Skills pros debate: Are certifications losing value?

According to a U.S. company that tracks IT salaries, technical certifications are losing value to employers. But a Canadian IT staffing company says that simply isn’t the case in Canada.

Rather than technical certifications, companies are looking for IT professionals with business-oriented certifications in such areas as project management and Six Sigma, a statistical quality improvement technique that is being adopted by more IT shops, say some staffing experts.

“The [Project Management Institute] certification is the big one for us,” says Jack Harrington, co-founder and principal of Atlantic Associates, a Boston IT staffing firm. “We see some demand for Six Sigma, but not as much as for PMI. If I had one recommendation about professional development for IT employees, it’s to get a PMI certification because it helps develop broad skills that can be applied across technologies and vertical industries.”

Most technical certifications are losing value when it comes to salaries, says David Foote, president of Foote Partners, which conducts IT salary surveys nationwide. As part of its regular surveys, Foote tracks 159 certified skills and 156 non-certified skills to see which affect salaries most.

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“Networking certifications lost 4.1 per cent of their value in the last year, nine per cent in the last two years. That’s pretty horrible. That’s even worse than the average loss across all IT certifications,” Foote says. “Networking and communications-related non-certified skills gained 2.8 per cent of value in the last year.”

Foote says the trend is a big turnabout from recent years.

“Employees with certifications were earning more than non-certified skills for some time,” Foote says. “The last time non-certified skills were more valued than certifications was the third quarter of 2001.”

But Robert Berger, president of ROSS (Recruitment Outsourcing Solutions; the company was formerly called Pinnacle IT Force), says demand for technical certifications isn’t down. “I haven’t found that at all,” Berger says. Most employers like to see certifications from Cisco, Microsoft, Juniper and others on a resume because it gives them a certain amount of confidence that candidates know the fundamentals and can apply them.

That’s particularly true for entry-level positions.

But experience does trump certification to an extent. And Berger agrees that “we are seeing a lot more companies looking for business process certifications,” especially for leadership roles, “even if it’s just technical leadership.”

Experts agree that some technical certifications are still worth the time and effort. This includes the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE), EMC Technology Architect and storage-area networking certifications from companies such as Brocade.

“In networking, one of the hottest areas is storage-area networking,” Foote says. “Companies aren’t demanding certifications for storage-area networking, but they are looking for people who understand storage-area networking and the role it plays in the enterprise.”

Security certifications also are in demand, particularly the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) and Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA). Security is “certainly a hotbed,” says Matt Colarusso, branch manager for Sapphire National Recruiting in Woburn, Mass. “Our clients are looking for hands-on technical people who understand firewalls, VPN set-ups and router controls.”

Investing in tech certification

Technical certifications remain valuable enough that most CIOs will reimburse their employees for the cost.

Jeff Ton, vice president of enterprise processes, information and technology at Lauth Property Group in Indianapolis, recently began a certification program for his 25-person IT shop.

“For systems engineers and desktop technicians, they see it as a way of personal growth,” Ton says. “We help pay for certifications. If they get the certification, we give them a bonus. We feel it’s important because we value the employee.”

Bob Veeneman, director of IT integrated planning with Blue Shield of California, says about 25% of his IT training budget goes toward technical certifications for IT staff. “We heavily invest in those,” Veeneman says. “It’s good for us, and we’re contributing to people’s increase in knowledge and capability.”

But for the future, Blue Shield of California is focusing on business-oriented certifications. The company is training 50 of its directors and managers in Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) Version 3, a business process model.

And for seven years, Blue Shield of California has required PMI certifications for all of its project managers and project directors.

“The business-oriented certification is in addition to, not instead of, a technical certification,” Veeneman says. Experts say technical certifications are most helpful for entry-level and junior positions.

“Most employers would say that technical certifications are like a great academic record: They may get you noticed and in the short stack of resumes being considered, but it’s what roles you’ve played and what you’ve done on previous jobs that will get you hired,” Colarusso says. “We see technical certifications making the most difference in employers filling entry-level positions.”

In the case of mid-level and senior positions, on-the-job experience trumps certifications, experts say.

Technical certifications may help you get hired, but “experience matters more,” says Henry Eckstein, senior vice president and CIO of York Insurance Services Group in Parsippany, N.J. “People can cram for their certifications and get their certifications. So it’s not just certifications but how long have they had them and how have they used them that matters. Technical certifications are less valuable than experience.”

Foote adds: “When it comes to hiring, if you have everything else — experience with customers, functional experience — and if you’re not certified, who cares? A lot of people never got certified because they were so busy doing [implementations].”

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