These days certification isn’t cheap. Between providing training and study time, a typical certification may cost your company from $700 to $2,000 per employee.

And this is on top of the costs of the certification tests, which can range from $100 to $500 per test. With all this expense, the question I’m sure many an employer has asked is: Is it worth it?

Let’s first explore some of the benefits and follow that up with what I think is a very viable alternative solution.

Certification conveys a number of conceptions about the individual. In an employee, the image of personal commitment and drive is attached to certification.

The certification(s) indicates that the employee has the dedication to pursue professional development outside of the arena of his or her full-time career. It shows a passion about her field of interest and for her personal development plan.

And when screening job applicants, certification has become an obvious litmus test for employers. When considering applicants with experience in the field, the one with certifications will often fare better because of the above-mentioned notions that accompany certifications.

And when looking for entry-level employees, many companies look for professional certifications to open the door to that potential first job. The earned certification is supposed to be the qualifier: proof to the employer that this prospective employee has the required aptitude to get the job done.

As an employer, you are expected to assume that, with this credential, the candidate has the minimum level of knowledge about the products he works with.

Also, as a business, you receive certain vendor incentives for having certified individuals on your team (such as being labeled a solutions provider with Microsoft).

These incentives may serve to comfort or impress your clients with the quality and technical expertise they hope to receive in their relationship with you.

Getting Burned

But in reality, do these letters after the employee’s name really deliver on all that’s promised?

In a word: No.

Using certification as a minimum aptitude is now a waste of time. There are countless ways to beat the certification testing system and just as many Web sites dedicated to just that.

These “brain-dump” sites (not to mention professional Web sites) make a living bucking the system. If a certification exists, it can be cheated on.

There are people that will study posted test questions for a couple of days, take the test, and pass. Most of these certification tests only require a C-average.

And while the majority of employees actually do seek certification to support continuous learning and to improve their own knowledge and performance, many seek certification for entirely different reasons altogether.

Some earn the certification to gain the financial token offered as incentive by the employer. Some earn it because they fear losing their job if they don’t. And some earn it so that they may go find a more lucrative job elsewhere.

Yes, that’s right. I mentioned that these certifications are costly and many in the IT field just can’t afford to earn them. So it is quite common for an employee to specifically seek out a company that will pay for certification.

Once they certify, they move on to greener pastures because they want more money than the current employer is willing to give.

So, is it worth it to certify in your company? That depends on your motivation for encouraging the certifications. If you need to be able to show your clients and your public that you have a percentage of recruits who are safely and securely certified in order for them to maintain their faith or loyalty, by all means yes. Continue on with the certifying.

But if you are strongly urging your people to certify in hopes that you will have a top-notch, highly trained, special forces level of employees in your arsenal, my answer for you is no. Seek other training options.

The Four-Step Remedy

My dream solution for this education vs. certification battle is to offer four things within each company: ongoing education/training, community experience, trade magazines, and a computer lab.

Encourage ongoing education/training. Allow your employees to pursue excellence in the area that they are passionate about in the field. And offer similar encouragement to pursue topics that will foster excellence in their position in your company.

Provide classroom training in-house. Offer computer-based training (CBT). Approve funding when an employee takes the initiative to choose to attend a seminar or conference.

Let them explore their potential. The whole purpose of training is to better oneself. If an employee works with Microsoft technology and they want to learn about Cisco firewalls, encourage it. Help them grow.

Give them the training that makes them love your company and be loyal to your company. In the end, you will find yourself with an excited, knowledgeable, fulfilled employee who feels appreciated and valued by his employer.

Open the door to experience in the IT community. Allow your employees to grow within the IT communities around the world by participating on message boards and blogging.

Encourage them to speak at conferences if their subject is accepted. Troubleshooting solutions to the problems of others and then providing helpful information to the masses is a great learning tool.

Offer subscriptions to trade magazines. If your employees are interested in certain computer subjects, consider allowing them to subscribe to a magazine that will provide cutting-edge information.

Support their need to read about emerging technologies. Providing your employees with resources to grow and learn and gain experience will likely be more valuable than any four-letter acronym out there.

Finally, and most importantly, make the investment in a computer lab.

One thing I would love every company to have is a lab for learning. There is nothing better than a computer lab to test out things and learn through hands-on participation.

You may even want to have your staff configure lab time into their job to explore new technologies or to dig deeper into familiar ones. I can’t tell you the number of certification tests I have taken but I didn’t even break the surface of many issues until I was faced with them in my lab at 2 a.m.

Real learning takes place when setting up these programs and labs and by working through them until you really feel the product and what it’s about.

As a highly certified IT professional, I believe there is a better way for many companies to prepare their staffs. Allow your company’s finest to ignite their passions. You will be (happily) surprised what the freedom will bring.