Cover Story - Certification Put to the Test

It's clearly an employee's market in the IT industry at the moment. Recent figures from the IT&T Skills Taskforce place the current job vacancy rate in IT as high as 50,000. This so-called skills shortage has sent employment prospects and salaries for IT professionals skyrocketing, and company-sponsored training and certification is increasingly offered as part of an employment package designed to attract and retain good staff.

But what is the value to the IT professional?

Steve Ross, general manager of Com Tech Education Services, explains, "Certification provides individuals with the work-ready skills they need to succeed in the ever-changing IT industry. Because industry recognised certification lets employers know that an individual has the necessary skills, an individual who is certified has a much better chance of getting a job over any individual who does not have the relevant certifications. Certification also increases an individual's earning potential and chances for career advancement."

Yet while certification can help the IT rookie get a foot in the door, fill gaps in knowledge and provide formal validation of existing skills for the professional, it's no replacement for experience on the job.

Jann Westermann, a network engineer at an Australian banking institution [name of company withheld at Westermann's request], is sceptical of certification and believes the hype surrounding it far outweighs its actual benefits.

"It's overrated. There are a lot of certified schmucks you wouldn't trust to tie your shoelaces, let alone run a network. Most of the good people in the industry aren't renewing their certifications and I don't plan to."

Westermann, who has worked in IT for four years, has Microsoft, Novell and Cisco certifications. He says he invested time and money into getting certified to fill gaps in his resume.

"I was working with products," Westermann recalls. "At the time I felt certification was a means of formalising my skills. I hoped it would improve my employment prospects and salary and fill gaps in my knowledge. It didn't really."

Westermann says the fact that most certification exams are multiple choice and the popularity of "brain dump sites" like, has meant a rise in the number of people with "paper certifications".

"Someone might not know anything about Microsoft products but if they know how to pick up a book and go to then they can get a marginal pass. It's a pass or fail system, so there's no distinction. That's the same certification I have. I busted my arse, but the piece of paper I have from Microsoft is no better than that. Paper certifications bring the whole value of the system down."

But Com Tech's Ross believes the certifications are becoming more meaningful.

"Certifications are not getting easier," Ross asserts. "They can't afford to get easier because so many employees depend on certification to help identify skilled IT professionals. Bypassing proper training and study in order to cram for a certification test will not help students achieve certification, nor will it prepare them for a career in technology. There is no substitute for hard work and dedication."

Westermann argues that anyone who has experience in the industry does not need to be certified, as long as they can prove they know what they are doing.

"There are a lot of very skilled people without certifications. They get the jobs on their merits because they know what they're doing. They've got five years on the job, plus references, and when you interview them, they can talk about the intricacies. Most interviews have a technical assessment where engineers are quizzed. The recruitment agencies still ask about the certifications, but the actual employers don't."

Westermann concedes certifications can provide a foot in the door for those first starting out in the IT industry, but he says people still need to "pay their dues".

"How do you get experience in the first place? You get a shit-kicking job and do what I did for four years. You've got to pay your dues. You can't just rock up and take a job for $50,000 as a network engineer. You have to take a job for $25,000 as a help desk person and go from there. People try to jump the queue but they fall flat on their faces, because you need a trouble-shooting model and that's the stuff certifications don't teach. You learn how to set up a network by helping someone else."

It's clear certification is no substitute for hands-on experience, but technology changes so rapidly that IT professionals continually need to update their skills or fall behind explains Beng Yeoh, managing director of Interim Technology Corporate Education.

"Certification provides a method of ensuring the skills and knowledge of the IT staff keep pace with the technology being implemented. Certification provides employers with a benchmark for hiring, promoting and career planning."

As well as vendor-based certification, IT professionals can gain qualifications from universities, TAFE or the Australian Computer Society (ACS).

TAFE runs entry-level courses lasting six months full time for a certificate award or two years full time for a diploma.

"TAFE is very well resourced in terms of equipment, and training is very hands on," says Agnes Vukovic, program manager for information technology at TAFE. "Learners have the advantage of getting practical experience and the qualifications are nationally recognised under the Australian Qualifications Framework ... Unfortunately, they are not well recognised by the industry who have a perception of TAFE doing mainly trade-based courses."

The Australian Computer Society (ACS), meanwhile, runs a Masters level program, catering for IT professionals moving into managerial positions.

Normal entry is ACS membership, which presumes a recognised IT degree, and certification is valid for four years.

"The program has been designed by practitioners for practitioners. It is not designed to provide basic skills but to help with the successful diffusion of IT in Australia," explains Gerald Murphy, certification program manager for the ACS. "Graduates obtain specialist knowledge and understanding of important subject areas in the application of IT to business. As such they become employees valued for their awareness of appropriate technologies and the issues involved in the successful implementation of these into organisations. Graduates move into more responsible roles in business."

And certifications are becoming increasingly popular.

A national survey conducted by the Leading Edge Market Research Consultants on behalf of Com Tech Education Services shows that close to 70 per cent of network professionals identified the opportunity to acquire new skills as the primary reason for remaining with their organisations, rating it higher than a competitive salary, company culture and superior technology.

The research also revealed that while more than 50 per cent of network professionals say they need at least two weeks of training each year, company commitment to training is falling well short of demand, with less than 30 per cent offering one to two weeks, 27 per cent offering two to four weeks, and 11 per cent offering four weeks or more of technical training annually.

"The research shows that IT staff want more training than companies are currently committed to, which results in high levels of staff dissatisfaction and talent being enticed by job offers elsewhere," says Com Tech's Steve Ross. "The reality is there is a finite global pool of highly-skilled IT professionals. Organisations are snapping up the best they can find from this pool without replenishing it by skilling-up and leveraging the potential of existing talent. This is leaving IT divisions seriously understaffed. In the long run, by not providing training opportunities, companies are shooting themselves in the foot."

Certification by the Numbers

The most popular technical certifications in 1999 were Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) (57 per cent), followed by Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) and Certified Novell Engineer (CNE) (each 16 per cent), Certified Novell Administrator (CNA) (15 per cent), Certified Lotus Professional (CLP) (10 per cent), Cisco certification (five per cent), and Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD) (three per cent).

Two primary reasons that network professionals demand training opportunities from employers are to 'increase or update knowledge' (47 per cent) and to gain 'technical certification' (30 per cent), according to the results of the national survey conducted by Leading Edge Market Research Consultants.

In 1999, 74 per cent of students undergoing technical training were doing so in order to achieve certification, compared to 71 per cent the year before. A growing number of students believe certification is more relevant to their career than a university degree, with 72 per cent agreeing that certification would guarantee them a job.

"Although it remains second to updating knowledge, it is no surprise that the number of students training to get certified has increased by almost 10 per cent compared to last year," Com Tech's Ross says. "Realistically university degrees cannot provide all the necessary work-ready skills. The value of certification in the midst of this skills crisis is simple - not only does it tell prospective employers that an individual has achieved a high level of skill based on set international standards, it delivers on what both employers and students need by enabling students to acquire skills which they can implement in the workplace to become effective immediately."

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