Five ways to get affordable certification skills

As the recession takes its toll on tech budgets, IT professionals are realizing their future careers could suffer as training dollars dry up and the resources needed to update their high-tech skills are eliminated. With choices limited for paid training, IT pros need to be creative in their studies.

“Training is almost always the first to go when IT organizations have to cut budgets, but that doesn’t always mean employees or even unemployed workers can’t update their skills without spending a lot of money,” says Beverly Lieberman, a member of the Society for Information Management (SIM) and president of Halbrecht Lieberman Associates Inc., an executive search firm in Westport, Conn.

According to IT professionals in the field, keeping skills fresh will benefit the individual as much as the employer, so it makes sense for techies to take the reins of their professional development. And for those techies looking for work, prospective employers will appreciate the training efforts made during a candidate’s downtime. Here we highlight five ways IT pros can get certification-level skills on the cheap.

No. 1: Split the cost with employer

IT professionals working full-time, but faced with no training budget, could argue their case to employers — and offer to split the cost in a mutually beneficial arrangement.

“Training can be perceived as expensive, but many companies today are still having a hard time filling skills gaps, and it would cost more to bring in a new hire than to train an existing one in the skills that are lacking,” Lieberman says. “It is not out of the question for IT pros to negotiate with their employer for training dollars that will ultimately help both parties.”

For some, specific certifications are required for certain positions, which would give an employer more reason to help fund the training effort. Colt Mercer, network engineer at Citigroup Inc. in Dallas, says Level 1 engineers are expected to have their Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) accreditation within three months of being hired. In Mercer’s case, he and others are scheduled to get Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert training by 2010, but he wants to see that happen sooner.

“The company has internal goals for the engineers … but I am trying to do some of the training on my own because I don’t want to have to wait until next year,” Mercer explains.

Gartner Inc. recently released IT workforce data that showed a majority of CIOs don’t plan to hire new staff in the coming months, but the research firm advises employers to invest in existing staff to ensure a more successful recovery when the recession abates.

“Employers need to continue to invest in career development and human capital management planning, even during the recession, because when things start to return it will be extremely costly to try to hire new staff with skills or expertise in enterprise architecture or SAP, for example,” says Lily Mok, vice president in Gartner’s CIO Research organization, where she serves as primary author of the research firm’s annual IT Market Compensation Study. “IT pros may stay with an employer because they need a job now, but they will remember when the recession ends how the employer treated them and could move on because of a lack of training or career development.”

No. 2: Techie, train thyself

IT professionals, employed or otherwise, can gain a wealth of knowledge from self-study if they’re disciplined enough to devote the time and energy to online course, books, videos and Webinars.

“If you can afford self-based training kits, they are great because they allow you to do it at your own pace and schedule the studying when you have time. You don’t need to travel or take time off of work,” says Dwayne Whitmore, senior systems engineer in the technology services group for Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, N.C.

Whether techies buy self-study kits on their own or get their employer to foot the bill (or opt for free options), choosing to broaden skills during personal time can provide the flexibility many people need. For instance, reduced or eliminated travel budgets could be seen as a barrier to training, but online or self-study can provide the information IT pros need without requiring them to spend cash on work trips.

Matt Barber, network analyst at Morrisville State College in New York, is working on the Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA) certification from CWNP. “My workplace purchased the self-study kit, which includes their official textbook, sample tests and questions, and the cost of the exam all for only a couple hundred dollars,” Barber says. “A week-long training seminar or course would have been hard to justify, but the kit was very affordable. It does require that I put in the time and effort in addition to work, but it is a very good way to learn the material.”

For Michelle Lange, who works in WebSPOC project management at ValCom Technology Management Solutions in Itasca, Ill., buying the books that explain the best practices of ITIL helped her self-train. She bought ITIL Version 3 books off eBay for $30, and she purchased Network+ training books at Barnes & Noble.

“My employer offers limited reimbursement options,” she explains. “I’m sure there are others out there who are forced to be thrifty with training options. There are so many other courses I’d like to pursue on (business process management), COBIT and Six Sigma, but it’s tough when budgets are cut.”

Another resource for IT pros looking to learn is CBT Nuggets, which offers fee-based and free training products online.

