Even in a market beset with a severe shortage of skills the IT professional who takes that extra course and gains that extra qualification gets the edge in the employment stakes. While ongoing learning might be vital to an individual, employers who cry out in fear If you train them won't they leave?', may be mollified with having upskilled staff who repay the fees if they cut and run.
Philip Sim surveys the players
Once upon a time, having been certified was not something you would boast about in a job interview. The potential employer would have likely called the local mental asylum, requested the men in white coats come, put you back into your straight-jacket and carry you away.
These days though, when it comes to a career in information technology, some would say it's exactly the opposite. You're crazy if you're not certified.
Certification has certainly never been more popular. Every vendor and his dog these days wants you certified. What began as a way for Novell engineers to demonstrate their credentials has now spread to every corner of the industry. It doesn't matter whether you're a network administrator, developer, systems engineer or a manager, there is a certification program for you. What's more, for every certification program there are umpteen training providers which would love to put you through your paces and prepare you for what are often arduous examinations. For a price, of course. While, it never cost a dime to be certified to a mental asylum, vendor certifications can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Which begs the question: has certification simply become a racket slyly bestowed on the IT industry by greedy training providers and vendors?. After all, if increasing numbers of IT professionals can boast certification, doesn't that devalue the qualification? Is training towards certification as relevant as on-the-job learning? And what exactly, is the payback for certified IT professionals and their employer?
Indeed, is there any need for certification at all?
Certification is absolutely necessary because it provides a benchmark for employers to judge a candidate's expertise and suitability, claimed Bart Vogel, managing director of Interim Technology Services. Interim (formerly Computer Power Group) services include recruitment and contracting.
"It can be very difficult to differentiate candidates on the basis of their resume, without a baseline measuring stick," Vogel said.
"The beauty of certification is it provides a benchmark that all employers can use to ascertain what each person knows and is capable of doing."
Dr Beng Yeoh manages the other side of Interim, which is its Technology Education arm. He points out that certification is not unique to IT and that it's now becoming expected of all professions.
"You have to be certified to become a commercial pilot. After all, you wouldn't want to fly with a pilot who hasn't already proved they know how to fly the plane.
"Certification is there to assure an employer that this person has a specific level of competency and skills."
Having this benchmark as a way to measure a candidate's capabilities has become increasingly important in a time where the entire industry is suffering from a chronic skills shortage, Vogel said.
"With the ongoing shortage of skills, many positions have to be filled with candidates brought in from overseas from places like New Zealand, India and other parts of Asia."
As vendors have global standards for certification, it makes it possible to judge a person's skills no matter where the person is from or for whom they have worked, he said.
Steve Ross, general manager of Com Tech Education, believes that the growth in demand for certification has also been driven by the increasing involvement of human resource departments in the hiring of IT professionals.
"Most human resources professionals would be hard pressed to spell TCP/IP, never mind understand whether it's a skill necessary for the job at hand. Certification is the only way that a person without an IT background can judge a candidate's technical skills and knowledge base," Ross said.
One only needs to browse through the latest batch of IT job advertisements to see the increased demand for certified IT professionals, said Elliot Davis, a network administrator who is currently contracting for the NSW ombudsman.
"The whole market is placing a lot more emphasis on certification. There has been a lot of publicity surrounding it, vendors are always encouraging it and increasingly job advertisements are stating that certification is at least desirable and often is a requirement."
Australia Post is one such organisation that values certification, said Danny Krstic, an Australia Post IT manager responsible for a desktop support team.
It often requests that its job applicants be certified up to a certain level and will encourage and pay for non-certified employees to gain accreditation, Krstic said.
"Certification is really the proof in the pudding that you can do the work required," he said.
Another driver, and perhaps it is the primary driver, behind the increased emphasis on certification is the rate of technology change.
"When you have brand new technologies being rolled out on a regular basis, it might be impossible for someone to have one or two years experience because the technology hasn't been around that long," Vogel said.
"In such cases, experience isn't as relevant so being certified in the technology takes on even greater significance."
"I think time is what is really driving certification," said Com Tech's Ross.
"In the old days, products would be used for five years or more, but today the product cycle is so short that the only way to gain mature skills in new technologies is to get your people certified in them.
"Money is not the biggest problem for technology companies and IT departments, it's time. Most IT people will tell you they have to work one or two nights a week and one or two weekends a month. They just don't have the time to do everything they need to do," Ross said.
While this is increasing the demand for certification programs, it is also raising the bar of what is expected of them. Skills need to be acquired in the most time-effective manner and they have to be absolutely relevant to the workplace environment, he said.
Training courses from the likes of Cisco and Microsoft, for example, require students to solve real world problems, Ross said.
"You can't fluke the answers anymore," he said.
Elliot Davis immigrated to Australia around a year ago and although having worked in IT he was largely self-taught. He decided that becoming Microsoft certified would stand him in good stead as he attempted to carve out a new career in Australia.
"While, I think you can learn a lot by just reading books and teaching yourself, certification really allows you to fast track your learning, and absorb new skills as quickly as possible."
"After all, that's the job of your training provider, to help you absorb this information a little bit quicker than you would yourself."
Davis did the entire MCSE course in less than six weeks.
"I decided the best way for me to do it was to take all the modules in one go and then try and take the exams as quickly as I could," he said.
He has now passed three of the six exams and is a Microsoft Certified Professional and will soon sit the remaining three that will give him MCSE status. Davis then wants to become MCSE 2000 certified.
"The course has certainly filled in many of the gaps I had in my knowledge and I'm now a lot more confident as to my capabilities," Davis said.
With students and employers demanding results from the certification process, vendors themselves are under scrutiny and pressure to ensure they provide testing programs.
