To certify or not to certify?

New certifications continually emerge in the IT field. In fact, it sometimes appears that there is at least one for every available technology. As a result, many IT professionals wonder whether it's worthwhile to pursue a designation and, if so, which one could best aid their career advancement.

The answer varies. Each credential has a unique cost -- in terms of both money and effort -- and the effect of earning one may not always be immediately apparent. Here are some considerations when weighing your certification options.

The value is there ...

Earning a certification can provide you with a competitive edge over other candidates, whether you're applying for a job with a new company or hoping to earn a promotion at your current firm. A certification offers employers proof that you're familiar with a particular technology or practice, giving them extra assurance that you can perform the duties of the job. Companies are particularly interested in individuals who have earned difficult-to-obtain credentials, such as the Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) or Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification, or a meaningful combination of designations.

Adding a certification to your list of professional accomplishments could also earn you more money. According to the Robert Half Technology 2006 Salary Guide, those with certain credentials can expect starting compensation that as 5 percent to 12 percent higher than average.

Pursuing a certification also demonstrates your drive and commitment to reach a professional goal. Plus, given the continually increasing pace of technological change, companies often favor IT professionals who never stop learning.

... But caveats exist

Despite their potential value, certifications are just one factor in an employer's decision to hire or promote someone and usually hold little weight when not paired with on-the-job experience. The reason is twofold. First, some certifications are relatively easy to acquire. Individuals who have consulted a study guide or taken a practice exam are sometimes able to obtain a credential despite a lack of in-depth knowledge of the subject. More important, companies today seek professionals with the ability to make bottom-line contributions and want to make sure the people they hire and retain have not only a working knowledge of a particular technology but also the ability to apply that knowledge in the workplace.

So, while a worker who possesses a Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDA) designation is highly marketable, one who has the same certification along with five years of working with Microsoft systems and a track record of completing projects on time and under budget is eminently more desirable to employers. In fact, 43% of CIOs polled by Robert Half Technology said applicants with industry-specific experience have an advantage in the job hunt. Only 15% cited certification in a relevant technology as the most valuable qualification.

Vendor-neutral vs. vendor-specific: Which route is best?

Complicating matters is that IT professionals have a choice between vendor-specific and vendor-neutral certifications. In addition, a growing number of industry-specific certifications are available through professional associations. For example, the Association of Certified Public Accountants offers the Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP) designation for accounting and finance professionals, and the Health Information and Management Systems Society offers the Certified Professional in Healthcare Information and Management Systems (CPHIMS) credential for those in health care.

If you're interested in roles that focus on a particular technology, earning a vendor-specific certification is one of the best ways to highlight your specialized expertise. However, if you'd rather not be limited to one product or company, consider a vendor-neutral certification, such as those offered by CompTIA. It also may be wise to pursue a vendor-neutral certification if you're considering a career change, since you won't be tied to one technology and can point to your credential as proof of your broad range of knowledge. Industry-specific certifications are vendor-neutral but are targeted to professionals who have been in a certain field for some time, not those looking to break in.

Is a degree enough?

A bachelor's or master's degree is a prerequisite for many IT positions. If you already hold a degree, you may wonder whether earning a certification improves your chances of landing the job you seek. Or is your degree enough? The answer to this question is yes ... and no. While it's unlikely that you'll be eliminated you from consideration solely because you lack a certification, sometimes employers value the added endorsement a certification confers. And they may move you to the top of the list of potential candidates if you've earned one.

While a certification won't guarantee you a new job or promotion, earning one can be a smart career move. For one thing, a recognized credential will provide a benchmark against which employers can compare you with other candidates, possibly leading to an interview. And, perhaps more important, pursuing a certification will allow you to earn new skills or bolster existing abilities in a structured environment, leading to personal satisfaction and personal growth.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in North America and Europe, and offers online job search services at www.rht.com.

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