A Counterpoint Position To Misinterpretation

No industry or subject is safe from skepticism or the proliferation of myths… supernatural, acupuncture, physical therapy and (in this case) IT certification. An article was recently published about "The Top Ten Problems with IT Certifications". At Prometric, we view such arguments as myths to be debunked rather than legitimate problems per se. As a counterpoint position to the article, this piece addresses its top ten "myths" about IT certification. Consider this:

Myth #1: Certifications are Vendor-centric

This myth claims that the purpose of a certification is to "quantify a person's understanding of some of the functionality of a vendor's product" and that "whatever Vendor A says you should know is what you need to know in order to achieve validation." These are actually accurate statements misrepresented with negative connotations. In truth, no one group is better to develop a certification training program and exam measuring knowledge of a certain product than the vendor who created the product. Because almost every available technology has a vendor who designed or created the product, the developer is the best-qualified party to dictate the level of knowledge necessary for mastery. It is virtually impossible for any one party to have a baseline level of knowledge for every single technology out there. Equally impossible is to expect that every organization would use the same exact technological systems and require the same exact knowledge base. Differences in knowledge topics and levels contribute to healthy competition, as this is what distinguishes one potential candidate from another. Similarly, each organization is a completely separate and distinct entity from another – each requiring skill sets specific to certain functionalities it employs. It may be nice to wish that every exam should measure and be all things to all people – but this is just not possible… especially in a world where new technology needs and uses – for example, mobile content – are popping up daily.

Myth #2: Certification's Life Cycle Is Short

This myth is actually a truth disguised as criticism. It's true, vendors can "revise, revamp, or completely redo a certification as often as it wants." This is a positive because it keeps industry certifications up-to-date with emerging technologies and realistic applications. The alternative – not updating certification testing – would suggest that new and better technologies are rarely developing. Technological advancements do happen at a more rapid pace every day, and while it may be inconvenient at times, organizations will not want to hire someone whose latest experience is five-years old when they can hire someone who has a certification utilizing recent technology knowledge. Kudos to the employers who looked elsewhere when applicants have old or outdated certifications, because the truth is they likely get employees who are more knowledgeable about the latest system. Employers should favor those applicants during a recruitment process that can demonstrate and validate their skills, especially in light of the number of people who misrepresent themselves on resumes and/or exaggerate their experience.

Myth #3: Certifications Are Not Real-World Oriented

This myth suggests that "because certifications are vendor-oriented, they do not prepare you for the real world. No environment is made up of just Microsoft, or UNIX, or Novell, or Linux." It argues that the real world is a fully integrated environment supported by a host of vendors.While this is actually true, it is also all the more reason to keep up with IT certifications. Since real-world enterprises leverage multiple platforms, technologies and integrated systems, it behooves a candidate to know as much as possible about as many of these systems. While it's not realistic to expect to know every technology or system in existence, knowing more than one certainly provides you with the upper-hand in a hiring or promotion situation where you are up against someone else who knows less about each system.There are also an increasing number of technology certification exams that incorporate elements of performance-based testing, or that test knowledge in a simulated or emulated environment, allowing test takers to sit down at a workstation and be required to work through an actual problem on an actual system (interacting in real time with real servers hosted offsite). Troubleshooting and solving real-time problems in combination with knowledge-based components on multiple-choice exams is a strong combination of test assessment and an accurate measure of real-world skills.

Myth #4: Certifications Have Been Devalued

Devalued by whom? This myth can be challenged by evidence that the salaries of people holding IT certifications continue to rise each year. Redmond Magazine's 12th annual salary survey revealed higher than average salaries of people holding various Microsoft certifications. Similarly, an "Internetworking Salary Survey" conducted by TCPMag.com shows that the salary averages for all Cisco certifications were up from 2006 to 2007. In fact, over 39 percent of survey respondents felt that "the factor that would have the biggest impact on improving their current salary was obtaining a new certification."This myth also explores the possibility that certifications are devalued because applicants cheat on exams. However, the incorporation of simulations, emulations and other performance-based measures are strong defenses against cheating, since it's nearly impossible to do so when you are physically troubleshooting a problem in an emulated environment. Additionally, incorporating performance-based testing into a knowledge-based exam provides what is perhaps the truest measure of an actual skill. Demonstrating evolving skill sets is the means by which certain types of certification exams (especially IT) support the longevity of the industry and the credibility of certified professionals.

Myth #5: No Oversight Body

This myth states that "because certifications are vendor-centric, no one is overseeing the whole process." In actuality, a conglomerate of vendors are working hand-in-hand to oversee the entire certification process for each of their programs. Earlier this year, the Information Technology Certification Council (ITCC) was formed to help oversee the certification process. A consortium of leading IT companies committed to growing and improving the IT industry, the ITCC is comprised of leadership from leading IT companies, including HP, IBM, Microsoft, Sun and Novell, as well as industry associations including the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) and the Linux Professional Institute (LPI) and exam delivery providers such as Prometric. The goal is to join forces in an effort to better position IT certification for continued growth and ensure that the industry churns out qualified and knowledgeable employees. The ITCC also confronts important issues facing the IT certification industry, including exam security, perception versus actual IT certification ROI and training to testing ratios.

