The issue of certifications vs. experience is always a hot-button topic when talking about IT careers. While some feel that an alphabet soup of certifications next to your name is the surest way to land a lucrative IT job, others feel that on-the-job experience means more. For many, the issue of certs vs. experience seems to be a catch-22: It’s difficult to get anywhere without experience, and it’s difficult to get experience without certifications. Now it seems that network certification exams are more inclined to test what a person can do in the field in addition to what is learned in the classroom.

In response to a recent article discussing the fact that the updated Network+ certification exam has been revised to test more practical hands-on skills, TechRepublic members chimed in with arguments on both sides of the training-vs.-experience fence. Many of those working toward Network+ certification expressed concern that their lack of hands-on experience might hurt their chances of passing the new exam. Other members offered some valuable insights on beating the experience catch-22 and passing the updated exams that demand real-world knowledge.

In particular, members stressed that those breaking into the field must have the patience to initially take whatever jobs are available for inexperienced IT professionals. Ultimately, it’s the combination of practical experience, at whatever level, and certifications that will help IT professionals land the jobs they ultimately desire.

Is the experience requirement a bad thing?
Concerned about how the need for hands-on experience affects those just getting started, jbachandouris wrote, “Because I am new to IT…I need a cert that I can pass without tons of experience.” This concern stands at the heart of the issue for many. If certifications are the proverbial foot in the door, exams that expect some hands-on experience diminish their chances.

Candace, who is currently in a university IT program, echoed concerns that classroom experience might not be enough to obtain certification but argued that the change in the Network+ exam is actually a good one. “I have to be as adaptive as these exams are going to be,” Candace said. “I’d be shortchanging myself, and any future employers, if I weren’t.”

Is it a catch-22?
Many feel that the change in the Network+ exam sets up a problematic situation. Certification is obviously one means through which jobseekers hope to make themselves employable in the IT profession. But if hands-on experience is expected as part of the qualification, where do they get the experience?

As catch22edwards wrote, “The new Network+ exam specifies that the person taking the test have on-the-job experience in the network field. This is a catch-22 if you don’t work in the field.”

The answer, some readers argued, is to create your own experience. Rick Brightwell of Cingular Wireless said that setting up a lab at home to experiment with is one way to gain hands-on experience. Systems engineer Mark White agreed. “I once hired a junior admin not because of the N+ on his resume but because he had built a 17-host network in his basement running every flavor of Windows and Linux OS, plus an old DEC Alpha and a SPARC 5.”

This kind of hobbyist work, White said, shows a desire to learn and the initiative it takes to do so. Longhaired Computer Geek also noted that he prefers to hire those who are “home cooks,” as he called them, because of the practical knowledge they gain from the experience.

Dabbling in a network hobby, it seems, is a viable way to gain experience that potential employers value and to obtain some of the hands-on knowledge that certification exams may increasingly require.

Experience is not necessarily king
Not everyone agreed that experience is the key. A number of IT professionals said that in spite of their on-the-job experience, they’ve had trouble finding employment.

While Mark wrote that “experience is king these days,” others contended that after being laid off, they’ve had little luck in landing jobs because they lack certifications. IT support technician George Corrigan, for example, said that his 16 years of experience in computer networking has not helped him find work. He said he’s sent out “950+ resumes, and still counting.”

JPR also said that he’s an experienced IT professional who has sent out hundreds of resumes with little success. “I don’t have the laundry list of certifications that are so popular today, and that is hurting me.”

Others countered that perhaps it’s not the lack of certifications that hamper the job search but the search methods employed. Member risleyla pointed out that knowing how to write an effective resume and perform well in an interview are key components in the job search. Another member argued that to get a job in IT, you have to either somehow prove your expertise or know someone in the right place. Louise Gainor and several others agreed that networking (networking with other people, that is, rather than computer networking) is an important part of landing a job, regardless of your training or experience.

Balancing the equation
It’s apparent from the testimonials of those in the profession that neither experience alone nor certifications determine your success in landing an IT job. Rather, it takes a combination of factors that include both training and experience and that also encompass effective job search strategies.

Patience, claimed Cleveland St. Jacques, is also a key ingredient. “Get your foot in the door and learn as much as possible….When you have time, get your certs and don’t expect the world for at least three years.”

In sum, the feedback of readers on the issue of certification vs. hands-on experience indicates that:

  • Certification remains an important credential for landing a job in IT.
  • Practical experience is highly valued, regardless of how you obtain it.
  • You can get viable experience and training by building a home network and experimenting.
  • Just as in any other profession, success in IT requires effective job search strategies that go beyond IT training and certifications.