Certification Navigation: Five Strategies for Success

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Information technology was, is and will remain a great career choice. IT salaries are still higher than average, even in the worst economic times, and every industry from finance to health care needs talented IT staffers. As organizations strive to use IT to improve productivity and communication with customers and suppliers, and to comply with government regulations, the need for skilled IT professionals will increase.

This is not to say that the employment path is easy to navigate. Knowing what direction to take and the obstacles to avoid requires expertise and a steady hand on the compass to guide your career. Over the past few years, IT has made the transition from a young, rapidly expanding employment sector to a mature one. In this mature market, the need for trained personnel is high, but the growth in the number of new jobs remains low. Organizations have fewer openings, and managers are being extremely selective about who they hire to fill those positions.

New adaptation strategies are called for in this mature phase of the IT employment/career environment. Think of the following five strategies as general guidelines to be used as appropriate, depending on where you are in your career.

Strategy One: Use Certification as a Validation of Skills
When you are starting out in this industry, it’s extremely important to train, obtain as much hands-on experience as possible and earn foundational certifications such as CompTIA A+ and Network+, the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), Microsoft Certified Desktop Support Technician (MCDST) and others. Academic certificates and degrees are important as well. With this demonstration of competence and dedication, you should be able to land a ground-floor job. This is as true now as it was in the roaring 1990s. The only difference is that today you may have to hunt harder for your first break and knock on more doors than you would have a few years ago. You might have to relocate. But the jobs are there because of the constant turnover on the ground floor.

When going beyond the entry-level job, however, today’s career path diverges from the tried and true, and new career-mapping skills are needed. This is made evident by work now being accomplished through the National IT Apprenticeship System (NITAS), www.nitas.us.

In the NITAS program, certifications are used to assess that a set of skills has been mastered. This is a subtle, but very important difference from the way certifications traditionally have been used. In the NITAS program, the apprentice receives classroom training and over a period of time performs a set of tasks on the job. During that time, the apprentice receives coaching from a mentor with extensive experience. The apprentice must demonstrate a comprehensive set of skills to the mentor’s satisfaction at each stage of the apprenticeship.

At the end of a given stage, the apprentice objectively verifies skills and standards mastery by earning an appropriate certification. This is the reverse of the common process of training, certifying and then demonstrating skills mastery on the job. Rather than coming at the end of the process, certification becomes a vital mid-point validation.

Employer feedback from NITAS pilot installations indicates that a combination of training, success on the job and certification most effectively identifies the IT personnel who meet an employer’s needs. Employers believe these men and women are the professionals they want to hire and, if already hired, to promote.

The message here is that employers in this mature IT market want to see the certificate and want greater assurance not only that the candidate has trained and become certified, but also that he or she can solve on-the-job problems.

What does this mean for the IT professional who is mapping a career beyond the entry-level position? Fundamentally, it means that resumes, cover letters, interviews and references must document hands-on experience in tandem with a certification. Position your certification as the objective assessment of knowledge mastery of industry standards and as the culmination of practical, hands-on experience. This shows your abilities are both current and relevant.

If you are looking for a job, this means gaining as many hours of experience as possible in labs and/or doing volunteer work. Build a system in your basement, host a Web site for a nonprofit organization—roll up your sleeves and do the work of IT. Along the way, be sure to document your efforts.

If you are already employed and want to move up or into a new area, do as much as you can in that area and then certify. Training, practicing, and certifying is a powerful way of assuring employers that you can jump into a job, come up to speed quickly with little or no handholding and solve problems.

Strategy Two: Use Value to Identify Career Direction
Up to this point, this article has been describing a process—the process of training, gaining experience and using certification as an assessment. This process, however, does not help the individual choose the direction to take in developing a career. This is where the strategy of examining your values becomes essential to mapping your career path. Sometimes the simplest questions are overlooked—not seeing the forest for the trees. One of these questions is, “What am I passionate about?” Others are: “What are my interests?” “How do I like to spend my time?” “What working environment do I thrive in?” “What situations make me want to move on as quickly as possible?” All of these questions are fundamentally about what we value.

This self-analysis is the starting point for planning. It also is important to remind yourself that at various stages in your life, you will value different things. Take time at important career junctures to go through the “What do I value now and why?” exercise. You may find yourself pointed in a new direction.

Begin to identify organizations in the public and private sectors that align with your interests. Do you enjoy the outdoors? Cities, counties, states and the federal government manage parks and nature areas, and you can be sure there are IT systems at the infrastructure level. Is travel in your blood? Airlines have immense IT needs, as do U.S. companies and government agencies with operations outside the country. Interested in movies, games, cars, making things, helping people solve problems, or fighting crime or fires? There are organizations involved in each of these areas, and all have IT needs.

The great thing about IT and IT certification is that the skills and certificates are portable. Certifications are of as much relevance and value to a manufacturer as they are to a health-care provider. Let your values direct and motivate you to find employment opportunities.

This also applies to the technical focus of your career. If you prefer hands-on work and don’t want to sit behind a desk all day, then consider servicing and installing office equipment, an industry that needs technicians trained in networking and computer basics. If department-level networking doesn’t give you the people interaction that you crave, consider starting your own consulting business. If you are interested in electronics, consider home integration as a profession. There are a million ways to let your interests assist in mapping your career. Once you open your mind to the possibilities, the world comes alive. Along each of these paths, there are certifications to assess your competence and assist you on your journey.

Strategy Three: Certify on Multiple Fronts
Traveling through your IT career, it is vital to apply the “train, practice and certify” process not solely in one area but on multiple fronts. In a mature employment market, a successful career depends on your ability to offer more to employers than someone else can. This is because employers generally

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