Which certifications are worth your time?

CIOs, IT recruiters and salary specialists say demand is waning for hardware- and software-oriented certifications

For years, the key to jumpstarting a network professional's career was getting a Cisco, Microsoft or other technical certification. But now CIOs, IT recruiters and salary specialists say demand is waning for hardware- and software-oriented certifications.

Instead, companies are looking for IT professionals with business-oriented certifications in such areas as project management and Six Sigma, a statistical quality improvement technique that is being adopted by more IT shops.

"The [Project Management Institute] certification is the big one for us," says Jack Harrington, co-founder and principal of Atlantic Associates, a Boston IT staffing firm. "We see some demand for Six Sigma, but not as much as for PMI. If I had one recommendation about professional development for IT employees, it's to get a PMI certification because it helps develop broad skills that can be applied across technologies and vertical industries."

Most technical certifications are losing value when it comes to salaries, says David Foote, president of Foote Partners, which conducts IT salary surveys nationwide. As part of its regular surveys, Foote tracks 159 certified skills and 156 non-certified skills to see which affect salaries most.

"Networking certifications lost 4.1% of their value in the last year, 9 percent in the last two years. That's pretty horrible. That's even worse than the average loss across all IT certifications," Foote says. "Networking and communications-related non-certified skills gained 2.8% of value in the last year."

Foote says the trend is a big turnabout from recent years.

"Employees with certifications were earning more than non-certified skills for some time," Foote says. "The last time non-certified skills were more valued than certifications was the third quarter of 2001."

Experts agree that some technical certifications are still worth the time and effort. This includes the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE), EMC Technology Architect and storage-area networking certifications from companies such as Brocade.

"In networking, one of the hottest areas is storage-area networking," Foote says. "Companies aren't demanding certifications for storage-area networking, but they are looking for people who understand storage-area networking and the role it plays in the enterprise."

Security certifications also are in demand, particularly the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) and Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA).

Security is "certainly a hotbed," says Matt Colarusso, branch manager for Sapphire National Recruiting in Woburn, Mass. "Our clients are looking for hands-on technical people who understand firewalls, VPN set-ups and router controls."

Investing in tech certification

Technical certifications remain valuable enough that most CIOs will reimburse their employees for the cost.

Jeff Ton, vice president of enterprise processes, information and technology at Lauth Property Group in Indianapolis, recently began a certification program for his 25-person IT shop.

"For systems engineers and desktop technicians, they see it as a way of personal growth," Ton says. "We help pay for certifications. If they get the certification, we give them a bonus. We feel it's important because we value the employee."

Bob Veeneman, director of IT integrated planning with Blue Shield of California, says about 25% of his IT training budget goes toward technical certifications for IT staff.

"We heavily invest in those," Veeneman says. "It's good for us, and we're contributing to people's increase in knowledge and capability."

But for the future, Blue Shield of California is focusing on business-oriented certifications. The company is training 50 of its directors and managers in Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) Version 3, a business process model.

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