Vendors aim to ease certification woes

Certification programs for technology skills have helped companies refine their search for qualified workers, but many vendors, educators and employees complain that the certification system leaves a lot to be desired.

Companies grumble that workers can pass the required tests and then fail to show a proficient use of their knowledge in real world challenges. Some workers also frown upon the certification process, saying it is too hard to know which skills will stay valuable in a quickly evolving technology climate, and that they struggle to identify which programs will offer quality training.

A number of executives and educators gathered at a two-day event starting Monday and organized by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) to try and pinpoint problems with the certification process. Both the corporate and academic groups agree that with the right improvements, certification of technology skills could become a highly valuable tool for IT success in the US.

Companies present at the conference including Microsoft and Cisco Systems said that their certification programs are often confused with an educational program. Workers should not think of the vendors' efforts as a high-tech college but instead as a way to gauge specific skill sets for, for example, software proficiency, in the case of Microsoft, or networking knowledge for Cisco.

"People often get certification confused with education," said Scott Knell, manager of the worldwide education group for Cisco, speaking at the ITAA conference. "Let's keep education and certification separate. Certifications are nothing more than a way to test a specific knowledge set. Employers want to hire people based on these skill sets."

Vendors want to encourage the development of workers familiar with their technology, as customers are more likely to buy software from Microsoft, for example, if they know there are people out there who can manage it. The problem that arises, however, is making sure the workers are truly qualified and that their skills stay up to date.

"The more targeted our certification programs are the more they can meet the end needs of the hiring manager and the candidate," said Judith Morel, program manager for training and certification at Microsoft.

Both Microsoft and Cisco look to raise the bar on their entry-level certifications, making even the beginning steps of the qualification process valuable for an extended period of time for the candidates. The companies think specializing their programs further will help keep skills in line with a rapidly moving market.

In addition, companies like Cisco have started offering small gifts to students who have completed a certification program and come back to Cisco to fill out questionnaires on what kinds of jobs they received as a result of the program and what they thought of the process. Since many young people take certification courses, the companies are often not allowed to collect information on them, making it hard to tell how worthwhile a program is. This bonus system can solve this problem and generate valuable data.

Other educational specialists are also upping their presence in the certification arena, trying to establish themselves as highly credible institutions for training. They offer a variety of courses on specific vendor technology and also on more generalized skills such as vendor neutral Web site development.

Many of these companies teach everything from Linux or Java programming to learning how to use routers and switches. They have an uphill battle to prove their courses truly train workers well; however, they also have thousands of people coming to them for help.

"We measure our success based on the fact that our membership is growing and from industry feedback," said Theresa Lally, special projects director at the World Organization of Webmasters.

Additionally, many of these teaching institutions are adding courses in communication and presentation or project design to complement workers' technology skills. Employers often complain that tech-savvy employees lack valuable personal skills. ITAA officials say these communication skills are what hiring managers want most of all along with technology know-how.

Many ITAA audience members still found the certification process overwhelming after hearing from both vendors and educators. They voiced dissatisfaction over getting burned by inadequate training and by their inability to bring quality programs to the high school and college level. The students want to learn technology skills, they argue, but cannot find the right people to provide such tutelage.

While many groups are making strides toward improving the certification process, the ITAA attendees for the most part agreed that the programs still have a long way to go.

"Certification is what it is and nothing more," said Cisco's Knell.

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