Skip to main content

Careers in science, technology, engineering and math often command higher salaries, but they don’t necessarily require higher education.

That is because skyrocketing demand coupled with the rise of alternative training programs – such as online education and crash courses – are creating more opportunities for Canadians without formal or relevant post-secondary education to enter the field.

According to a recent study conducted by IBM Canada, less than 10 per cent of Canadian students, job seekers and career changers currently work in STEM, though roughly half of each group are interested in a career in that sector. Furthermore, 66 per cent don’t feel like they have enough formal education to make the transition.

“Once upon a time you had to have specific accreditations from a university for specific roles, and that still exists, but we’re posting a number of roles where you don’t need a traditional college or university degree,” said Frank Attaie, the general manager of technology for IBM Canada. “Since there’s a skills shortage in the marketplace, I’m seeing an increasing amount of employers looking for the skillset, not the postsecondary degree.”

That skills gap ultimately inspired IBM to developed Skills Build, an online training platform that offers 1,000 courses in 19 languages on topics ranging from the highly technical to more human skills. The free and flexible online learning program allows anyone to earn “digital credentials,” and is offered in partnership with 90 global organizations, including five in Canada. IBM aims to train 30 million people on the platform by the year 2030.

“The goal is not to compete with post-secondary institutions,” said Mr. Attaie. “There’s a lot of people that may be mid-career or late-career and just aren’t going to go back and do a three or four-year degree.”

Today many roles in Canada’s tech industry do not list higher education as a necessary requirement. According to an analysis of 1,000 Canadian job vacancies posted to LinkedIn by online learning platform ELVTR, 98 per cent of virtual reality and augmented reality designer roles, 97 per cent of game designer roles, 91 per cent of user experience and user interface designer roles, and 80 per cent of mobile developer roles do not require a degree. Furthermore, the lowest average base salary for those roles is over $66,000, with some averaging more than $85,000.

“Having a college degree is not the only golden ticket to a high paying job,” said ELVTR chief executive officer Roman Peskin. “That doesn’t mean education is not important – education is more essential than ever – but the ways people can educate themselves have changed dramatically.”

Mr. Peskin adds that the tech industry has largely led the charge in shifting away from traditional credentials when evaluating candidates, thanks to ongoing skills shortages. At the same time, he warns many employers won’t consider candidates without those traditional credentials – especially within more traditional industries, or in roles where higher education is the only pathway to employment, like medicine and law.

For others he says the primary barrier is landing that all important first job in a new field. “Once you do that, then you’re set,” he said, adding that freelance and contract positions can offer a stepping stone to gaining those early job experiences.

The other significant barrier, he says, is internal, as pursuing a new career path can feel daunting. “It’s never too late,” advises Mr. Peskin, who has switched industries multiple times during his career. “Don’t get discouraged, be curious and just keep trying.”

That psychological barrier remains one of the biggest hurdles for incoming students at Lighthouse Labs, a Vancouver based education program that offers both 12-week crash courses and more flexible 30-week technical educational programs remotely across Canada.

“The biggest competitor to us is not university or college; it’s the fact that people don’t believe they can do it,” said chief executive officer Jeremy Shaki. “Thinking that you’re not good enough for tech is the biggest misconception.”

Mr. Shaki says the company’s primary customers are Canadians aged 23 to 35 working in unrelated fields, with either no formal higher education or an unrelated postsecondary degree. He explains that while many assume that their prior experience is irrelevant, it often makes them more valuable candidates.

“It’s imperative that the technology team works with business units, revenue teams, front-line staff, to understand how to solve problems,” he said, adding that prior experience in retail, customer service or the service industry can be an asset. “The soft skills you gain from dealing with problematic clients and working through their problems without being rude, how you deal with shift work, how you deal with managers – that’s what companies are looking for, especially from their entry-level people.”

According to a 2022 Lighthouse Labs study of its graduates, more than half earn a six-figure income within four years of completing the program.

“If you’re 18 going to university makes a ton of sense,” said Mr. Shaki. “University is so much more than just getting a job; it’s a privilege, it’s a network, it’s coming of age, it’s the variety of courses, it’s an opportunity to discover what you like.”

“You don’t need most of those things at 25 or 26,” he added. “You need to focus on the subject and get into the market to start working.”

The team at ELVTR, an online learning platform, examined 1,000 Canadian vacancies on LinkedIn and found the top-10 STEM jobs that don’t require a university or college degree:

1. VR&AR Designer

  • Vacancies that don’t require a degree: 98%
  • Remote vacancies: 44%
  • Requirements: portfolio, knowledge of design software, passion for VR and a desire to push the boundaries of what is possible in the medium.
  • Average base salary, Glassdoor: $66,430

2. Game Designer

  • Vacancies that don’t require a degree: 97%
  • Remote vacancies: 10%
  • Requirements: creativity, understanding of monetization and wide-ranging knowledge of gaming trends, project experience, and storytelling skills.
  • Average base salary, Glassdoor: $67,237

3. UX/UI designer

  • Vacancies that don’t require a degree: 91%
  • Remote vacancies: 24%
  • Requirements: design project experience, knowledge of wireframe tools, up-to-date knowledge of design software, team spirit, and good time-management skills. A bachelor’s degree is unessential for candidates with relevant experience.
  • Average base salary, Glassdoor: $84,416

4. Mobile developer

  • Vacancies that don’t require a degree: 80%
  • Remote vacancies: 23%
  • Requirements: experience working on mobile applications development, using automated tooling of at least one publicly available application, exposure to Agile development methodology and in-depth knowledge of secure coding standards and practices, experience working on developing SDK/libraries
  • Average base salary, Glassdoor: $85,764

5. QA Tester

  • Vacancies that don’t require a degree: 69%
  • Remote vacancies: 44%
  • Requirements: analytical skills, attention to detail, experience in QA methodology, proficiency in test management software, and knowledge of programming languages.
  • Average base salary, Glassdoor: $41,316

6. Data Analyst

  • Vacancies that don’t require a degree: 65%
  • Remote vacancies: 17%
  • Requirements: pragmatic approach, experience in data modelling, and knowledge of project and performance management systems.
  • Average base salary, Glassdoor: $69,809

7. DevOps

  • Vacancies that don’t require a degree: 63%
  • Remote vacancies: 14%
  • Requirements: experience with traditional DevOps toolsets such as Azure & AWS Cloud Services, integration and API, analytical and problem-solving mindset.
  • Average base salary, Glassdoor: $94,452

8. Product Manager

  • Vacancies that don’t require a degree: 58%
  • Remote vacancies: 11%
  • Requirements: high effectiveness in managing cross-functional teams, delivering finely tuned product marketing strategies, strong presentation and public speaking skills. Previous experience in software and web development would be an advantage.
  • Average base salary, Glassdoor: $103,320

9. UX manager/Service Designer

  • Vacancies that don’t require a degree: 52%
  • Remote vacancies: 15%
  • Requirements: agile working, communicating between the technical and non-technical, community collaboration, digital perspective, prototyping.
  • Average base salary, Glassdoor: $87,169

10. Web developer

  • Vacancies that don’t require a degree: 47%
  • Remote vacancies: 23%
  • Requirements: full stack web application development, using C#, JavaScript, TypeScript, knowledge of Responsive best practices and third-party libraries, working knowledge of databases, competency in software development best practices and design patterns,ability to work closely with the team.
  • Average base salary, Glassdoor: $67,052

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe