To certify or not: the pros and cons

Qualifications are an asset, but be sure why you're getting one, says Katherine Spencer Lee

New certifications continually emerge in the IT field. In fact, it sometimes appears that there is at least one for every available technology. As a result, many IT professionals wonder whether it’s worthwhile to pursue a designation and, if so, which one could best aid their career advancement. The answer varies: each credential has a unique cost — in terms of both money and effort — and the effect of earning one may not always be immediately apparent. Here are some considerations when weighing your certification options.

1. The value is there

Earning a certification can provide a competitive edge over other candidates, whether you’re applying for a job with a new company or hoping to earn a promotion at your current firm. A certification offers employers proof that you’re familiar with a particular technology or practice, giving them extra assurance that you can perform the duties of the job. Companies are particularly interested in individuals who have earned difficult-to-obtain credentials, such as the Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) or Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE), or a meaningful combination of designations.

Certifications can also mean more money: according to the Robert Half Technology 2006 Salary Guide, those with certain credentials can expect starting salaries 5%-12% higher than average.

Pursuing a certification also demonstrates your drive and commitment to reach a professional goal. Plus, given the continually increasing pace of technological change, companies often favour IT professionals who never stop learning.

2. But caveats exist

Despite their potential value, certifications are just one factor in an employer’s decision to hire or promote someone. They usually hold little weight when not paired with on-the-job experience. The reason is twofold: first, some certifications are relatively easy to acquire. Individuals who have consulted a study guide or taken a practice exam are sometimes able to obtain a credential despite a lack of in-depth knowledge of the subject. More importantly, companies today seek professionals with the ability to make bottom-line contributions and want to make sure the people they hire and retain have not only a working knowledge of a particular technology but also the ability to apply that knowledge in the workplace.

So, while a worker who possesses a Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDA) designation is highly marketable, one who has the same certification along with five years of working with Microsoft systems and a track record of completing projects on time and under budget is eminently more desirable to employers.

3. Vendor-neutral vs vendor-specific: Which route is best?

Complicating matters is that IT professionals have a choice between vendor-specific and vendor-neutral certifications. If you’re interested in roles that focus on a particular technology, earning a vendor-specific certification is one of the best ways to highlight your specialised expertise. However, if you’d rather not be limited to one product or company, consider a vendor-neutral certification.

It also may be wise to pursue a vendor-neutral certification if you’re considering a career change, since you won’t be tied to one technology and can point to your credential as proof of your broad range of knowledge. Industry-specific certifications are vendor-neutral but are targeted to professionals who have been in a certain field for some time, not those looking to break in.

4. Is a degree enough?

A bachelor’s or master’s degree is a pre-requisite for many IT positions. If you already hold a degree, you may wonder whether earning a certification improves your chances of landing the job you seek. Or is your degree enough? The answer to this question is yes ... and no. While it’s unlikely that you’ll be eliminated you from consideration solely because you lack a certification, employers sometimes value the added endorsement a certification confers. Also, they may move you to the top of the list of potential candidates if you’ve earned one.

While a certification won’t guarantee you a new job or promotion, earning one can be a smart career move. For one thing, a recognised credential will provide a benchmark against which employers can compare you with other candidates, possibly leading to an interview. And, perhaps more important, pursuing a certification will allow you to earn new skills or bolster existing abilities in a structured environment, leading to personal satisfaction and personal growth.

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