Is the paper worth the chase?

There are signs that all is not rosy in certification land, and that the promises of certification might not be all they seem.

As the following quotes indicate, there is concern among IT managers. "I've got a kid there right now ... He has his certification. He's still in school and his resume said that, in the summer he worked in Burger King. I mean, he's never been in an IT shop, so how much can that certification really mean? It means absolutely nothing in this case other than he read the books and he was able to spit back, not necessarily understand, spit back what he read. ... They prepared you for the test and not for the real world." - IT manager, quoted in "2002 Global IT Training & Certification Study", Thomson Prometric 2003.

James David Stockwell, in a letter to Computerworld early this month, said: "While I have no problem with people getting certified, I have too often interviewed people who have the certificate with no real understanding of the product other than 'what the book said'. I once interviewed a person who explained that they had completed high school and then used a few exam preparation guides to obtain an MCSE. While he had the knowledge, he didn't know how to use it."

The ongoing, and growing, concern is that the IT certificates held by current and prospective employees are no guarantee of an ability to apply the knowledge thus attained, that certificates are being cheapened by their proliferation and increasingly becoming a commodity not worth the paper they're written on.

The 2002 Global IT Training & Certification Study, recently published by Thomson Prometric, summarises these fears: "The number/variety of programs available and the number of individuals seeking and achieving certification has led some managers to dismiss certification as an employment criteria [sic] because it has been commoditised to an extent - everyone is doing it - and because there are no experience-related prerequisites to obtaining certification."

The study's report is based on more than 8000 face-to-face and Web-based interviews with IT professionals in more than 50 countries, including Australia.

While the report is generally upbeat about the value of certification, there are enough flies in the ointment to raise serious concerns.

For instance, IT managers with more than 15 years experience are more likely to be jaundiced about the benefits of certification than their less experienced brethren.

The Thomson/Prometric report suggests that "This may point to a generational 'age of certification', in which the younger IT managers are more accepting of certification because it was part of their career development experience."

Less kindly, it might also suggest that those IT managers with more experience know the true value of certification, and are less than impressed. The report notes that there exists "a somewhat cynical view ... that certificates have grown in importance because they are an 'easy' way for human resources staff to sort and evaluate job applicants."

It should be pointed out, however, that while the difference between younger and older managers is significant, the numbers who say there is no benefit from certification is small (only 9 per cent of older managers). Indeed, the report says that IT managers generally do believe that "training and certification" have value for individual employees.

It does note, however, that: "These findings point to a gap in the certification value chain as it is perceived by managers. While they see the value for individuals and the positive impact on external perceptions (such as credibility among clients and competitive advantage), they are neutral on many of the definitive benefits that employee certification affords an organisation. And, as manager perceptions are influential in shaping how candidates value certification (primarily the perception of job competence and career advancement opportunities), there exists the possibility of a future 'ripple effect' in certification devaluation stemming from a perceived lack of buy-in from management."

Industry concerns

And these are concerns shared by many certification suppliers themselves.

"There is a difference between certification and training," says Rick Wylie, managing director of training and systems integration company, Key Options.

"You need both knowledge and skills, but there are theorists out there who have the certificate, but who really can't do the job. It gets known in the industry who can do the job. You won't last if you can't do it; you'll get found out."

He worries that the certification process "seems to be self-perpetuating".

"You still need certification," he says, "at least to show updated knowledge. ...

"But if you've been working on boxes for five years, then certification is just a bit of paper on the wall."

Mike Wells, Asia Pacific director of certification and community for Hewlett-Packard, agrees.

"Knowledge is less important than skills."

He says there are various reasons for being certified: career advancement, higher salaries, "but more than anything else, if you're certified there is the opportunity to serve the customer in the best possible way."

He believes there is a strong case for the "right" certification.

"The customer needs to maximise ROI and minimise risk. In the specification, implementation and support of IT, who does the customer turn to? They need assurance that the people they are engaging are qualified. This gives them comfort that the job will be delivered as promised, on time.

"Customers will seek professionals. So the customer demands that 'the only one who touches my box is someone who knows what they're talking about'," Well said.

Certification needs to be grounded in practical and professional experience, he says.

"Baseline certifications are becoming an industry standard; there's a layer of expected knowledge, such as CompTIA A+, Network +. Above that are higher levels, more targeted, niche certifications, which indicate greater depth of knowledge, such as Unix server integration.

"This means certification should indicate increasing specialisation rather than being a generalist."

HP offers 64 different certifications, whittled down through consolidation and re-analysis from the 100+ in the combined HP/Compaq arsenal.

"This is pretty indicative of the range of niches available," Wells says.

"If you've been in the industry, you may not need [much] training to be certified. It all comes down to the testing process. Certification might only prove that you stayed awake during the course."

Reward for effort?

But it's not just the managers and suppliers who see caveats with certification. According to the Thomson/Prometric study, almost half of certified students reported that they received no reward from employers for their certification, despite the widely-held anticipation that certification is the key to increased salaries, promotion, or to simply finding a job in the first place.

In fact, there is a noticeable shift to less tangible 'rewards' for certification compared with previous studies.