CBT Nuggets offers the same sort of in-person training you could get with a firm, but it’s all done online and it’s far cheaper for the company or the individual,” says Bryan Sullins, principal tech trainer at New Horizons in Hartford, Conn., and a Microsoft Subnet blogger covering Microsoft certifications and training. “Sometimes buying such training packages in bulk, instead of one class at a time, will be less expensive as well.”

Some companies opt to purchase a license with CBT Nuggets, and those with access can watch the available videos at their leisure. “My company purchased that and I can watch as many as I want online,” Citigroup’s Mercer says.

No. 3: Build your own network using free stuff

In Kevin Costner’s case, building a baseball diamond turned his dream into reality in “Field of Dreams.” For IT professionals, building a home lab could help progress their careers. And according to techies who have already done it, the process can be inexpensive.

Stacey Hager, a network administrator at a legal firm in Charleston, W.V., says he put together a home network in his garage with used parts and software made freely available from vendors. The availability of a network helped him while he was unemployed last year. Plus, now that he has secured a new tech position, the lab gives him the chance to learn technologies not directly related to his job functions, Hager says.

“EBay is my friend. I buy second-hand equipment, and for a modest amount — about $400 — I have scraped together a home lab that is conducive to Microsoft and Cisco self-training,” Hager explains. “You can even get a VMware server for free and train yourself on that technology, which all employers are looking for, and if you can say you trained yourself while unemployed, they will like it more.”

Citigroup’s Mercer also recommends IT pros look to Microsoft for free trials of their products online, including their virtualization software. He explains by using Virtual PC, IT pros can download a Virtual Hard Drive file with Windows Server 2008 already installed and apply the knowledge they learned in books to the actual technology. He also suggests using available open source tools to round out a home network.

“There are two open source projects called Dynamips, for simulating Cisco networks, and Olive for simulating Juniper networks,” Mercer says. “I am not talking about the software that gives you a command line with limited command support. I am talking hardware emulators: full-blown Cisco and Juniper operating systems supporting all the features a router supports.”

Yet Hager warns IT pros must realize what can be brought onto a home network and used for training. Not all technologies are made available for free or a low cost, and the time and money required might outweigh the benefits.

“There are certain things that you simply can’t do at home, such as high-end database system training. You have to find a practical way to bring those technologies that are relevant to you into your network and make time to train yourself, but if you are out of work you have to also build in time to look for a job,” he explains.

No. 4: Provide tech services for cheap

Another means of honing skills is using them. IT pros, working or not, can offer their tech know-how to friends, family or even via a small side business for low or no-cost to exercise their tech muscles during the downturn.

“High-tech workers can offer their services for free and use that experience on resumes and in interviews to show potential employers that they didn’t let their skills get stagnant,” SIM’s Lieberman says. “Also taking contract work helps IT pros get experience with new technologies without having to pay for training.”

For instance, Hager says, when he was in between jobs, he took any opportunity he could to do side work. He suggests that IT pros charge for their services, rather than offer them entirely for free.

“I took as much side work as I possibly could and used my personal networks of people to do bigger jobs so I could show future employers I kept active and my skills didn’t get old,” Hager says. “But I wouldn’t offer them for free. You wouldn’t want employers thinking the tech services were poor quality or the people you did work for were completely desperate.”

Citigroup’s Mercer also engages in freelance technical work to keep skills sharp. He says the work not only makes him more appealing to potential employers, but also serves as the beginnings of a potential consultancy business if his employment situation changes due to the economy or other reasons.

“If I ever want to set up a technical consultancy business of my own, this work will go a long way toward making connections,” he says.

No. 5: Shop for bargains

IT pros should also remember that the economy is not only hurting their companies’ businesses, but also impacting training firms and vendors. New Horizons’ Sullins says firms like his and others are offering “recession” pricing on training packages that won’t last when the economy returns.

“I wouldn’t discount talking to any training firm right now because the recession promotions and recession-buster sales at these IT training firms mean training is dirt cheap,” Sullins says. “As soon as the economy recovers that won’t happen again, trust me.”

And don’t discount vendors as a good source of free training, Mercer says. He has a meeting with Oracle planned that he says will serve as an educational experience for him.

“Oracle is going to do a presentation on Oracle security, and that will be my free training,” he explains. “They might be trying to market stuff, but for me it’s free training because I can’t get that type of information on my own.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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