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Certification Uncertainty

What professional certifications can do for you--maybe

5 min read

Congratulations. You’ve got a bachelor’s, a master’s, and maybe even a doctorate in engineering, not to mention years of work experience. But do you need to jump on the certificate bandwagon?

Well, it depends.

Certifications confirming your proficiency in certain technologies from hardware and software vendors—such as Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE), Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE), or Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE)—can give you a leg up on the competition. They can also provide you with greater command of a particular technology and bump your salary by thousands of dollars, especially in the information technology industry. But they still should be regarded as a complement to education, work experience, and related skill sets, not as a replacement.

”Certifications alone are not enough to make a viable candidate—youalso need work experience,” says Katherine Spencer Lee, the executive director of Robert Half Technology, an international provider of IT professionals, headquartered in Menlo Park, Calif. Still, she adds, ”if you’re competing for a new job or a promotion at your current company and your skills are comparable to those of the competition, certifications can provide a competitive edge over the other candidates. It’s also proof to employers that you have the drive and commitment to complete goals and stay current in an industry where change is constant.”

Although the Robert Half Technology 2006 Salary Guide notes that certain credentials can push salaries 5 to 12 percent higher than average, that’s not always the case. Engineers need to be strategic in navigating the oversaturated certification landscape.

Many vendors use certification as a way to influence the marketplace, because engineers with certificates for specific products will tend to want to use the knowledge they have paid for rather than to explore new options. This fact of life has led to ”an explosion of different vendor certifications,” says Joel Burchett, an IT systems specialist with ChaCha Search, a search engine start-up in Carmel, Ind. ”There are well over 100 entry-level computer science�related certifications, which require recertification every time there’s an upgrade. It is starting to border on the absurd.”

Deciding if certifications are right for you, or which ones you should acquire, requires weighing the cost and time of the courses you’ll have to take against marketplace factors and career goals. Certifications run from US $1700 to $8000 for three- to five-day courses, or several hundred dollars for books, training materials, and practice exams if you choose to teach yourself.

Although most certifications focus on IT, they do exist for other areas, like project management and health care information systems. Vendor-neutral certifications—from the international Computing Technology Industry Association, in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., for example—might be more appropriate for people anticipating career changes or for those who don’t want to be tethered to one product or company.

”Certification is treated very differently depending on company and position,” says Peter Webb, a software engineer with The MathWorks, in Natick, Mass. ”It doesn’t seem to make much difference here for the job I do—R&D software engineering. But if you were hiring a guy whose only job was to maintain a Microsoft network and you wanted him to hit the ground running, you might want to ask for some kind of Microsoft certification on his résumé.”

Organizations and cultures where titles, plaques, and hierarchy matter tend to emphasize certifications. ”They seem to mean a lot more outside of North America and Japan—in particular Germany, Sweden, Italy, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Pakistan, India, and Arabia,” says Virgil Perryman, an engineering project specialist with EcoPlasma Corp., in New York City, who has overseen projects around the world. ”It makes employers feel like they’ve made the right decision. Often, when you’re doing a project in the Middle East, the hiring companies will ask for people with this and that certification. Latin America especially likes them for junior engineers and workers in government projects.”

When you get a certification can also be important. Certification popularity changes according to technology demands. Before you drop some serious coin, you may want to wait until you’re ready to make a job change so your certifications not only match your job needs but also reflect the most current technology and marketplace trends.

”Certifications are critical when you’re in the job market—it’sa way of showing, rather than telling, an interviewer that you understand a certain technology,” says Ron Teagarden, a senior support analyst with Cold Stone Creamery, in Scottsdale, Ariz., who’s completed several Microsoft certifications. ”After that, they’re most effective for people in entry-level positions to three years of work experience and for those looking to change roles within the industry. I knew a number of mainframe administrators who took Microsoft courses in Windows technology because the mainframe technologies were a dying breed and Windows was increasing in popularity, and they wanted to stay employable.”

This year, the IT trade site CertCities.com and Certification Magazine cite Red Hat Certified Engineer and Microsoft Certified Professional as the top certifications.

”Linux is on the rise, and Red Hat is its biggest player, so that certification is really gaining popularity,” says Rob Notaro, of Optival, a Carmel, Ind., IT consultancy. ”Usually, the harder a certification is to obtain, the more it is worth. Right now Cisco’s top certification is probably the hardest to get. I read that Microsoft is coming out with an even more exclusive one next year that will cost $10 000 and be based on a peer-review format.”

”The big downside of certifications is that, to seriously stay current, you have to come home and study for 1 to 4 hours every night�it’s never-ending”

But just as engineers shouldn’t rely on certifications for salary bumps and promotions, employers should not regard them as the sole measure of employees’ technical capabilities. After years of tests that could be passed by rote memorization, vendors are revamping exams to make them more rigorous. But they still can’t measure a person’s ability to manage staffs, control budgets, communicate effectively, and work well with others. So companies that pigeonhole employees based on certifications are taking a risk.

”Most hiring managers are not technical and rarely ask IT personnel to be a part of the interview process, so as not to risk the liability of an untrained person asking an improper or illegal question in an interview,” says Burchett. ”So they require a person to have ’industry’ certifications, hoping this proves technical competence. But a person withcertifications and little or no practical experience could still be technically inept. I once worked with a colleague who was finishing his Ph.D. and had several IT certifications but botched the installation of a router by stripping a screw on a rack.”

The biggest strategy of all may be knowing when to get off the certification treadmill. Once his children were born, Teagarden began shifting his responsibilities from Windows systems administration to the less changeable voice technology.

”The big downside of certifications is that, to seriously stay current, you have to come home and study for 1 to 4 hours every night�it’s never-ending,” says Teagarden. ”It becomes part of your life. That’s fine for someone who’s 19, but as you get older and have families and life obligations, it gets more difficult. Then you have to ask yourself, ’Do I help my kid with math or study for another Microsoft exam?’”

About the Author

SUSAN KARLIN is an award-winning journalist (skarlin@aol.com). She has contributed to The New York Times, Forbes,and Discover.

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