Certification at the Entry Level

I should have studied history.

If I’d studied history, I wouldn’t have to learn new material every two to three years. History is constant; I could’ve learned it once and known it forever. Instead, every couple of years I have to learn an entirely new technology, then drag myself to the local Prometric or Vue testing center and
vie for a certification to prove my IT worth.

By waving the MCSE and CCNP around, I not only overtly profess my technological genius and skill, but I’m also portraying a degree of experience.

Early on in the certification business — and in many cases, this is still the case now — that’s exactly how the certification was viewed: as a measurement of skill with an expectation of a certain amount of time on the job. Traditionally, certification tests were specifically designed to rate an individual’s progression along a career path.

For example, a hiring manager could use a CCNA or CCNP entry on a resume as an indicator of time, experience and knowledge. The CCNA candidate most likely had three to five years in the business, whereas the CCNP was a more senior person. A casual glance through CompTIA’s Web site shows what it expects of candidates before they even attempt an exam — 18-24 months of experience before attempting Security +, for example.

But the new reality is that certifications are sometimes used as a shortcut to a career. While a person working in academia, for example, must follow a specified, inescapable series of steps to progress to title and glory, an IT worker need only take the appropriate certification exam and a credential declaring knowledge and skill is awarded. This, of course, has had an entirely predictable outcome: Businesses and hiring managers have begun looking past the credential toward the experience and educational background.

Jon McAfee, senior IT security engineer and national security systems manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, put it this way: “It’s not that I don’t look at the certification at all; it’s just that it doesn’t mean as much to me as actual, real experience working on an enterprise network or a college degree. Certifications are great, but by themselves, they don’t mean a whole lot.”

Certainly this is cyclical. We’ve all witnessed the ups and downs of perceived value with certifications from year to year. However, at least early in 2008, it appears the certification world may be rebounding in a big way by targeting an area previously not in its crosshairs.

Certification vendors have begun targeting the entry-level crowd, offering certs aimed at proving your starting point rather than your final destination. The traditional, powerhouse, industry-standard type certifications aren’t going away, but they are getting augmented with a throwback to the apprentice levels and a future eye toward the specialization sector. Why this move toward the entry-level market?

There may be a little more to this than meets the eye. Take Cisco’s newest certification, the Cisco Certified Entry
Network Technician (CCENT), for example. By splitting the CCNA into two halves, focusing on theory and basic, small-network routing and switching in CCENT, it may appear Cisco simply is moving money from one pocket to another. After all, it’s still a part of an existing certification and doesn’t appear, at first, to reach out to a new audience.

However, Lora O’Haver, program manager for CCENT at Cisco, believes marketplace needs have reached critical mass for entry-level certification. “Studies show training and education are key to successful deployments and optimum operation of networking gear,” she said. “Theory and configuration of simple networks has always been a part of CCNA certification, but not certifiable by itself. Now CCENT provides a means to demonstrate relevant skills for technical support, help-desk [and] even retail and service organizations.” When asked why the certification came out now, she replied, “Certifying a more limited set of skills has more value than it used to.”

The argument for simplicity rings true for another reason as well. CCNA and other well-known certifications present quite a challenge for newcomers to the certification world and scare off some other talented, experienced networkers. Taking a certification test is a daunting process, and many of the more traditional certs covered such a wide range of topics many newcomers don’t even know where to begin.

Many knowledgeable, skilled IT folks simply didn’t attempt it. Entry-level certs bridge that gap by easing the inevitable fear and apprehension that both new and seasoned IT workers face when attempting their first certifications.

Don’t discount the government’s role in all this. The recent drive in the Department of Defense for IT and IA certification at both the technical and management levels is pushing the entire certification market forward, and lessons learned during the actual implementation have bolstered the arguments for entry-level certs.

Despite the fact that you won’t necessarily find all entry-level certs listed in DOD 8570.1 — the manual directing all DOD employees in an IA function to become certified — savvy government and contractor leaders are recognizing the need for progression through the certification ranks. The approach initially taken — that of throwing as many people as possible into CISSP courses and watching them fail out — has proven the benefit in taking a structured approach, more closely matching personnel position and skills to available certifications.

Paul Clark, director of IA training at Dynetics Inc., thinks the entry-level certification market is primed for explosion for this very reason. “The days of a newcomer in the field taking a single test and vaulting to the top of the heap are over,” Clark said. “DOD 8570 has it right: Certifications should map directly to real experience, knowledge and time on the job. Whether you’re in management or a frontline technician, a progression through the ranks is not only desired but should be mandatory. You wouldn’t want a first-year medical student working on you. Can you imagine getting to the operating table and being told, ‘I have only six months experience and I’ve never actually operated, but I did pass a tough exam last week’?”

Although presiding over mostly IA-related certifications, Clark personally has seen the benefit of the structured approach to certification. He said students attempting CISSP without any prior certification do not do nearly as well as those who have taken Network+, Security+ or SSCP in preparation. “Success breeds success, and those who have already taken a certification — one that more closely matches their current skill, knowledge and experience levels — and passed are more relaxed and confident when facing the more difficult tests down the road,” Clark said.

Admittedly, the certification market’s move toward the entry level may simply be mercenary in nature — an attempt to jump-start a market on the decline. In 2006, Brainbench’s “Global Skills Report” verified the declining trend in certification, and this movement continues today.

