Standing out from the crowd

In today's job market, everyone wants to stand out from the crowd, and obtaining a technical certification might seem like a great way to show off your skills. But is it worth the investment of at least several months and hundreds, possibly thousands, of dollars?

Even in this down economy, where differentiation is crucial, education experts, recruiters and CIOs answer with only a qualified "yes." But they're also quick to point out that certain certifications seem more impressive to employers than others. The fact is, when it comes to the relative value of certifications, experience still speaks much louder than any letters you can put next to your name.

"Will it get you the job in and of itself? Absolutely not. Can it help? Yes," says Jeff Markham, a manager at RHI Consulting, a division of Robert Half International Inc. in Menlo Park, Calif. "But in any market, you need the hands-on work experience to go along with it, and evidence that you added monetary value or cut monetary costs for your previous employer."

According to Markham, only one out of every 100 hiring companies asks for a particular certification in job requisitions. Tom Morgan, vice president at New York recruiting firm Pencom Systems Inc., puts the number at one in 30.

That said, some certifications speak louder than others. They're generally the ones that require several years of hands-on experience before a candidate can pursue them or hope to pass exams. Quite simply, they are the certifications that signal to employers that you can walk the talk.

The SAP R/3 certification, for instance, can take three to four years to obtain, says Ed Tittel, vice president of IT certifications at iLearning Inc., a Baltimore-based provider of online certification training and career advice.

It could take 10 years to gain the necessary experience to pass the Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE) exams -- and many people don't pass on the first try.

Cathie Kozik, CIO at Tellabs Inc. in Naperville, Ill., would add the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification to the list. "The two certifications we put the most value on are the Microsoft and Cisco certifications," she says. "Some of the other certifications are too general, not real-world."

At International Truck and Engine Corp., IT workers are encouraged and even compensated for pursuing the MCSE, says Ken Papke, manager of PC systems at the Warrenville, Ill.-based truck manufacturer. Papke says the MCSE is one of three certifications he looks for. The others are the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) and the Computer Technology Industry Association's A+ certification. "Do I require it? No. But if two candidates are neck and neck, it would put one over the other," he says.

The MCP, Papke says, is easy to obtain and simply demonstrates that the individual has taken the time to invest in his career. The A+ demonstrates the hardware knowledge Papke needs on his staff. "We want solid people who can jump right in. If I see A+ on the resume, it goes into the eyes' pile," he says.

Tellabs also makes sure its project managers get Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from Project Management Institute Inc. (PMI) in Newtown Square, Pa. "It enhances their real-world experience," Kozik says. "It gives them more tools to be successful in herding the cats, if you will."

PMP candidates must have 4,500 hours of project management work over at least three years before taking the exam, according to the PMI.

Better Pay

Some of Kozik's views are mirrored in a first-quarter 2002 survey of 30,000 IT workers conducted by Foote Partners LLC, an IT workforce research firm in New Canaan, Conn. According to the survey, IT workers with project management certifications were among the best-compensated, receiving bonuses equal to 15 percent of their base salaries. That's up from 13 percent a year ago and well above the survey's average of 8.3 percent. Meanwhile, workers with a CCIE certification received bonuses of 7 percent to 12 percent of base pay -- less than last year's range of 10 percent to 15 percent.

Security is an increasingly hot certification area. The main contenders are the Certification for Information System Security Professional (CISSP), administered by the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium Inc. in Framingham, Mass., and the Global Information Assurance Certifications (GIAC), which are administered by the SANS Institute in Bethesda, Md.

"If there's validity in certifications, it's probably most valid in the security area, as far as what it takes to obtain one and how few people have them," Morgan says.

According to the Foote Partners survey, the annual growth in premium pay for security certifications was about 21 percent as of this year's first quarter.

The CISSP focuses more on big-picture security policy-making. Candidates are required to have at least three years of IT security experience before they can take the 250-question CISSP test.

The GIAC certifications are more nuts-and-bolts. GIAC candidates must take part in weeklong training courses and complete a practical assignment and at least one technical exam.

Kozik says she's more interested in GIAC certifications than the CISSP. "My focus would be on the more hands-on one," she says.

All in all, if IT workers choose carefully and do the proper cost/benefit analysis, certifications can work to their advantage, as long as they have the experience to back up a newfound title.

However, they might do well to first concentrate on another piece of paper -- their resumes. "There are so many people who have incredible work experience and have done great work on projects, and when we look at their resume, it just isn't in there," Markham says.

To achieve true differentiation, Markham says, have a resume that shows how you helped previous employers do something better, faster or at lower cost, in addition to those little letters that certify your skills.

Brandel is a freelance writer in Norfolk, Mass.

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More about Foote PartnersInternational Information Systems Security Certification ConsortiumInternational Truck and EngineMicrosoftPencom SystemsRHI ConsultingSANS InstituteSAP AustraliaTellabsThe SANS Institute

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