Certification at Hal-Com

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By anyone’s estimation, the hiring process for IT technicians at Hal-Com, an IT support firm with 15 employees, 10 of whom are technicians out in the field, is pretty tough. First you must successfully submit your resume (PDF files only) and make it past the 10-question phone interview. Then you must pass an intensive on-site interview requiring an online technical evaluation, viewing of a company video, a written test comprised of essay-style answers and a 45-minute, 25-question interview, with answers rated on a scale of 1 through 5 to compare you with other candidates and determine the best choice.

If you’re still in the running at that point, you get to eat—at a third, albeit less formal, lunch interview. (Rolaids, anyone?) This provides the opportunity to assess “soft” skills, such as communication, in a more relaxed environment—and a chance to determine whether or not you would be a good fit for the organization.

You might think that, following such a stringent interview process, it would be smooth sailing afterward. But next comes a tough four-week boot camp, during which the successful candidate must pass six industry-standard IT certifications in just four weeks in order to “graduate” and make it out into the field to begin working.

The process may sound daunting, but Hal-Com has found that it’s an excellent way to identify the candidates who will make the best employees. And the employees benefit greatly in the process from a personal standpoint. Not surprisingly, this method has been very successful weeding out the “pretenders.”

In previous years, Hal-Com would interview people and hire them based on the experience they claimed on their resumes. Sometimes it worked out well. Too many times, it did not. At one particular point a new employee in the field called for help when floundering over a problem that, had he been appropriately qualified, should have been trivial to fix. We were shocked and troubled by this, and, to our much greater concern, so was the client he was serving. At that point, it became very clear to us that something had to change. We could not lose client goodwill by sending an inadequately trained technician out into the field.

Hal-Com experimented with several approaches. We used various practice exams and began looking for certified employees. Over a period of six months or so, we realized that we could install a program that would benefit both the business and the individual employee.

The initial four-week period after hiring involves no responsibilities other than studying and training. Hal-Com provides 24-hour access to computer-based training materials in a training lab, along with the hardware and software for experimentation and practice. An employee who has the appropriate experience will be able to brush up on the material and pass an exam after a few days of intensive review. We provide computer-based materials from a number of different vendors. Inevitably the learning objectives are covered in a slightly different way by each courseware vendor, and this proves beneficial in reinforcing learning.

The six required certifications in the curriculum must be taken in this order: CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network+, CompTIA Server+, CompTIA Linux+, Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional and Apple Certified Technical Coordinator.

The Apple certification is especially critical, since most new hires are completely unfamiliar with the material. The certification provides a telling measure of an employee’s comfort level when faced with something completely foreign.

The final phase of employee orientation is a little harder to quantify, but it is still an essential part of the process. For a week or two following the boot camp, a new employee will work with a senior technician in order to become familiar with the specific company culture and get a better feel for the way we interact with clients.

While we certainly value training, in the past, we hadn’t seen real results from training alone. We learned early on that paying $1,500 or so for an employee to leave work for a week and sit through a training class in Orlando or elsewhere does not ensure that learning has occurred. We needed formal validation of the training’s results and found the best way to do this was through certification earned by taking an examination at a monitored testing center. When Hal-Com employees take a certification exam under these circumstances, we find out whether the combination of experience shown on their resume and the time they spent in studying has produced the desired results. At that point, they either know the material or don’t.

It costs Hal-Com about $10,000 to put a technician through the training and certification program. We consider this a minor investment when we’re making sure we put the right people out in the field servicing clients. It takes about six months to recoup these costs, but the investment doesn’t stop there. We base bonuses and raises on certification and pay the examination fees for subsequent certifications that our employees pass. Our goal is to encourage our technicians to strive for lifelong professional development, and we reward them accordingly. For example, if a technician passes CompTIA Security+ plus two Microsoft exams and achieves the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA), they receive a $5,000 raise. An employee will earn a second $5,000 raise on earning MCSE certification.

In the general scheme of things, we’re always tweaking our incentive program. We feel so strongly about the benefits of professional development through certification that we are currently providing an all-expenses-paid vacation in the Bahamas, including extra time off from work, to the next employee who earns the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE). We value these six specific certifications because they cover just about all of the platforms we use on a day-to-day basis. We feel strongly that every technician needs to prove his or her knowledge of the material, to build his or her own confidence and to do the job as we expect it to be done. We explain to all of our technicians that the certification stays with them for life. We believe it’s critical that our technicians be the best they can be. In the law and accounting professions, people are held to a high standard before they can practice their trade. Why not in IT?

Oddly enough, going into the program, Hal-Com had not anticipated the beneficial effect it would have on employee turnover. We had set some controls in place to ensure that we weren’t training our people just so that they could leave and go elsewhere. We established a training agreement that includes repayment of training costs, according to an employee’s length of stay with the company, if they should leave before a set period of time. To date, we have not had to enforce the agreement.

The cost of not training and certifying is immeasurable. You can never measure lost client goodwill, nor can you measure the personal disruption in the life of an employee who wasn’t the right fit for the position. A tough interview and certification process can eliminate many of these problems for the employer and the potential employee. Hal-Com is in the process of applying these same principles to the hiring of a salesperson who comes to the company with an MIS degree from Michigan and a strong desire to put herself through the technician boot camp. That’s the kind of motivation Hal-Com looks for.

Hal Hanson is president of Hal-Com, a Cleveland, Ohio-based IT support services firm. Chris Hanson is vice president of Hal-Com.


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