By Molly Joss

When I get e-mails from people looking for direction and advice about their IT jobs, I usually respond with information about various training programs or relevant Web sites. Recently, though, I had two e-mail conversations that made me step back a few paces. I gained a fresh perspective on IT training and certification from these exchanges.

In one conversation, a mom wrote to say that her son had just graduated from a four-year college with a degree in information technology. Just over a month later, he still hadn’t found a job, and mom was fretting a bit. A friend suggested that the young man seek certification, and she asked me to recommend a certification program.

The second person wrote that she has multiple degrees related to health care, including a master’s degree. After years of working hard and making only $25,000 per year, she’s ready for a change. She had taken a Java class and wanted to know which certification program would further her new career. She was looking for one with the most immediate monetary return on her investment.

Certification isn’t enough
These e-mails didn’t surprise me, but they did give me pause. I realized that many people see IT certification as something you get so you can get a job. Ideally, though, certification should be something you get after you have an IT job, and it should be directly related to the type of work you’re already doing.

There are no certifications in the IT industry that don’t suggest you acquire some degree of work-related experience before you sit for the exam. Even the A+ certification, which is designed for the newbie computer service technician, is intended for people with at least six months of relevant job experience.

I’m not suggesting that it’s impossible to get an IT job on the basis of certifications alone. I am suggesting that you’re doing your IT career a disservice if you seek to build it on a foundation of certifications alone. If you really want to build a career in IT, you’re better off getting some solid training and experience and topping it off with a certification or two.

I’m basing my opinion on the many talks I’ve had with corporate HR and IT recruiters. A few years ago, the situation was different, and employers were willing to hire on the basis of a certification alone. Not so today—employers have more certified candidates applying for openings, and they’re opting for candidates with degrees and work experience over those with certifications and no degree or experience.

Ultimately, you have to realize that certification programs aren’t designed to teach you how to do a specific job in the IT world. They’re designed to teach you what you need to know in order to pass a particular certification exam.

Beware of certification scams
Certification also isn’t a guaranteed ticket to a new job or career. In fact, if you’re shopping for a certification training provider, do yourself a big favor and run (don’t walk) from any company that says you’re guaranteed a job if you sign up with them. When you hear those kinds of guarantees, somebody is more interested in your money than your education or career.

Be careful, too, if they tell you that you must pay for the entire certification or training program before you attend a single class. Recent events have shown that paying up front is a really bad idea. You could be left holding the bag, with loans to repay and no place to go for your training.

In May, Solid Computer Decisions, Inc., a large computer training company based in Charlotte, NC, abruptly shut its doors, leaving thousands of students in the lurch. The company had 19 schools in 16 states. It later filed for bankruptcy.

The students paid thousands up front for their training, often borrowing the entire amount. They were left without alternate training options, and to get their money back, they have to sue a company that has no liquid assets.

The Missouri attorney general’s office is investigating the possibility that these schools lured students with deceptive claims. One of the claims the schools made was that certification guaranteed you a job. That’s right—the schools promised a job to each student who passed a certification test.

Here’s another cautionary tale. In April, MCJ Solutions, a computer-training company based in Durham, NC, shut its doors, and the company president disappeared. The company’s 10 other schools, located in states across the South, were also locked tight.

Like Solid Computer Decisions, MCJ Solutions had invested heavily in advertising that plainly stated that students were bound to find good jobs—once they had gone through the company’s training and had their certification. In addition, the MCJ Solutions ads promised students IT jobs with big salaries, starting at $30,000 a year. They also promised guaranteed job placement. The North Carolina state attorney general’s office is investigating.

You can expect to see more computer-training companies shutting their doors in the next year or so. Of course, the recession is to blame for some of their financial difficulties, but some of them are going out of business because of a change the federal government has made. The change will wreak havoc with the cash flow in some companies.

The Sallie Mae program
Sallie Mae is a federally sponsored student loan program. In the late 1990s, the program started loaning money to individuals for the purpose of paying for computer certification courses. Some computer-training companies suggested to potential students that they should borrow their tuition money from Sallie Mae. These companies then required a total up-front payment for the certification program.

In the case of Solid Computer Decisions’ students, this meant an up-front payment of up to $12,000. The company pocketed the money, and, as long as all went well, it dispensed the training out over several months. When all didn’t go well, the company shut its doors without warning. Students in the midst of their training still owed Sallie Mae the money they borrowed, and they may not be able to finish their training by transferring to a different training provider.

In an effort to help the people who borrowed the money, Sallie Mae has decided to send the loan money to schools on an ongoing basis that parallels the delivery of the training courses. This decision will limit students’ exposure to financial liability. It will also decrease significantly the cash flow of many training centers, and it will be impossible for some to continue operating.

Sallie Mae loans

Sallie Mae calls its loans for certification programs Career Training Loans (CTLs). You can search for an IT school that is approved to dispense Sallie Mae CTLs by going to and selecting a state from the drop-down list next to Find Out If Your School Is Approved. Then you select IT Schools from the Type Of Schools drop-down box.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t get an IT certification ever, under any circumstances. I’m also not saying you won’t be able to find a reputable or reliable computer-training company—there are some really good learning providers. But if you’re thinking about certification, you should make sure you really need it, that it really will help your career in the short and long term, and that you’re better off paying for your training on a pay-as-you-go basis.

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