You should be certified

You can see it all around you - certified tradesmen, certified accountants, certified this and certified that. You need something to prove your bona fides if you're going to compete in an increasingly tough market.

But why certification? Won't training do? What about university degrees? And doesn't good old experience count for anything these days?

The answer is yes ... to all of these questions. With some caveats.

According to a survey conducted last year by Gartner Consulting on behalf of a number of training and vendor organisations, including Prometric, Cisco and IBM, by no means all who undergo training achieve certification. More than 70 per cent of IT professionals would have pursued formal training regardless of whether or not there was a certification track behind it.

The findings identify a large population that value training more highly than certification. So why do it? Why spend months, much effort and substantial amounts of employers' or sometimes individuals' own funds to achieve certification?

The answer is in the marketplace. Increasingly, certification is being seen as a cachet to greater employment prospects, higher salaries and faster promotion for individuals, and greater assurance and confidence for clients and employers.

The market pull: what clients and employers wantThere is little doubt in the recruitment and outsourcing industries that employers and clients value certification.

Edward Liu, manager of the technology division of recruitment firm Robert Walters, says "Certification is an indication of commitment to further education, of keeping on top of the technology", and as such is highly regarded by employers.

"These days you're most likely to find employment with a vendor or an outsourcing supplier." These sorts of companies demand specific skills and relevant qualifications, with technical certification an independent indication that the candidate has proficiency and hands-on experience in specific areas. "We're seeing about 80 per cent of job applicants with degrees, and 60 per cent with certification."

Kathleen Norman, marketing manager with training vendor NETg, says employers are looking for uniform requirements and selection standards to ensure skills levels meet job requirements. This has acted as a catalyst for increased demand for credentials and certification, which, she says, minimises the risk associated with employing the wrong person. "Certification has become a prerequisite, not just a differentiator."

Liu says there has been an evolution of employer requirements over recent years.

First of all, he says, there was the basic necessity for a university degree in some computer science, engineering or mathematical discipline. This has been followed by an increasing demand for vendor-specific certification, especially among outsourcing clients.

"Service level agreements specify X-number of people having specific certifications (or ‘tickets'). Those holding tickets find it easier to find jobs."

The third stage of Liu's qualification cycle is a growing demand for MBAs and postgraduate degrees for those wishing to undertake management roles.

Gerard Florian, CTO with outsourcing and training firm Dimension Data, has a different evolutionary track, but with the same result.

"In older days, a degree was not required," he says, with technical qualification being enough. "Now people want both." A degree will give fundamental grounding in the technology, as well as some business and financial basics, while vendor-oriented certification indicates exposure to real products in use today. He agrees that as you move from basics to more managerial and development roles you will require business skills, such as being able to develop and manage maintenance contracts and establish support costs.

Supplier push: what employees get out of itSo, are there more tangible benefits than simply making yourself appealing to employers?

According to Kathleen Norman, "the three most important benefits of training and certification programs from the individual's perspective include job security, career advancement and enhanced credibility."

And the more the merrier, apparently. Certification Magazine's most recent survey on the technical-certification market suggests that the average technical certificant currently holds nearly four (3.86 average) different certifications.

"The average certificant studied reported a 10.2 per cent salary increase within the first year of attaining certification," according to Norman, with some particular certifications being particularly noteworthy: those with Microsoft MCT benefited from a 24.1 per cent rise, MCSD 17.6 per cent rise, and MCSE+I a 14.6 per cent rise.

She adds that it is not just the salary increases that are beneficial, but the salary protection offered during a recessionary environment. She quotes a study conducted by Foote Partners, which indicates that while median average bonus pay for technical skills declined more than 13 per cent from the first quarter of 2001 to the first quarter of 2002, bonuses of IT certified professionals lost only 3.7 per cent.

The vendor scene: what courses are hotHowever, the Gartner study does indicate that perhaps, in most cases, you should not expect a great deal of immediate personal benefits. Only 34 per cent claimed a reward from their employer for gaining certification. When it did happen, it was primarily increased salary, followed by new responsibilities and promotion. Fully two-thirds reported no reward at all. Nonetheless, the one-third figure was a 10 per centage point improvement over the previous survey.

Maybe, in the current environment, finding and keeping a job are reward enough.

IT certification is big business, with research group IDC expecting certification to be a $US4.1 billion industry in 2003.

This means there are a lot of courses offered. But what's hot and what's not, and what are employers asking for? (See boxed list of courses currently considered the leading contenders.)What's definitely not hot are Y2K skills. Norman says "the demand for skills for Y2K rectification was short-lived and, as Y2K was a bit of a non-event, this demand has not continued. We currently don't receive any enquiries for Y2K skills.

"Instead, the demand around Web certification has grown exponentially, to the extent where any topic centred on Web certification is growing in popularity. We expect this trend to continue over the next six to 12 months."

Edward Liu says the scarcest skills at the moment are ERP for manufacturing and distribution. He adds that one of the hottest issues at the moment is consulting in security. "The recent Bugbear virus highlighted this need, with a lot of companies caught unawares." But security is a niche position, he adds, and most organisations cannot support full-time in-house security experts, particularly considering the rapid changes of information required. Instead, they turn to consultants to provide these specialist skills.