"Cisco has the most respected certification process and part of the reason behind that is it is a very difficult exam to pass, a fairly large number fail and this ensures the quality and the credibility of the certification," Ross said.
The Microsoft MCSE 2000 certification will also be harder to achieve than previous MCSE certifications, he added.
"If there are any managers who don't think these examinations are worthwhile, I invite them to come down and sit one of them.
"I've seen some managers leave examinations in a cold sweat," Ross said.
While the standard of certification programs appears to be better than ever, some managers still baulk at training up their people for fear that once certified they will leave for a higher paying job. That is an attitude that many claim is fading.
"I think most employers today are more enlightened," Dr Yeoh said. "It really is to their advantage and benefit to train staff."
"However, some employers are starting to ask their staff to sign documents that commit them to stay with the organisation for a certain amount of time. Whether they are legally enforceable is debatable, but it doesn't matter so much, because in most cases it is a moral or ethical commitment that encourages staff to stay."
Indeed, Krstic has signed such a document with Australia Post. As well as being a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), he is a Certified Member of the Australian Computer Society (CMACS) having completed a project management certification on his way towards a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) in Technology Management.
"At Australia Post we may be asked to sign a contractual agreement by way of if we decide to resign, retire or leave within the period of study, or within 12 months after the course has been completed we will gladly repay all the money that has been invested in that training," Krstic said.
"That word gladly is important, because it's a thank you to say that I recognise that you are helping me to advance my career, and if your investment in me leads to another opportunity outside of this organisation it is only fair that you receive compensation."
Felix Borenstein, managing director of IT recruiter Parkside Consulting, said that it is just not an option for employers to "lock their staff in a backroom without a light or telephone and hope they can get the work done.
"I strongly recommend that employers invest heavily in the training and certification of their people, because one of the biggest reasons IT people leave an organisation is the lack of training opportunities."
"Ultimately, 95 per cent of employees do the right thing by their employer, so what's the point of worrying about the 5 per cent who won't."
Com Tech's Ross added: "If you aren't willing to help your employees learn new skills and pay them what they are worth then somebody else will.
"Employers should want their people to achieve a high level of skills and just as importantly they should have the processes in place to recognise and reward employees when those new levels have been reached."
Krstic added: "I would always ask a potential employer about what level of training they are going to be willing to provide me with."
It is true, though, that certification does make IT professionals more employable.
"If you have two candidates and all other things being equal, the candidate with the certification will get the job over the candidate without it," Borenstein said.
"This is especially true for graduates."
Krstic said he certainly believed his certifications made him more "marketable."
"It would certainly help me to stand out above other candidates for a position, whether that be for a promotion within this organisation or a new position with another company," he said.
"It creates an awareness of the skill sets that you have and the type of work you are capable of doing."
As a contractor, not only does certification make Davis more employable but also it increases the amount of money he is able to ask for.
"Having that certification gives you a lot of confidence that you can ask for more money. You know you have a piece of paper that says you are educated up to this level, you can prove you know your stuff and so that gives you that extra level of confidence to ensure you are paid at the market rate if not better," he said.
"When I got my certification I went back to my agency and successfully negotiated a higher rate."
Davis estimates he can charge 30 per cent more now with his current qualifications and with additional certifications may be able to charge up to 50 per cent more.
"I'm earning $15 to $20 an hour more now that I have certification," he said.
Vogel said that certification "must account for some level of dollars", but said it was hard to quantify and worked on a case-by-case basis.
"It might mean significantly more money for a uni graduate, for example, but later in a person's career it's not nearly as important."
"But certainly, one of the reasons people do become certified is that it translates to higher paying jobs."
However, Borenstein warns that certification isn't the be all and end all.
"It's really just another tick in the box," he said.
"Certification is best used to legitimise commercial experience."
Vogel agreed, pointing out that while certification is a definite advantage in the end there is "no substitute for experience.
"Recruiters are really looking for someone who has the entire picture. The plumb jobs are always going to go to those who have the experience, the right attitudes and interpersonal skills as well as the necessary certifications," he said.
Indeed, Dr Beng Yeoh believes that sometimes too much emphasis is placed on vendor certification.
"Certification is really driven by the vendors and let's face it vendors and products come and go," he said.
"It's just as important that you have that foundation knowledge in order to get the most out of any certification program you complete."
While university graduates learn this foundation knowledge during their tertiary studies, those IT professionals who have come into the field via an alternative route may be found lacking if they only concentrate on vendor certifications.
"It's like trying to run before you can walk," Yeoh said. "While you might be able to get by for a little while, when you're pushed you don't have anything to fall back on."
He recommends that IT professionals also look at broader-based certification training.
"We try very hard to equip our graduates with a broad-base of knowledge. We live in an "instant" world, where we expect everything to be instantaneous, but a career is not instantaneous, it is something you build over a long period of time."
Interim also places great emphasis on equipping its students with some of the non-technical skills they will need in the workforce, like knowing how to present themselves and communicate in the workplace, Yeoh said.
"That's part of the reason we believe our graduates are so employable is they also learn how to relate to people," he said.
The one thing that is definite about certification is it doesn't stop at one certificate.
"When you're in IT, you're learning for life," Ross said. "There's very little doubt that regardless of who you are working for now, some time in the future they're going to acquire a product that doesn't even exist today and you're going to need to learn how to use it.
"There are always new technologies coming and I guess IT skills are somewhat disposable. You learn them, use those skills to gain certification, apply them to your work and then you move on."
Vogel said: "The forward looking professional we have on our books are reskilling all the time and indeed they're reinventing themselves every three to four years.
"In fact, I'd go as far to say that if you're not, you're in danger of becoming extinct, because no matter what the technology is, three or four years down the track it's going to be different."
Certification it seems is here to stay.