It has been said by politicians, career guidance counselors and of course university recruiters that today a bachelors degree is what a high school diploma used to be a generation ago –  a winning ticket to a good career. At the same time, there is a growing movement that a college degree isn’t a must-have. The question becomes whether a college degree is necessary to work in the defense industry.

The short answer is yes. But the issue is far from cut and dry.

Getting a Job with America’s Largest Employer

With more than one million employees, 400 occupational specialties and 100 agencies and bureaus, the federal government is the nation’s largest employer. The government is also one of the leading employers keeping universities in business as many jobs do require at least a bachelor’s degree.

But as the largest employer, it also means there are many government security clearance jobs that do not require a college degree. These jobs range from more physically demanding careers such as Border Patrol Agent, to those that require specific training in computer science such as a Java Developer or Software Engineer (where a degree is often a bonus but not always a requirement).

“The educational requirements are highly variable, both in the private sector and also in government,” said Ohio-based economic research analyst George Zeller.

Today approximately 60 percent of federal workers don’t have a college degree, and the level of education required for federal jobs is entirely dependent on the position. Moreover, work experience in many cases can be a substitute for a BS degree – but there are exceptions – and experts warn that moving up the ladder can be much, much harder without a degree.

Degrees of Success

“To work in the defense industry, or the intelligence community, you’re going to need a degree, especially if you want to get to the management level,” said Justin Constantine, a retired United States Marine, who now works a leadership consultant and serves as a liaison between the corporate and military communities. “Many current job descriptions specifically call for at least four years of college-level study.”

This is certainly true for positions tied to the Department of Defense. Its qualifications for GS-1102 positions specify that the basic education requirements for GS-5 through GS-15 positions requires, “A bachelor’s degree from an accredited educational institution authorized to grant baccalaureate degrees.”

“Each government agency, including the DoD, will dictate the level of education required for a job with a government contractor,” explained Lisa Rosser, a 22 year veteran of the U.S. Army (active and reserve), who founded The Value of  a Veteran, a firm that helps military veterans transition to civilian jobs.

“Many specifically require a college degree,” said Rosser. “This is a very large problem, and something that the government needs to take ownership of, and revisit the requirements.”

Part of the rationale is to ensure adequate training to do the job, but some requirements may simply be based on the tradition of college and the type of people that pass through the halls of an institute of higher learning.

“College has been historically viewed as a gentlemen’s institution where you could debate history and philosophy,” added Constantine.

“It was a time where you figured out what you wanted to do and had some fun in the process. Now everyone thinks there is a much greater value assigned to it, and it has become crucial to getting those higher level jobs,” he explained. “It is absolutely true that in today’s American workforce having a college degree is like having a high school diploma 50 years ago.”

 

No Degree? No problem?

The next question then becomes one that is a hot topic in this year’s election – college debt. Is the debt that students will likely incur to obtain a bachelor’s degree going to actually translate into a good-paying career in the defense sector?

“That return is of course far more robust during strong economic expansions,” added Zeller. “And far less robust during periods of economic weakness, such as what we are seeing today in the United States.”

Recently it was reported that several larger UK firms – including Deloitte and Ernst & Young – are reducing the importance of a college degree both in the UK and in the US. These firms are also discouraging recruiters from sharing where a candidate went to college.

Military experience vs. college degree

While the majority of officers in the military may come through a college commissioning program, such as the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) or a service academy, Rosser noted that officers still make up just 30 percent of the total military. The remaining 70 percent are enlisted members, and their level of education can vary from high school graduates to those having master’s degrees – but unfortunately in the contracting world that experience may count less than the degree.

“It is frustrating because service members can often do the job, can have the clearance and meet other criteria for a position with a contractor, but if they lack that degree the door is closed to them,” noted Rosser. “We also need to understand that today only 26 percent of Americans have a bachelor’s or higher degree. The defense contractors are thus hiring from a small talent pool.”

For those in the military currently, or considering it as a route to a post-military career in the defense or intelligence communities, it is advisable to use that time to work towards a degree when possible. Rosser added that the longer someone serves in the military, the greater chance they can complete, or at least will be very close to completing, a four year program and earning that all important piece of paper.

There are also some signs that there could be a relaxing of certain restrictions as well.

“We’re starting to see a little bit of movement, and clearly the government now recognizes that they are part of the problem,” Rosser suggested. “However, this is going to be a slow process and degrees are going to matter more than experience for now.”

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.