Certifiably concerned about training

I often tell people that as a journalist, there's no beat I'd rather cover than information technology. The reason is simple: I can't think of a discipline that has a greater impact on people's lives or a profession that is populated by more talented, dedicated individuals who epitomize what it means to persevere.

It's because I have an equally high regard for the IT profession that I was bothered by a study we covered in the US this week on the salaries being paid to IT professionals with technical skills. According to the Foote Partners study of 48,000 IT workers in the US and Europe, compensation for those who lack technical certifications increased by 2.8 percent in the first quarter of 2005, while pay for workers with certifications increased by only 0.6 percent. And for the full year that ended April 1, workers without certifications enjoyed an average pay increase of 3.6 percent, while those with technical certifications saw an increase of 2.9 percent.

If you found yourself reading that paragraph twice because it seemed sort of backward, you got it right the first time. So, what on earth would account for the counter-intuitive results? Why would non certified workers fare better than certified workers? Foote Partners president David Foote chalks the findings up to what "could be the beginning of a trend" -- a greater appreciation for skills demonstrated through real-world experience than for the certifications themselves. "It might be the reversal of the past when you had to have certifications to prove you had the skills," Foote says.

Granted, it's only one study, and the suggestion that it heralds a trend is a bit of a stretch. But it does legitimately raise a red flag. Any hint that companies are de-emphasizing the technical certification process is troubling, because it could so easily have a negative effect on professional standards. I'm as big a believer as anyone in the importance of on-the-job training and real-world experience, but that doesn't begin to obviate the need for a formal certification program.

In a world where risk management and business continuity planning are essential pursuits for any healthy IT organization, every asset needs to be defined and monitored, and that includes technical skills. There's no better way to accomplish that than through a consistent, well-conceived means of documenting who has what skills. And that means certification.

The IT profession's culture of requiring the certification of skills acquisition has always been an advantage.

There's an associated demand for excellence that's well worth emulating, which is why I'd be all for having formal skills certifications in journalism. Since we in this career field really have no formal certification or licensing mechanism, anyone can call himself a journalist -- and let's face it, the shoddiness that situation enables often shows. I'd even make certifications revocable. Taint the profession by making up sources, for example, and kiss your certification goodbye.

So if you perceive even a subtle cultural shift away from certification in your organization, do something about it. In the process, you'll be keeping the bar up high where it belongs.

Don Tennant is editor in chief of US Computerworld

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