To the uninformed, the hundreds of tech-related certifications that IT pros use to sell their services amount to an alphabet soup of incomprehensible acronyms. Nevertheless, 68 percent of IT hiring managers regard these labels as a medium or high priority, according to CompTIA, the largest vendor-neutral certifying group.
Most computer certification programs don’t require a college degree, and they can give help-desk professionals and network managers a competitive advantage and an earnings boost. For example, CompTIA says, businesses will typically pay a 10 percent premium for someone who has earned one of its entry-level certifications, and individuals with higher-level certifications can command a 40 percent mark-up.
Microsoft (MCSE, MCITP, MCTS)
Few businesses get along without a hearty helping of Microsoft-powered equipment, and the company offers a raft of specialized training programs for those who service its products. Among Microsoft’s most popular certifications are Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS), and the relatively entry-level Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP)..
The requirements for MCSE certification are one to two years of experience in designing, installing, configuring, and troubleshooting network systems, and a passing mark on an $875 test. Median pay for an IT manager with MCSE certification is $77,000, according to PayScale.com.
MCITP requires two years as an IT pro, and passing marks on one to five exams, priced at $125 each. There are 12 MCITP tracks, and pay for an IT specialist or consultant ranges from $47,000 to $70,000.
MCTS accreditation requires two years of background in troubleshooting specific technology.
CompTIA (A+, Network+, Security+, Linux+)
The nonprofit Computing Technology Industry Association offers popular vendor-neutral certifications–a good option if you’re seeking a consultant who has a mix of experience beyond a single brand. Among the certification options, the basic A+ requires 400 hours of hands-on experience.
A step up in complexity, the $239 Network+ exam awards passing grades (and certification) to test takers who score at least 720 on a scale of 900. The 90-minute, $258 Security+ test has a 750 minimum score for passing, and the test for Linux+ certification has similar requirements. People in various IT roles who have earned these certifications generally earn annual salaries of between $40,000 and $80,000. After January, such certifications will last for three years rather than for life.
Cisco (CCNP, CCNA, CCiE)
Among the most popular certifications in the industry, the basic Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) covers installing and managing medium-size networks. It requires a passing mark on a $250 exam, and certification lasts for three years. CCNA accreditation is a prerequisite for intermediate-level Cisco system certifications such as the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP), which requires passing three 2-hour exams and costs $600. At the high end, Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification is viewed as the gold standard for Cisco-specific work. There are seven tracks, with exam costs of $1750. Qualifying involves 8 hours of lab work and a passing mark on a written test.
Apple (ACSP, ACTC)
A help-desk pro with Microsoft skills may not know how to manage Macs. For shops that rely on Apple products or use a mix of operating systems, Apple Certified Support Professional (ACSP) and Apple Certified Technical Coordinator (ACTC) cover basic support skills as evidenced by passing marks on tests that cost $200 and $400, respectively. For networking support, look for the intermediate Apple Certified System Administrator (ACSA); certification for ACSA entails four exams costing a total of $650. For Mac engineers, strong proficiency in Unix is a plus.
International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium (CISSP)
If your company deals with proprietary information and has deep security needs, Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification is known to be rigorous. People who qualify for it must have worked for at least five years in areas such as security architecture and design, and then must pass a $599 exam and pay an annual renewal fee.
Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA)
This advanced certification is reserved for IT security consultants and auditors with five years’ experience. The test costs $415 or more. Tech consultants who earn this seal of approval enjoy a median annual salary of $87,000.
Project Management Professional (PMP)
This well-respected certification is for people with some college education and at least three years of project management experience. The 200-question exam costs $555 to take. The median salary for PMP-certified IT project managers is $89,000.
Which Do You Need?
If 90 percent of the tech tools that your office uses come from a single vendor, it makes sense to seek an IT pro with certification from that brand. But as more companies use technology from an array of vendors, and as more employees bring their own smartphones and tablets to work, that scenario is becoming less common.
“One of the challenges people run into is the circle of finger-pointing,” says Barry Cousins, senior research analyst at the Info-Tech Research Group. “Was it the HP printer or the drivers on that Apple machine?”
Complicating matters, the certification programs for major brands are often run by a marketing arm of the company. Some programs require examinees to jump through multiple hoops, such as real-world testing and years of experience in the field, but others ask little more than mastery of a pass-fail exam.
A credential alone doesn’t guarantee real-world job skills, but it increases the odds that the person is competent. Look for a well-rounded technician with a deep Rolodex of contacts in the tech world; knowledge of multiple systems and brands can be better than a deep understanding of Windows alone.
In addition, certifications don’t reflect hidden abilities, such as chops in social media. IT skills are lurking outside the lab and server room, within administrative, finance, and human-resources departments. Taking that into account, IT workers have grown from 2 percent of the workforce 17 years ago to 15 percent today, according to Foote Partners.
As more companies try to do more with smaller budgets, the research firm finds, they turn to cloud computing and other technologies that reduce the need for IT staff. As a result, the market for IT professionals now emphasizes hybrid skills. Not only must they understand the equipment, but they must solve business problems creatively.
Don’t take someone’s experience, training, and certification at face value. Ask what they had to do to get a certification. Hands-on lab work in addition to an exam is a good sign.
When reviewing a person’s education, whether it culminated in a liberal arts degree, a diploma from a community college, or a certificate from a trade school, ask about the curriculum. If you’re unsure about credentials, read between the lines. Lay out a real-life IT problem that you recently encountered, and ask how the candidate would solve it. If the task is too daunting, you can hire a consultant to interview IT job candidates.
“The classic mistake most people make is they’re looking for somebody to solve the crisis du jour,” says Michael Schrage, a research associate with the MIT Sloan Center for Digital Business. “You’re looking to manage a relationship over time. The best time to do this is when you’re not having problems.”