Certification isn’t everything

It’s tough to think of a field with more certification options than IT. There’s the old Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) designation, there’s the coveted Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) program and a host of other vendor-specific certification offerings from almost every IT company under the rainbow.

There are also a bevy of certifications offered by non-vendor bodies, covering general technology areas, like the Open Group’s recently unveiled IT Architect designation (discussed on page 4 of this issue).

With all the certifications available on the market, it would be tempting to believe that compensation for IT professionals would be directly tied to the number of certfication acronyms on a resume. But that’s not the case and it probably shouldn’t be the case.

A recently released study by Foote Partners, a research group specializing in IT employment trends and compensation, based on a survey of 48,000 IT workers, discovered that compensation for IT employees lacking technical certifications increased by 2.8 per cent in the first quarter of 2005, while pay for techies with certifications increased by a mere 0.6 per cent. The trend of non-certified workers seeing bigger raises held true for the full year ending April 1, 2005 as well with non-certified employees getting average raises of 3.6 per cent, while those with certifications got an average of a 2.9 per cent increase.

Foote president David Foote believes the findings could be the result of a move away from rewards based only on certifications. Instead, employers are looking more for real world experience.

In some respects a de-emphasis on certifications doesn’t seem fair. Getting certified can cost a lot of money. The cost of a CCIE designation, for example, including failed exams (which aren’t at all uncommon) and preparatory courses can easily run up to more than $10,000. The employer is probably footing most, if not all, of that bill, but for that amount of money the designation should count for something. Getting a CCIE can also consume a lot of an IT worker’s free time in classes and study.

Granted, the CCIE may not be the best example. It’s one of the most sought-after certifications in the industry and almost inevitably leads to a big raise. But any certification is going to require some investment of money and time.

No matter how much time and money a certification costs though, it’s no substitute for real-world experience. An employee who has spent years working with systems specific to a particular organization is almost certainly more valuable to the company than a employee with more certifications, but who is new to the company.

Certification lab tests can show IT workers how to deal with commonly encountered problems. But they can’t truly replicate how an employee will deal with co-workers, or react to the stress of solving a rarely encountered problem in a short period of time.

IT certifications certainly play a useful role in the industry and employees should be rewarded for getting them. However, real-world experience should still trump certifications when it comes to raises.

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