Building Your Certification Budget

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Kevin and Ted work for a major auto manufacturer. Both were technical support specialists with an eye on getting certified as Microsoft Certified Systems Administrators (MCSA). Kevin was able to get his company to pay for everything associated with the certification program: training, exams, books and study materials. Ted was only able to get the company to pay for classes at the local community college. For all other expenses associated with the process, Ted had to pay out of pocket. Kevin obtained his MCSA certification in only six months. He has since been promoted to systems administrator with a nice pay raise to go along with it. A year since beginning his quest for certification, Ted has yet to pass one exam, and he is still stuck in his old tech-support job.

As the senior education consultant at one of the nation’s largest IT training and certification centers, I run across situations like the one described above all the time. Amazingly, two individuals from the same company, going for the same IT certification, using the same company-sponsored education-assistance program, pursue two totally different training programs and achieve two very different results. One is able to get all certification expenses covered. The other is forced to settle for a sub-par education and is left with major out-of-pocket expenses such as exam costs and study materials. Why did the HR department cover all of Kevin’s expenses but only some of Ted’s? How was Kevin able to finish his program in only six months—all expenses paid—and Ted has barely finished his second class and has yet to pay for his certification exams? As always, the truth lies in the details.

Chances are you already recognize the value of IT certification: increased compensation, faster rate of career advancement, enhanced credibility as an IT professional, improved chances of finding a new career and improved productivity. Now comes the tricky part: how to pay for it.

Budgeting for IT certification involves determining the real cost of everything associated with getting certified, finding a way to pay for it and completing the program in a realistic time frame, before the technology you are getting certified in becomes outdated. In the post-dot-com-crash days of IT budget cuts and outsourcing, you are lucky if your company is willing to share the cost of your certification, let alone pay for the whole program. If you are fortunate enough to work for one of these progressive organizations, I will show you how to maximize the company’s education plan to get the most bang for your buck and avoid having to pay the lion’s share of your certification program out of pocket. If you are currently out of work, or if your company does not offer education assistance, which is becoming more common these days, there are other public- and private-aid programs out there to help you.

Step One: Determine the Real Cost of Your Certification
When choosing a training program, it is easy to overlook hidden costs. They pop up out of the blue, and sometimes these unexpected expenses can delay your certification process. You can count on incurring the following expenses:

 

 

  • Actual exam costs: Test fees will vary based on which certification you pursue, as well as the number of exams involved. Test fees can be as low as $20 per test (Cannon Certifications) to as much as $10,000 (NCR ATM Service Engineer). Both of these examples are extreme. Most IT certification exams will cost between $100 and $300. Some vendors only require passing one exam (Sun Certified Java Programmer at $165 for example). Other vendors require multiple exams. One of the more popular IT certifications, Microsoft’s MCSE for example, requires eight exams at $125 a piece. Most IT certification exams are taken on a computer in an authorized testing center, usually either Thompson Prometric or Virtual University Enterprises (VUE). To determine the exact cost of the exam(s) associated with the certification you are considering, visit either of their Web sites at www.prometric.com or www.vue.com.
    Don’t make the mistake of assuming you will pass all of the exams on the first try. Even for IT veterans, it is common to fail a few exams along the way to getting certified. When budgeting for your IT certification, allot a few hundred bucks for exam retakes or choose a program that offers a test-pass guarantee.

     

     

  • Instructor-led training: This is the most expensive piece of the certification puzzle, usually done at either a certification training center or college. If your budget allows for it, I recommend the former because programs such as these are geared specifically for those pursuing certification, whereas college curriculum is usually geared for those pursuing degrees. Depending on the number of courses involved, costs at certification training centers can be between $1,000 and $25,000, and this cost usually includes everything you will need to get certified: books, exams, practice tests, study guides, etc. Colleges charge by the credit hour, usually between $65 and $400 per credit hour. All supplemental study materials and exam fees will have to be paid for a la carte.
     
  • Study materials and practice tests: Even the best-quality instructor-led certification program will require you to study outside of class and take plenty of practice exams. Thousands of study guides are available for those seeking certification, as well as hundreds of practice tests. Manual study guides are not too expensive—usually between $10 and $50. Practice tests are available both online and in disk format and tend to be pricier than study guides, averaging $30 to $75 per practice test. There are dozens of free practice tests online, but my experience with these is that they do not map well to the real certification exams. Ask a fellow IT professional who has obtained the same certification you are pursuing to recommend a good study guide or practice test.
     
  • Living expense money: This is one of the most overlooked expenses when budgeting for your IT certification. If you are a displaced, dislocated or an otherwise unemployed IT professional, you need money to pay the bills while getting your education. Even those who are employed might overlook the impact the certification process will have on their finances. For example, someone working 9 to 5 who enrolls in a six-month evening certification program might need to hire someone to take care of the kids at night. Consider these expenses when putting together your IT certification budget.

 

Step Two: How to Fund Your IT Certification
OK, you’ve done your research, and you have put together a rough estimate of what it will cost to fund your IT certification program. Now comes the difficult part: Getting someone else to pay the cost, or at least as much as possible. Many companies offer employees some type of education assistance, but amazingly, less than half of IT workers take advantage of it. How can this be? With the rate at which technology changes, it would seem like IT workers would take advantage of company-sponsored tuition assistance more so than any other department. Updating your skills is not just something you should do. It is something you must do if you plan a long career in IT or want to move up the corporate ladder.

It’s not that IT workers do not want to get certified. In fact, most do and many are even willing to self-fund their certification, taking out large student loans to earn the credentials they desire. The problem is that in many companies, the HR department will not pay for certification programs. Why? I have found that there are predominantly two reasons. First, the company is afraid that if they pay for certification, the IT worker will leave the company. Second, the company-sponsored tuition guidelines are antiquated

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