Myth #6: Degree vs. Certification vs. Experience

There will always be tension in the market over the value and need for a degree versus the need for a certification versus the need for experience. All other things being equal, it's likely that in a competitive job environment, an employer chooses the applicant holding a certification as the tie breaker. In many cases, two people with the same degree and level of experience who apply for the same job find that the "differentiator" that sealed the deal was the certification one of them possessed. Certifications demonstrate not only a deeper level of knowledge in a given area but the initiative and drive of the person holding them.What better way to round out an education (for example, the CIS or MIS degrees) than by acquiring multiple-supporting skill sets? This practice provides a solid learning experience and well-rounded knowledge base. This is why obtaining more than one certification is as important, if not more important, than only holding a degree. Certifications strengthen the overall package of expertise an IT professional offers.

Myth #7: HR People Are Not In Touch with the Real World

The myth states that while certifications are devalued they are required by employers, thus arguing that HR execs are out of touch with the real world. As a counterpoint, consider that hiring uncertified professionals actually "devalues" certifications. In reality, HR people who seek certified job candidates are taking steps to make their businesses stronger by hiring people with a proven set of knowledge, skills and abilities. HR execs who seek proof of claims through certification are more in touch with reality than those who rely on allegation alone.

Myth #8: Budget Cuts

Successful businesses have a constant eye on managing operational and capital expenses. And while some companies have cut training dollars, many have not. Yes, capital is required for training and certification, but the truth is that many employers today offer tuition reimbursement and other types of training recompense. Reimbursing employees for training and certification as part of a benefits package can actually help attract employees and is a cost-effective way for employees to beef up their skill sets. Studies show that companies that take an interest in creating learning and growth opportunities for its staff end up with more loyal and content employees, thereby saving money over the long term, since the cost of retention is less than the cost of training new hires. Many employers also consider completed training and achieved certifications when making a decision about compensation during review cycles.

Myth #9: Glut of Certified People

This myth claims a waning interest in certification due to the high number of certified IT professionals on the market today. In reality, thanks to the relentless and seemingly never-ending creation of new, cutting edge technology, there is a constant need for people who understand and can navigate "the latest and greatest." Mobile technology, network security within hot spots and green technologies are just a few examples of emerging technologies requiring proof of comprehension.Certification Magazine recently cited a new CompTIA survey indicating a gap between employers' need for IT security skills and their employees' ability to provide those skills. According to the article, Steven Ostrowski, CompTIA's director of corporate communications, the Center for Strategy Research (CSR) spoke with more than 3,500 IT managers in multiple countries "to get a sense of what types of skills they're looking for today and where they're finding the IT workforce coming up short." As Certification Magazine points out, "while over 70 percent identified security, firewalls and data privacy as the IT skills most important to their organizations, just 57 percent said their IT employees are proficient in these security skills, a gap of 16 percentage points."As our world changes and the operating environments of businesses change, skill sets need to change as well. In light of the fact that there are documented and obvious shortages of skilled IT employees in so many areas, claims of an IT glut are certainly myths.

Myth #10: No One Knows Which Certs Matter

The myth argues that no one knows how many certifications you need to be successful or which certifications have value today. In reality, what we do know is that possession of a certification is never a bad idea. Regardless of quantity or subject matter, exposing oneself to knowledge is never a downfall, nor can cause a professional to be "too educated". True, certain degree programs may or may not lead to jobs faster than others, but it's a given fact that a college education is never a waste of time. A certification is like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence; it adds emphasis and support. It is a strong acknowledgment of initiative, drive, knowledge and skill. It enhances existing knowledge and is a differentiator for job opportunities, promotions and other competitive environments, and this is the certification valuation that truly matters.Conclusion Certification is a great way to make oneself more valuable as an employee. It immediately recognizes proof and credibility to skill sets, a foot in the door when trying to land a new job and a significant advantage in career advancement by offering more leverage when negotiating new positions or salaries. 

On an international scale, as the world of globalized technological expertise grows, the need to staff outsourcing centers with qualified professionals grows as well, sustaining increased and longer term demand for people with IT skill sets and knowledge bases. 

So to counter the skeptical question, "Is certification a benefit?", the answer is "certainly;" not only to the professional who receives the certificate, but to the company and IT users that employs him or her.

How can you evolve the content in your exam programs to properly gauge these new and evolving skillsets needed within the workforce in order to properly bridge evolving skills gaps? Download our white paper: Bridging the IT Skills Gap Through Certifications.