When I worked for TechTeam a number of years ago, many of my colleagues were frustrated by the slow pace of their career advancement. Several of them decided to study for a Novell Networking certification exam, and were regularly seen toting around hefty red-and-gray hardcover books. Once they passed and were certified as CNAs (Certified Novell Administrators), they quickly left the company to work elsewhere. They increased their salaries by at least 45%, and sometimes much more. Not a bad return for an investment of studying and a $125 test!
Certification programs cover more than just technical fields, and can range from relatively straightforward and inexpensive to fairly time-consuming and pricey. In almost every case it give you an opportunity to learn skills–or validate existing skills–to give yourself an edge in the job market without the cost and commitment of a degree program.
How is certification different than a degree?
Degree programs tend to range from 2-4 years, depending on the degree, and require a substantial amount of coursework, accompanied by substantial expense. Certification programs may have required training classes, which tend to be concentrated (e.g. a 5-day course with 8 hours of instruction per day). A frequent alternative to training classes is self-paced self-study. Either course of study is followed by a certification exam. The exam is typically the only required component to a certification program, and the tests are typically pass-fail. Many of the exams are quite difficult, and are designed so that only about half of the hopeful students will succeed on their first try.
Degree programs are offered through accredited colleges and universities, whereas certification programs are typically offered by for-profit organizations. Sometimes the certifying agency is affiliated with a professional organization (e.g. the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants certifies CPAs), and sometimes with a software developer (e.g. Sun certifies Java developers).
Some colleges and universities offer certificate programs in addition to degrees, particularly online and/or for-profit universities such as Capella University. University-offered certificate programs frequently require substantial coursework (and expense), but not a final pass-fail certification exam.
When should I consider certification?
Certification is most often useful if you are trying to demonstrate your expertise in an area where you do not have a lot of (or any) professional experience. For example, if you had been a COBOL programmer but are now applying for jobs as an Oracle database administrator, then becoming an Oracle Database Administrator Certified Professional would be helpful.
Certification is also useful in a crowded marketplace. If you are a systems administrator, you may find that becoming a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) helps set you apart from your competition. All other credentials and experience being equal, the candidate with the certification will be more attractive to a hiring manager.
A certificate may also get you a higher salary from your current employer. Some larger companies automatically award employees salary increases for acquiring job-related certifications. If not, a certificate is a good bargaining chip to use to justify your own request for a salary increase, and if that doesn’t work, it can always help you land a higher paying job elsewhere.
Lastly, some contractors and employers require certifications. For example, a law enforcement agency may require a Certified Computer Examiner for certain computer forensics positions.
Hurdles to certification
Training and exams are frequently located only in major metropolitan areas, which could be an issue if you live off the beaten path. In addition to the often steep prices for a 5-day training course (~$2500), you may also have to factor in travel and accommodations, not to mention rearranging your schedule.
Fortunately, many certification programs do offer distance learning, or, if you are disciplined enough to stick to a self-imposed study schedule, many offer self-study guides (either books, or computer-based learning). The latter can offer a huge savings.
Because certifications are often sought by people who do not have a lot of relevant experience, some people in the industry may be skeptical of their value. Experience without certification is usually preferred to certification without experience. However, acquiring certification shows a fair amount of dedication and desire to break into the industry, and should be looked upon favorably. Although it is probably best to ignore the skeptics–there will always be skeptics, after all–it is important to keep in mind that not all certifications are created equal. Be sure to find out if the certification you are considering is in demand before you pay a lot of money for training courses and exams. Check job listings to see if the certification is mentioned in the required or desired qualifications, and talk to other people with the certification and ask if it helped their careers.
A broad range of certifications
Check back Monday for An Overview of Professional Certifications, where I’ll discuss some specific certification options currently available. The offerings lean heavily towards IT, but I will be sure to explore a few other options as well.