graphic design and would like to move into software engineering. The amazing thing about I.T and the digital field overall is that there is a plethora of paid and free online courses, and you can invest as little or as much time into your education as you need. 

There are plenty of success stories of people who have taught themselves skills completely from scratch and have started making money through freelancing or managed to get a job at a leading company with no formal qualifications. The sky’s the limit here, and the only thing you need to progress is good time management skills and dedication. If you would like to learn programming, or any other digital skills that can help you get a start in I.T for free, here are a few websites that you might find useful:

  • Coursera – Coursera is one of the most popular online learning sites out there. Partnered with premium universities such as Imperial College London and Stanford, as well as some leading global companies such as Google and IBM the site contains over 3,800 online courses focusing on the digital field. 
  • EdEX – EdEx also contains content supplied by universities, with some leading courses created by Harvard University Professors. Not all of EdEX courses are free, but you can find plenty of free content for beginners to start you off on your I.T journey. 
  • Future Learn – Future learn is part owned by the Open University and offers plenty of courses referred to as ‘micro credentials’ as well as short courses and online degrees. Once again, not all of the courses here are free, but many are still much cheaper than formal long term courses or degrees.
  • Udemy – Udemy offers a plethora of courses, ranging between a couple of hours to a couple of days long at very affordable prices.
  • Free Code Camp – Free code camp is one of the leading websites out there that provides online resources so that you can teach yourself how to code in a variety of languages completely for free.