David Foote, co-founder and CEO of Foote Partners, said his research shows that the value, both perceived and real, from attaining a certification is on the decline. Entry-level certs, though, are the exception to the rule. “The trend is definitely shifting towards the entry-level certification,” Foote said.

What does all this mean to the IT world? If you’re already a traditional certification holder, the answer is, “Not much.” However, new members to the industry have a much wider range of choices available, and the entry-level certifications may be the most valuable of the group. History lessons aside, it now seems the starting line, at least in the IT and IA certification world, may be just as important as the finish line.

Matt Walker is certified in CCNP, CCDA, MCSE, MCT, CEH, CNDA, CPTS, Security+ and Network+. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

Entry-Level Certs Fill Skills Gap

John Venator

Certifications for workers in the information technology industry, historically targeted at professionals with at least a few years of experience on the job, are more and more being tailored for entry-level candidates.

For certifying bodies, the shift is aimed in part at addressing shortages of certain technology skills that are impacting the industry and have the potential to be even more problematic in the not-so-distant future.

For workers new to the high-tech sector, the emergence of new certification options at the entry level is good news.

Even in a market in which companies say technical skills are lacking, employers are more demanding and selective in their searches for technology workers.

Individuals securing jobs in today’s tech workplace are equipped with greater versatility and a broader skill set than was required in the past. An industry-recognized certification puts the worker — even an entry-level worker — in a stronger position with prospective employers. Certifications are a clear indicator for the employer that the individual who wants a job has the skills to perform the tasks.

Meeting Demand

IT jobs are among the 10 hardest jobs to fill, according to an April 2008 survey by Manpower. Nearly 25 percent of employers surveyed for Manpower said they are having problems filling open jobs because of a lack of talent.

Today’s IT jobs are more complicated than they were 10 or 20 years ago. Applications, networks and systems call for IT professionals with a much broader set of skills, even at the entry level.

Multiple studies suggest there will be a wide gap in the next five to 10 years between the demand for IT workers and the supply of workers with the right technical skills. Research firm IDC puts that gap at 40 percent.

A 2008 study commissioned by CompTIA that surveyed more than 3,500 IT managers in 14 countries found that there are gaps in several critical technical areas. There is a wide gap between the IT security skills that organizations want and the corresponding skills that workers bring to the job.

Among organizations surveyed in nine countries with established IT industries — Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States — 73 percent identified security, firewalls and data privacy as the IT skills most important to their organizations. But just 57 percent said their IT employees are proficient in these security skills, a gap of 16 percentage points.

The gap is even wider in five countries where the emergence of a strong IT industry is relatively recent: China, India, Poland, Russia and South Africa. Among respondents in these countries, 76 percent identified security as the top skill their organizations need, but just 57 percent said their current tech staffs are proficient in security. That’s a difference of 19 percentage points.

Other skills with significant gaps between importance and proficiency are soft skills — such as customer service, sales, project management, communication — and nonspecific server technology including database, storage, maintenance and administration.

Development of new entry-level IT certifications and the refinement of existing certifications are intended to address this critical skill issue, according to Gretchen Koch, director of skills development for CompTIA.

“It gets back to enlarging the number of IT professionals and keeping the pipeline of workers filled,” she said.

Adobe Systems is among the major players in the IT industry that have expanded their certification programs to include more entry-level candidates.

In June 2007, Adobe Systems launched the first in a new line of entry-level certifications for its software. Targeted at high school and college students and entry-level workers, the Adobe Certifications exams are intended to test a candidate’s ability to use Adobe’s multimedia, video, graphic and Web software. The first offerings are tied to Adobe’s Flash and Dreamweaver products, with other certifications to roll out later this year.

“Adobe is committed to offering educators the resources to give students the necessary digital media skills to succeed in today’s highly competitive workplace,” said Megan Stewart, director of K-12 education at Adobe. “We can offer teachers and students the ability to not only learn to use Adobe’s industry-standard digital communications tools, but to validate the skills and competencies that they have acquired.”

“It’s a market plan that allows Adobe to increase the user base that’s knowledgeable about its programs and is capable of entering the higher-level certifications when they become professionals in the field,” said David Saedi, president and chief executive officer of Certiport, which Adobe partnered with in developing its certifications. “Trying to verify how many people out there qualify for a particular job is difficult. By [knowing] the number of people using Adobe programs in high schools and colleges around the world, it will give us a much better feel for the ebb and flow of talent coming into the market.”

Entering With Acumen

The CompTIA A+ certification has been revised to reflect the evolution of skills required for individuals embarking on careers in technology, which includes the need for technical, business, communication and personal skills.

“The role of the IT professional is more strategic for organizations, and technical skills alone are no longer enough for most IT jobs,” Koch said. “More than ever, companies value employees who can think strategically and communicate effectively, as well as those who possess strong business fundamentals. IT workers who understand how to use technology to meet business goals, and who can articulate this understanding, are golden in the eyes of employers.”

Though IT certifications take time, effort and resources — including money — to attain, the return on investment can be significant. Certification in the IT industry is critical for getting your foot in the door. Employers are looking for job candidates with some level of industry knowledge. What better way for an entry-level worker to demonstrate his or her knowledge than by obtaining a recognized industry credential? 

Matt Walker is certified in CCNP, CCDA, MCSE, MCT, CEH, CNDA, CPTS, Security + and Network +. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.
 

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