Can Certification Make a Difference?

Does industry certification for IT workers still matter? It depends on whom you ask. But most industry experts will tell you that technology skills are just one piece of what employers look for in their workforce.

“Of course certifications matter, but do they matter in the scheme of everything employers are looking for in IT workers? Less than they used to,” says David Foote, CEO and chief research officer of Foote Partners, an IT workforce and compensation research consultancy in New Caanan, Conn.

Before the Internet, IT was in the business of increasing productivity by automating tasks and allowing companies to do things more cheaply and faster. But that has changed as business has increasingly moved to the Web. Technology is “right up against the customer,” says Foote, “and Web systems are used to conduct business.” That means technology has actually become the product in a lot of companies.

“So when employers look at who to put in those jobs,” says Foote, “they think of tech skills, but also how well an applicant knows the customer, his industry experience and maybe even solution experience.” For example, a health care company may be willing to train someone on Oracle database if that person has had five to seven years working in the industry.

“If they find that person but they’re not certified, they say ‘Who cares?’ It’s not necessary that they have certification,” Foote observes. The importance of certification — and paying a premium for it — has diminished over the years because employers are interested in other things in workers, he maintains.

“It’s more than just pure technology; it’s about the industry experience in addition to technical skills and who is experienced in the type of customers they’re selling to,” Foote says, “because you’re delivering a lot of business over the internet and never talking to people.”

Matters of Concern

IT workers remain steadfastly concerned about certification. According to results of a biannual survey of more than 1,000 IT workers, just released by tech career site Dice, 82 percent of tech professionals cite the ability to keep their skills up-to-date as a strong area of concern. Further, when asked to assess their employer’s encouragement and support of skills development, one-third of tech professionals say it is only “fair” or “poor.” Only 26 percent rated their employers’ performance in this area as “excellent,” with 40 percent of respondents rating it as “good.”

“Certification is important still,” says Paul Melde, vice president of technology at Dice, which is based in Des Moines, Iowa. “I’m not sure if the criticality of a few years ago was really as critical as we all thought it was, but I think it’s a great way to demonstrate a basic competence in a technology.”

A Competitive Issue

Certification has to be backed up with demonstrable work experience, Melde adds. Dice gets a lot of job postings specifying certifications, especially in contract positions, he says. Some of the ones that routinely come up are Microsoft certified engineers (MSCE), Cisco certification (CCIE) and project management certification (PMP), he says.

In terms of pay, “With certification coupled with experience, it would keep you at the upper end of what the market is in your area,” Melde says. “The ongoing education it represents gets back to what tech professionals were discussing in the survey — keeping skills up to date.”

Yet, Foote’s research shows that in the last 12 months, pay for non-certified skills is up an average of seven percent, while in the same period, the average pay for certified skills is down 1.2 percent. Non-certified skills may include application development, networking and operating systems. Certified skills include IT security, Web development, and database management, Foote says.

“What’s interesting is we have not seen, on a quarterly basis, certification losing value since 2004. So, it’s a big deal that for first time in two years in this last quarter, certification skills are negative numbers; they’re going in the other direction,” Foote says.

While some certifications are “so easy to get it’s laughable,” Foote concurs with Melde that certifications from Cisco and The Project Management Institute absolutely guarantee a bump in pay.  Similarly, security certifications such as CISSP and CISP, and some of the certifications offered by Novell and Oracle are likely to draw increased compensation.

For the past seven years, rapid application development/extreme programming is the highest paying skill, whether certified or non-certified, according to the Foote Partners’ 3rd Quarter 2006 Hot Technical Skills and Certifications Pay Index survey of pay for 253 IT skills, which included 55,000 U.S. and Canadian IT workers.

But overall, Foote emphasizes that “more and more companies are finding they have to pay the individual, not the job.”