Norman says security has proved the fastest growing topic for attendance at NETg's "certification boot camps", while Dimension Data's Florian says that, while a clear standard certification in security is yet to appear, there are many courses available.

All agree there is still good money to be made from technical skills, particularly in demand areas. But beware of changing demand, as evidenced by the Y2K scenario, and a continuing wariness of e-business prospects after the dotcom collapse.

"You need to understand that a lot of the vendor-based courses are technical only," says Gerald Murphy, the Australian Computer Society's national certification program manager. "You need to look at the bigger picture," he says, if you're going to have a managerial position, right through to those with any client-facing responsibilities.

There are two types of certification, he says: up-dated technical skills, as offered by vendors, where there are a lot of qualified people, and broader more business-oriented skills, as offered by organisations like the ACS, where there might be many fewer competitors. "If you want to get ahead, the broader base gives you more opportunities."

Overall, Florian offers this word of warning. "If you're just looking at technology from a ‘gee whiz' view, you won't make as much as you would from an understanding of the business functions."

Words of warning: Potential pitfallsBut the world of certification is not without some caveats worth noting.

Edward Liu warns that if you have "tickets without experience, then forget it". Employers want practically-oriented employees, not those with a purely academic bent.

"The days of growing into the role are gone. Employers now want employees who can hit the ground running, performing tasks now rather than learning on the job."

Murphy agrees. He says you need to show not just knowledge of technology, but an ability to apply that knowledge. He suggests that the best course of action for the first few years of your career is probably to get a degree, followed by several years of "real world" industry experience, and then certification to ensure your technical skills are up-to-date and relevant.

This can be a two-edged sword. The Gartner study suggests that IT managers are concerned, not just with the time employees spend away from work on certification courses, but that certified staff cost more in terms of wages, salaries and benefits (which is surely why employees do the courses).

Managers also fear that such employees are more likely to leave the organisation in search of better prospects, although the report says this is less of a concern with Asia-Pacific respondents than with American and European managers.

What might be a bigger concern to managers and non-IT executives revealed in the Gartner study is that vendor-specific courses "appear to create a demand and loyalty for the vendor's products", creating concerns for the independence of technological advice offered by IT personnel.

Familiarity with the functionality and performance of specific products naturally makes many people more confident and thus more inclined to specify that product when asked. Vendors would say, with justification, that it is important the practitioners know how to use their products correctly and fully. But familiarity does breed content, and vendors certainly benefit from the relationship. The study confirms this: "More than half of the IT professionals indicated that they are more likely to recommend the vendor's products as a result of certification, and 97 per cent are more or just as likely to recommend a vendor's products as a result of being certified in the use of that product."

This is a very loyal following, giving rise to more than half of the IT managers who responded to the Gartner survey seeing "a need and a place for vendor-neutral certification . . . where emphasis is on the technology versus the product".

Finally, of more immediate concern to managers and certainly an issue that should worry those with certification, is the increasing proliferation of phony certificates.

"Fabricated qualifications is something that is found out in the validation of CVs," says Robert Walters' Liu. "But this is something that recruiters are picking up; it is not yet a high-profile issue with most managers.

"But it is important, and a much greater issue than many people assume. We undertake authentication of outsourcing contractors' certification on behalf of clients. At one operation where we undertook to view original certificates, 20 per cent of contractors failed to produce the items. In fact, they didn't turn up for work that day, and haven't turned up since."

The hot skills

Training organisations and recruiters list the following skills as in demand and worthwhile pursuing:

Gerald Murphy, ACS:

  • Project management - continues to be strong
  • Knowledge management - industry slow to invest but "will be big"
Gerard Florian, Dimension Data:The three basics:

  • Administration

  • Detailed technical engineering

  • Architecture and design

Edward Liu, Robert Walters:

  • Microsoft MCSE

  • Cisco CCNA

  • Cisco CCDP

  • Cisco CCIE

  • Citrix CCA (certified administration)
  • Oracle databases and applications (financial and CRM)
Kathleen Norman, NETg:Enhancing network security.

  • Cisco Security

  • Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)
  • CheckPoint Certified Security Expert (CCSE)
Improving content management capabilities.

  • Database, content management - Oracle8i or 9i or Microsoft SQL Server 2000
  • Dedicated storage - EMC Proven Professional Certification Program is emerging as the clear leader
  • Content delivery networks - no CDN-specific certifications at this time, but should see multiple CDN certifications and specialisations announced in the next year.

Strengthening the application environment.

  • Web development - application developers versed in XML, Java and other leading Web development platforms will continue to be in great demand, with the following three programs being worthy of mention: Sun Certified Developer for the Java 2 Platform; Master Certified Internet Webmaster (CIW) Enterprise Developer; Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD) for Microsoft .NET
  • Operating systems - Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE), Sun Certified Network Administrator (SCNA)
  • Extending network infrastructure - convergence (Cisco IP Telephony Support Specialist), wireless computing, and network management (CCIE Routing & Switching credential).

In addition, ICDL (the International Computer Driving Licence) ensures that all employees who complete the course meet a standard of proficiency in word processing, databases, spreadsheets and e-mail.

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