Certifications: Who Needs

Whenever an IT staffer at Carnival Cruise Lines earns an IT certification, Ken Eberhardt recognizes him with an additional certificate and other rewards at one of the company’s quarterly service awards ceremonies.

“We believe employees don’t have to be certified to be proficient, but we do think that certification means the employee has gone above and beyond,” explains Eberhardt, director of MIS, telephony and administrative services at the Miami-based company. Carnival’s 250 IT employees take pride in their certifications, he says, as the many acronyms listed on their e-mail signatures exemplify.

For many IT workers, earning a certification is seen as a badge of honour, not to mention a path to career advancement and increased compensation.

However, for the IT executive hiring new blood or promoting from within, the value of certifications has long been argued.

Detractors claim that a certification proves only that a worker is book smart. Such critics believe that certifications don’t offer the hands-on knowledge that comes with experience. Conversely, proponents say certifications validate skills, establish a baseline for new hires and can be very useful in corporate retention strategies.

Nonetheless, the higher salaries and bonuses paid to certified professionals support the fact that many IT managers view certification as a powerful asset. According to David Foote, managing partner at Foote Partners LLC in New Canaan, Conn., and a Computerworld (U.S.) columnist, the certifications with the strongest growth, including project management, security, database and network operating systems, are earning IT professionals bonuses of as much as 13 per cent of base pay.

Also indicative of the value of certifications is the fact that IT managers are willing to hire certified workers who don’t have traditional degrees. As many as 40 per cent to 60 per cent of the people taking CompTIA’s entry-level technician certification exams don’t have two-year degrees, says Fran Linhart, director of certification for the Chicago-based organization.

In Carnival’s Microsoft-centric environment, Eberhardt says he favours certifications, such as Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), MCP+Internet, Microsoft Certified Solution Developer, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Microsoft Certified Trainer, as well as Cisco, Oracle and Novell certifications. In addition to encouraging the network and server groups to stay current with certifications, Carnival believes its help desk should be certified as well, Eberhardt says.

“When the help desk becomes certified, there are fewer calls escalated and they become quasitechs, so there’s upward mobility,” he says.

And increasingly, Eberhardt says, Carnival is getting its staff certified as Project Management Professionals (PMP), an emerging certification from the Project Management Institute in Newtown Square, Pa.

“Disciplined project management is very important, and the PMP is becoming the hot accreditation,” says Eberhardt. Carnival requires that anyone involved in project work attend the beginning level of training; supervisors, department managers and directors must take the more advanced classes.

Certifications can also be helpful when a company must contract for outsourcing services.

“If I’m going to outsource, certification is a way of specifying the category of talent I need. I can say I’ll pay so much for those working on my networks if they have Cisco certifications, or for my for [enterprise resource planning] systems if they have SAP,” says Elliot Masie, president of The Masie Center, a learning technology consultancy in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

For John Madigan, vice-president of IT human resources at The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. in Hartford, Conn., certifications are desirable and can tip the scale in certain cases, but experience working in a financial services setting is a far more attractive attribute, he says.

“We’ve looked at a number of folks coming out of dot-coms, and they were highly credentialed with tons of certifications. But we favour someone that has more specific experience in our business,” says Madigan.

However, Madigan says he doesn’t underestimate the role of certifications in retaining employees for whom certification signifies proof that they know their stuff. “We endorse certification as a retention strategy and offer education reimbursement,” he says. “IT people like to grow their skills, and one of things that attracts them is professional development.”

In the Nick Of Time

For some, timing is everything.

Though he says he doesn’t put much stock in certifications as proof of real-world knowledge, Michael Sherwood uses them as prerequisites to attract new hires. The city of Oceanside, Calif., where Sherwood is director of IT, pays for training and testing for MCSE and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certifications as part of the compensation packages of IT employees.

“As far as certifications go for hiring new employees, we don’t care if they have them, because it only means they can read a book. For entry-level people, we send them to [CompTIA] A+ and Network+ classes and, after a year, to MCSE and CCNA classes. For that, they must agree to stay for at least a year [after earning the certifications],” says Sherwood.

The problem with most vendor certification training, according to Sherwood, is that it doesn’t mirror real-world situations.

“Networks just don’t work the way vendors have in their books,” he says. “I’m much more interested in a candidate’s ability and whether they’ve been in crisis situations. When you go to these boot camps, half the time they give you the answers, so an MCSE means nothing to me unless you have the experience to back it up.”

However, certifications can be a powerful perk, and the combination of certification credentials and on-the-job experience makes an employee valuable at Oceanside, says Sherwood.

Despite the problems he sees with vendor certifications, Sherwood says he believes that IT workers reach a point in their careers when certifications are necessary to prove their marketability.

“Where certifications come in handy is when an IT career matures,” Sherwood says. “At the engineering level, I wouldn’t hire someone if they were in for 10 years but hadn’t gotten certified, because at that point, they should have one to be marketable. That’s where it comes in handy. Lots of bright people don’t get them because they say they don’t need them, but to me, you’re not marketable.”

Kym Gilhooly is a freelance writer in Falmouth, Maine.