By Lana Gates

Editor’s note: This is the second half of an article that discussed strategies for keeping your skills up to date that originally appeared in Contract Professional magazine. This installment offers advice on certifications and finding time for training.

Myriad certification opportunities exist, both vendor-specific and vendor-neutral, and ranging from one week to a year or so. In fact, according to Bob Kile, executive director of Denver-based, vendor-neutral, nonprofit training company National Association of Communication Systems Engineers (NACSE), more than 400 certifications are floating around in the industry.

Less than two years ago, that number was under 200. Of the more than 400 certifications, probably 99 percent are vendor certifications, Kile says.

Vendor-specific certification certifies you on a specific vendor’s products, such as Microsoft’s MCSE certification. What if you end up at a job that has both Microsoft and Novell products in its network? Then what?

Vendor-neutral certification covers more than just one vendor’s products. NACSE, for example, offers an NNIA (NACSE NOS InterOp Associate) certificate, which certifies someone as an MCSE, a Novell CNE, and a UNIX/Linux Administrator. It gives recipients a broader background to enter the job force. “They understand three major operating systems and can make them talk,” Kile says. “They can operate in a real-world environment where there’s a situation with mixed products.”

Uncertified consultant Brandon Forest says he’s never been asked about certification when applying for jobs. Yet Dan Woodward, certification manager for Novell education (Provo, UT), says more and more people are being asked if they have certification. However, Forest believes “certification has become diluted” and of little value.

The problem Forest sees with certification is that “once you get on that treadmill, you can never get off.” Certifications keep being replaced with new technologies. You have to be certified in the new technologies. Then more new technologies come out, and you have to be recertified. You get the picture.

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A few certification programs actually require that you recertify at regular intervals. The main reason behind that is to keep certified professionals current on the technology, because it is changing so rapidly.

All NACSE certifications require annual or biannual recertification. Intel also requires annual certification updates. In fact, with Intel, you earn the credential “Intel Certified Integration Specialist for 2000,” for example. You have to be certified for the current year. With your first Intel certification, you automatically receive your first year’s recertification without having to complete recertification requirements. With some other vendors, certifications remain valid until the exams required for them expire.

People who complete certification are technically competent, but they might lack real-world experience. Forest, who recently helped out in the hiring process, notes, “I would rather have somebody with five years of experience than somebody with no experience and certification.”

Consultant Dave Crowley is a Certified Materials Management Consultant in SAP. “Some clients look very highly at that; others don’t even look at it,” he says. “It tends to be more important for the client who doesn’t know much about it.”

Novell’s Woodward agrees. Certification, he says, “proves to the customer that the consultant really knows what they’re talking about.” Kile adds, “It provides a valid measurement tool for clients who are not sophisticated to be able to hire people and have some confidence this person knows what they’re doing.”

Clay Conard, a retired colonel and transition assistant facilitator for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, helps train and place IT contractors who are leaving the military. Certification, he says, “is the key to the door.” Consultant Brian Halkett found that to be true with his MCSD certification. “Lacking resume experience initially,” he says, “it opened the doors.” Plus, he adds, at the entry level, it shows that you’re a self-starter.

One problem with certifications is that anyone can read a manual and memorize and pass the exams. “They can have book knowledge and not have practical, hands-on, in-depth knowledge of knowing what they’re doing,” Conard explains. Novell is addressing this issue through its method of certification, a hands-on practicum. At a testing center, you dial out remotely over the Internet and connect to a live Novell lab, not a simulation. Your exam is to restore a broken directory. Either you know it or you don’t.

Time is of the essence
When do consultants find time to train? The most time they have is on the job. Consultant Matthew Walton says he learns by doing. “I am constantly honing my skills while on projects, and I always try to sneak new technologies into my projects.”

In addition to training on the job, a lot of consultants train after hours or on weekends. They read books, magazines, and journals. Occasionally, they train online. “I read all the time,” Forest says. “That’s where I get a lot of my training. I read about a technique, and I try it. That’s even more valuable than doing an online course for me.” Forest spends $300 to $500 a year on books and journals.

Regardless of the training plan you choose, it’s important to reassess that plan regularly. Set goals annually or even twice a year. Keep it ongoing. Be looking to the future to know in which direction you need to head. Forest tries to look two years down the road to determine which new skills to add to his mix.

Consultant Crowley assesses his training plan quarterly to determine upcoming technologies and what will help his clients. Talking to clients and seeing where they’re headed can certainly prove beneficial as well.

The training plan one consultant chooses may not be the right plan for you. It’s got to be an individual decision and something you can work with. The important thing is to make sure you are training regularly and staying current. “The main thing,” says consultant Jackie Grubb, “is you’ve got to take charge. Do it yourself. Figure out how to do it yourself, and don’t expect that you’re going to go to a seminar and learn this all in one week.”

Lana Gates, a frequent contributor to CP, is a freelance writer based in Mesa, AZ.

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