These days students are more likely to see certification as offering "increased credibility" and "assess[ing] knowledge and skills" rather than fame or fortune. Those already certified are even more cynical about the role certification plays in offering monetary reward than those (presumably more optimistic) students yet to undertake a certification course.

One reason could be the proliferation of certified personnel. Some 70 per cent of already-certified respondents to the survey felt that certifications lose value when everyone has them.

Mark Muth, Prometric's VP of client services and support, agrees you can forget about increased pay and promotion, at least for the present. "The more tangible benefit today is getting and keeping a job, as there are fewer job openings than candidates.

"Employers are using certification as an initial screening tool for job openings to help manage the large number of qualified candidates per job opening.

"Certification, academic degrees and experience may help a candidate get a job, but once employed, managers only care about performance." The solutions?

If "certification is at risk of losing its premium-level positioning as a differentiator for skills and competency" as the Thomson/Prometric report suggests, what is the industry doing about it?

The report suggests such measures as industry vendors becoming involved early on in the decision phase via education and support; more study tools to help particularly isolated students; development of greater online communities; help in developing resumes; more detailed test reports; even employment assistance services.

Vendors need to highlight the benefits of certification to managers, the report says.

"Qualitative study findings suggest that there is some education needed to help managers understand exactly why a specific certification program will benefit their team/organisation."

If all of this is not quite shooting the messenger, it at least seems to be more addressing the perception than the apparent basic problems with certification - commoditisation, proliferation and lack of a real-world base.

To be fair, the report also suggests that there needs to be forged "a closer link to certification and the IT shop".

Approaches here include structuring tests that measure both the theory behind the technology and its practical application in the workplace; simulation and hands-on components of the test; more experience-based input to courses; and building (presumably experience-based) prerequisites into programs. That these worthy measures are designed for "reinforcing the perceived benefits of certification" is still a concern that the understanding, at least as far as the study is concerned, is that this is primarily a perception matter rather than an intrinsic fault with the certification process.

The industry itself is taking some positive moves.

Muth says, "The industry has responded by continuing to ensure psychometric rigour in developing tests (do they measure what they are supposed to) and is looking to add performance-based and simulation items to tests to supplement the more traditional knowledge-based items found in today's tests.

"In the future, I would expect the certification industry to move towards the model found in licensing that may require proof of experience and other assignments to receive or maintain IT certifications."

CompTIA Australia, the local branch of a global IT trade association with 70-plus members in Australia, has brought together vendors to identify issues of commonality, including the value and relevance of IT certification; better contact and access between government and industry in regards to training and certification; and vendor mapping of qualifications to determine how they can be improved for the industry and individuals.

Recently appointed regional director, Danika Bakalich, says "This is a unique situation, having market competitors working side-by-side."

The forum is still young (three months old), but "watch this space" is her advice.

Perhaps the true solution lies not with the industry, but with the students.

"It's not just a product you buy at the supermarket," Wells says. "This is something that affects students' lives, their families, their careers. Certification needs to be taken as seriously as if you were considering a university degree. Students need to be rigorous in their analysis of the offerings, and do more research over and above the Web sites.

It's incumbent on students to do a little bit more research than that, participate in sessions, be more diligent; do your homework."

Certainly the students should be asking for more from their certification courses, and the vendors concerned, than "a pin, a plaque or a certificate", which rate as the most common recognition the surveyed students wanted.

"Certification is not the end of the road," Wells stresses.

"In HP, that's when the process starts. We see the need to add value through events, etc.

"The community aspect is bigger than the certification; certification is a process, almost mechanical, but it's the community aspect which is more agile and regular."

What to study?

So what are the current hot topics?

Wylie, whose firm specialises in Unix and Mac-based certification, says basic Unix training, auto configuration of machines (roaming profiles), internetworking and VPN are all worth looking at.

Wells suggests enterprise-class integration and Web services.

Bakalich says the number of students going through CompTIA has increased by 120 per cent over last year, with hot topics including the A+ course, hardware services support, networking and softer skills like IT project management.

Research released by Spherion earlier this month suggests that Microsoft's .Net could be the most in-demand IT skill in the coming months. Looking at various categories, including IT, Internet and programming skills sought by employers over the last quarter, and enrolments in professional IT and professional development courses, the Spherion Index reveals employment and training trends across Australia and New Zealand from January to March 2003.

Demand from employers for Java, SQL and Visual Basic programming skills remained strong throughout the last quarter, with a trend towards competency in specific packages, such as SAP, Lotus Notes and Access. From January to March, the most popular Internet skills sought by employers continued to be XML, HTML, SQL and Java.

General IT skills required included analyst/programming, help desk and desktop support, network infrastructure support and business analysis.

"It is interesting to note," says Andrea Galloway, president and group MD of Spherion Asia Pacific, "that for the last three quarters demand for knowledge workers with business analysis skills has been strong.

"This suggests that companies are reviewing their current systems with a view to investing more money towards their IT infrastructure."

And the moral of the story? Pick you programs carefully; do your homework; complete your course; but most importantly, get some experience under your belt. And forget about the pins and plaques - there are more important outcomes of your certification activities than an ounce of tin or a piece of paper.

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