IT certs: Be-all-and-end-all or ticket to ride?

Are MCSEs the MBAs of the future? Probably not. Is a CCNA a substitute for a four-year academic degree? No. But IT certs still have their place. Learn why Erik Eckel says "paper" certs are a ticket to ride but not free passes to a successful IT career.

Can a software or hardware company’s certification program earn you automatic riches? Should you view these accreditations, labeled marketing tools in disguise by some, as a replacement for a four-year undergraduate degree? Have IT certs seen their peak? If you ask me, the answer to all three questions is no. Here’s why.
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Just a few months ago, IT training and certification programs were being sold to students with the expectation that graduates would earn incredible salaries as a result of jumping on the technology bandwagon. Tens of thousands of newly certified employees entered the workforce. In many cases, both hiring managers and job candidates thought they possessed all the knowledge required to be IT walk-ons and work magic.

That logic has tarnished the image of IT certification. Working with inexperienced network administrators and support personnel who were supposed to be all-knowing poisoned the notion of accreditations for many industry veterans. All in all, the concept that IT certs alone solved everyone’s technology problems, while leading to riches for those holding the paper, threatened to decrease the value of certification quicker than the NASDAQ headed south in April.

The industry’s catching on
In the last several months, there’s been a remarkable shift to restructure IT certifications. Training and certification providers now promote certification as offering enhanced career opportunities and the chance to stay ahead of the pack. Cisco, Microsoft, Novell, and others have revised their certification programs.

The goal? Have their accreditations better test real-world expertise. This shift will save IT certifications and keep them from becoming the Internet age’s equivalent of correspondence courses—which is particularly ironic, as many IT certs are likely to be earned, thanks in part to Web-based distance training.

IT cert: Your ticket to ride
For a spell, both old and new economy companies were growing faster than the ratings on Survivor. As a result, demand for qualified IT pros skyrocketed, and IT certs seemed like the answer. Why wait for a new hire with a four-year degree and IT experience when here was a candidate with an MCSE or CNE?

But now, IT managers and other IT pros have had some time to place the proper emphasis on certs. What they’ve learned isn’t necessarily bad. While paper certs are wonderful proof of expertise, they’re just that. IT certs demonstrate that an IT professional has proven minimal expertise with a product line or platform. IT accreditations don’t demonstrate an all-knowing status, as marketing programs may have led many to believe.

This is a particularly important distinction, as IT is being overrun with professionals fleeing other careers. Just check out one of TechRepublic’s most recent polls, in which 72 percent of those responding said they’d come to IT from other professions.

What about the riches?
Many people have been sold on IT certs as the springboard to a six-figure salary, but they need to understand that experience still plays the biggest role in determining an IT pro’s pay. In August, Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine released its annual salary survey.

The numbers show that an MCSE with less than a year of experience can expect to earn an average of $46 K annually. Factor in the average 5.9 years of experience that survey respondents had, and the annual salary leaps to $63 K.

What’s that prove? Capitalism works. The laws of supply and demand never lie. And that’s good news for the IT industry. If the industry begins balancing the value of certification with experience, there’ll be no more “paper MCSE” surprises.

If you’re looking for a career in IT, get certified. If you’ve got experience, and you want leverage for negotiating an improved salary package, get certified. If you’ve got a four-year computer science degree, and you want to maximize your expertise, get certified. If you’re a PR pro who’s handled tech firms as clients, and you want to move into IT yourself, get certified.

I could go on, but I think you see where I’m headed.

If you use an IT certification as proof of a minimum set of skills, you’re not over-promising abilities you can’t deliver. If you promise the world because you’ve earned MCSE, CCNA, or another accreditation, you’d better have years of experience under your belt. You’re going to need them.

Am I crazy?
TechRepublic’s been painting its office hallways. Have the fumes gotten to me? Share your opinions and certification experiences below.
Post your comments on whether Eckel’s on track with the state of IT certification or blinded by his own MCSE.

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