Canceling Lifetime Certifications

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Earlier this year, CompTIA announced it would start requiring certificants — even those already holding CompTIA certifications that had been billed as lifelong — to renew their certifications.

Two weeks later, the association reversed this decision somewhat, saying that previous CompTIA certification holders and those studying for its exams this year would be certified for life. Effective Jan. 1, 2011, all new CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network+ and CompTIA Security+ certifications will be valid for three years from the date the candidate becomes certified.

According to Terry Erdle, senior vice president of skills certification for CompTIA, the decision was originally brought about by advice from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). “The way they explained it to us is: ‘We really should start to push you guys into line with everybody else, which is a three-year or least some kind of recertification process. Your IT certifications can’t go on forever; lifetime certification is just not something that we’re going to stand behind anymore,’” Erdle said.

So CompTIA developed a continuing education process and a policy of requiring recertification. One of ANSI’s requirements was that such a policy be applied evenly across the association’s entire database.

“Well, the announcement went out, and we certainly heard from a number of people,” Erdle said. “I wouldn’t say it was a majority, but a vociferous number of them who said, ‘You know, this really isn’t fair.’”

IT pro Walter Byrd was one such protestor. When Byrd first heard he’d be required to recertify, he was angry. “I felt it was unfair,” he said. “I felt that I was being cheated because they were always very insistent that their certifications were lifetime.”

Byrd pointed to language on CompTIA’s Web site that had declared, “Our certifications are good for life. Once you are certified, you are certified for life. The certifications do not have an expiration date nor do you have to retake a test after an upgrade.”

CompTIA reported these frustrations on the part of its certificants to ANSI, which in turn agreed to allow CompTIA to revise its policy to allow former certificants to retain their lifetime certification and to start implementing the new policy in 2011.

CompTIA certificants were relieved, Erdle reported.

“We got a lot of ‘tears of joy streaming down my face’ kind of comments,” he said.

Byrd’s reaction to the policy revision was a bit more understated. “That was fine,” he said. “If they want to change their policy for certifications going forward, I have no problem with that at all. But I don’t think it’s fair for them to do that retroactively.”

Erdle understands frustration with the initial policy announcement. “We probably pulled the rip cord on the first policy a little too quickly, and we’ve learned from that and we’re going to take a slightly more conservative policy change process approach in the future, knowing how hot an issue this is for some people,” he said.

According to Erdle, a policy of recertification goes beyond meeting standards requirements; it enhances the value of CompTIA certs overall since employers generally insist IT professionals keep their skills current. “This is a good thing overall, to get to the point where we’re keeping people’s certifications fresh,” he said. “We’re recognizing that IT content changes rather dramatically every three to five years and that people should provide some level of credible assurance that they have stayed current.”

Byrd isn’t so sure this is significant. “I think it will make some difference, but only with certain employers,” he said. “For example, for a DOD employer it might matter. Most employers I don’t think will even know the difference.”

A key question is whether this new policy will create a skills gap between previously and newly tested CompTIA certificants, as holders of the old certs will be date-stamped to when they were tested and holders of the new certs will be forced to continually update their skills.

“Well, [it’s the] same kind of testing process [and the] same content, [though] obviously the content continues to change,” Erdle said. “It’s up to the individual to decide how current their skills need to be, whether they need to recertify. It probably sounds more onerous than it is when people first look at it and think, ‘Ugh, I have to retest every few years.’ And that’s really not the point.”

He pointed out that most IT pros already engage in a process of updating their skills as needed, which likely includes certification beyond their original education in the field.

“I don’t think anybody who plays in the IT space would think that the same technology, even the fundamentals that I learned 20 years ago, [is] completely relevant today,” he said. “I mean cloud computing and just the basic platforms that people use today are wildly different in terms of how they handle.”

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