Assessing Your Certification Needs
When it comes to understanding future certification needs, it’s important to consider two sides of the certification game. The first side relates to your plans for career growth and development and ties into what new credentials you wish to pursue, along with the skills and knowledge that should accompany them. Let’s call this “career development.” The second side relates to the need to keep existing certifications current and valid, or simply up-to-date. Let’s call this “recertification and continuing education.” I’ll explore each of these in turn, and suggest ways to balance the two that should also help you choose among possible alternatives when you don’t have the time, money, energy or inclination to follow all possible paths.
Certification for Career Development
Aside from certification programs where prerequisites mandate obtaining lower-level credentials to pursue higher-level ones, what’s involved in assessing any certification for career development is basic cost-benefit analysis.
This means weighing costs for the time and effort you expend pursuing certification, as well as any out-of-pocket costs for exams, study materials, practice tests, training and so forth that you might incur on your way to making the grade. If you’re self-employed or have bottom-line responsibilities where you work, you might also add in so-called opportunity costs (which represent how much income you would earn during the time you spend getting certified, had you spent that time generating income).
It’s essential to note that IT certifications have shelf lives, in that they remain valid, current or interesting to employers for limited periods of time. Cisco’s Professional-level certifications remain valid for three years. This means you must repay all costs for such credentials over a three-year period to break even on your investment. Ideally, you’d want to determine that the income boost is such that you come out ahead after three years. When that time is up, however, you must perform a new cost-benefit analysis. This time, you’ll use the time, effort and costs for recertification to help you decide if recertification pays off and what kind of value it provides.
Let’s assume that all the information about IT professional Jane Blogg shown in Table 1 is true. Further, let’s assume she wants to become a Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) and has a shot at a job that pays $35,500 yearly once she obtains that cert. Using the information provided in Table 2, Table 3 provides analyses of self-study options versus attending a boot camp to obtain the CCNP. Given that a CCNP lasts for three years before additional time, effort and expense must be incurred to recertify, I based my cost-benefit analysis on a three-year period and assume that Jane will qualify for a modest 3 percent annual raise during that period.
Note that for both self-study and boot-camp approaches, it’s worth Jane’s while to obtain the CCNP in terms of payback on costs over three years. It might appear more worthwhile to do the self-study route rather than attend boot camp because although the number of study hours doubles, the payoff increases too. But this is not entirely true, nor entirely fair, because the analysis does not account for the value of Jane’s time at boot camp—in which case, the number of hours for study time is nearly the same, figuring on 11 10-hour days at boot camp at Jane’s hourly rate. But if Jane’s employer pays that cost (and pays her while she’s at boot camp), boot camp is the clear winner. This helps explain why the majority of boot-camp attendees are employer-funded and why such venues continue to survive (if not thrive, in today’s depressed training market).
Hopefully, the example makes these important points from the cost-benefit analysis clear:
- Look for a positive payoff over the life of any new credential you consider.
- Use the effective life of the certification to calculate payoffs.
- The more accurate your data, and the more precisely you account for time, effort and expenses, the more useful the resulting analysis.
Cost-benefit analysis provides a great way to compare prospective values of multiple certifications, but such comparisons are only as accurate as future earnings figures you provide to drive that analysis. That’s why detailed, regionalized and experience-based salary surveys are popular—they provide the information you need to fill in the future salary blank when weighing the value of a certification in your marketplace, with your number of years of experience, educational background, other certifications and so forth.
Recertification and Continuing Education
When considering your certification portfolio, you must understand the costs and benefits of staying certified, but also weigh the costs and benefits of various certifications against one another. There are a couple of flies in this ointment. First, maintaining a certification typically does not lead to a bump in pay, so it must be funded out of ordinary salary increases. Second, some certifications can become sufficiently stale or out of vogue that maintaining them might prevent you from maintaining other, still-valuable certifications or from obtaining newer, more valuable ones. Be sure to weigh costs and benefits in the context of other credentials you hold or wish to obtain to get the best results from a cost-benefit analysis.
Returning to Jane Blogg, let’s advance her clock three years and help her decide if she should maintain her CCNP using facts and figures from Table 4. Because recertifying for CCNP requires taking only a single exam, these tables are simpler than earlier ones. (No boot camp is needed, and we assume continuing annual 3 percent raises.)
Here again, monetary benefits apparently outweigh costs quite handily. But as with preceding examples, the more of these costs Jane can pass to her employer, the better off she’ll be. Otherwise, she’s spending part of her raise to help her keep her job!
Balancing Recertification Against New Credentials
As you might guess, deciding whether to pursue new credentials versus maintaining old ones can get complicated. Likewise, choosing which certifications to renew and which ones to let lapse can get tricky. This is where a little common sense is useful. First and foremost, if a credential is no longer required for the position you hold, consider letting it lapse unless that might cost more in the long run when changing jobs. Second, let job requirements dictate which existing certifications you renew and which new ones to pursue.
When choosing among new certifications, remember that money isn’t everything. You may get a better career boost by choosing to pursue topics that interest you, rather than chasing what pays best. Of course, only you can make this decision, but it’s worth putting a value on job satisfaction, if it helps you balance a boring but high-paying credential against a lower-paying cert that catches your interest and imagination.
Ed Tittel is president of LANwrights Inc. and is contributing editor for Certification Magazine. Ed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Table 1: Relevant Background for Jane Blogg, IT Professional