In an unstable economy, information technology professionals — whether employed or searching for work, new to the field, or nearing retirement — should always be looking for ways to keep their skills current. Many companies still require IT certification training or some form of continuing education for that very purpose. Some include this necessary training as an employee benefit, but unfortunately, many others have cut these training programs completely over the last few years to trim costs. Fortunately, according to a survey of 100 business leaders by The New Learner (released in March), training and development in the workplace should increase by 50 percent during 2010, “with the main learning medium straying away from industry-wide conferences and being replaced by alternative online solutions.”

Whatever your job status — and regardless of whether your company pays for this training or you have to pay by other means — make it a goal this year to expand your knowledge even more. Follow these tips to make your training experience most effective:

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1: Take advantage of on-the-job training whenever possible

Every job comes with opportunities to learn and practice new skills as part of your job responsibilities. Never pass up a chance to receive additional training, formal or informal. You never know when you’ll need a particular computer-related skill. If the training you need (or want) isn’t available on the job, either suggest it or look outside the company for it.

2: Go back to school for more extended learning

If your schedule allows, begin a part- or full-time degree or certificate program at a technical, community, or online college to build your skills and knowledge. Schools such as DeVry University, ITT Technical Institute, and University of Phoenix offer diverse IT programs with both in-classroom, online, and blended learning environments (a combination of in-classroom and online learning).

3: Learn from the experts

Utilize training materials written or recorded by experts in the IT industry. They know more than the bare essentials to just get you by and will help you on your way to becoming an expert in your field, too.

4: Use self-paced, online training for greater flexibility

Unlike instructor-led classroom training and bootcamps, self-paced training allows you to review the instruction until you’ve mastered it. And when your training is online, you can take it wherever you go. Work on your own schedule, pause to take breaks, and resume right where you left off. You can continue training until you’re ready to certify and you can reference the material again in the future if questions arise.

5: Use training that includes online lab simulations for practical experience

Your training is for more than just passing an exam, right? If you want to learn how to do your job well, make sure whatever training you invest in provides real experience performing tasks with hardware, operating systems, and networking. Even better, find training that combines this hands-on experience with practice exams, expert video instruction, and written reference material for a complete training package. There’s more than one way to learn, so be sure to incorporate different methods in your training. Each method will build on the others and reinforce what you’re learning.

6: Test yourself with practice exams to find out where you have knowledge gaps

Using practice exams that comprehensively cover the certification exam material, you will discover your strengths and weaknesses and see where you need to focus your training. High-quality practice exams will also prepare you mentally for the rigor of the actual certification exam. If you breeze through a practice exam, it’s likely that you’re ready to certify.

7: Practice on physical hardware if it’s available to you

On a less formal scale, if you have access to computers or components, practice, practice, practice. Many people don’t have a computer they can spare, but if you do (or can borrow from someone who does), be sure to use it.

8: Use training that follows IT certification course requirements exactly

This will help prepare for certification exams, especially if the job you’re looking for requires them. Make sure you pass your certifying exam the first time by preparing with materials designed according to exam objectives.

9: Use training that tracks every action and scores results accordingly

The only way to gauge your readiness both for a job and for a certification exam is to track your progress. Find a training program that keeps track of your scores as you go. You’ll be able to gauge your strengths are and determine where you need additional training and practice.

10: Overall, focus on the fundamentals

Learn processes, how things should be done, and how things work. Good training will help you really understand your job and prepare you to do it well.

About the author

Don Whitnah is vice president of TestOut Corp., a provider of LabSim online labs for IT certification training. Whitnah is a Certified Novell Instructor (CNI), Certified Novell Engineer (CNE), Certified Novell Administrator (CNA), Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP).