Counting the cost: Why are certifications so expensive?
In October of last year, CertMag published an article I wrote about the earning potential of gaining Oracle (and other) certifications. Essentially, I attempted to address a common question asked by many certification candidates: Will getting more certifications earn me a lot of money? The flip side of that question revolves around the amount of money required to obtain Oracle certifications, or those offered by other providers. Most commonly, the “question” is phrased as a complaint about how much certifications cost. There is nothing shocking about that, of course — complaining about where our money goes is a fairly universal pastime. Gasoline, groceries, taxes, broadband fees, and more all consume more of our money than we think they should, or wish they did.
There is no doubt that obtaining certifications can require a considerable amount of money. What is open for debate is whether or not that cost is reasonable, and whether the end result is worth the investment. Not surprisingly, the certifications that command the most respect are often the ones with the highest prices tags. Exam costs alone for credentials such as Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE), Red Hat Certified Architect (RHCA), and Oracle Certified Master (OCM) exceed $1,000. Preparing for the exams through either required or optional training can add thousands more to the end cost. Oracle certifications are far and away the ones that I am most familiar with; I mention the other two merely to note that the certifications which carry the most weight tend to be the most expensive to obtain.
The OCM exam is expensive because it requires the use of a hands-on lab designed specifically for the test. The specific tasks that must be performed during the exam are confidential, but they involve configuring and troubleshooting an actual Oracle database installation in the lab. Testing candidates in a specially constructed environment like this is much more expensive than having them take computerized multiple choice/multiple-answer exams at a Pearson Vue testing center. And in addition to the exam requirement, candidates must take two advanced courses from a list determined by Oracle University. For candidates in the United States, earning the Oracle Certified Master credential will run somewhere in the neighborhood of $8,500.
Most of the expense is in the required training courses. These tend to range from $2,000 to $3,500 when delivered by Oracle University. The OCM designation is valuable because it is effectively impossible to earn the certification by cheating. No one is going to be able to pass the lab exercise without knowing how to configure and troubleshoot an Oracle database. There is also a supply and demand factor involved. Because of the cost and the high level of knowledge required to pass, there are far fewer Oracle Certified Master credentials in the job market than there are lower-level Oracle certifications. OCMs are highly sought after for senior database administrator positions, and by firms that offer Oracle consulting services.
The Oracle certification program has scores of other certifications available across all of their product offerings. These certifications are less expensive than the OCM, but by the same token they do not convey a nearly equivalent level of respect. For candidates in the United States, Oracle has standardized their fees at $250 for the vast majority of their exams. In addition, several tracks require candidates to take a hands-on training course, which can add several thousand more to the cost of certification. People considering a career in Oracle might wonder whether there is a cheaper option for taking a computerized certification exam.
Actually, there are at least two options. Brain Bench is a company that offers a number of online computerized exams. They have sixteen exams in their section for Oracle with topics like Oracle 11g Administration, Oracle Financials Release 11, and Oracle PL/SQL Fundamentals. A couple of their exams are free to take, and the remainder cost $50. A second online option is the Expert Rating website. Under their databases category, they have exams for SQL, PL/SQL, and 10g Database Administration. They also have vendor-generic exams on Data Modeling, Data Structures and Data Warehousing. The price for taking any of their exams is just $10.
With either of these sites, and quite probably others out on the Web somewhere, you can become “certified” for a fraction of the price that Oracle charges. There is one hitch. I have looked at a lot of job listings for Oracle positions in the past 18 years. I have never seen a single listing that referenced Brain Bench or Expert Rating exams/certifications as a requirement or desire for job candidates. If you were to pass these exams and then place that information on your resume, I believe the vast majority of hiring managers would have no idea what to make of it. I suspect it would simply be ignored. Put another way, while the cost of these exams is a fraction of the cost of equivalent Oracle certification exams, the prestige value of passing them is effectively nonexistent.
That said, one of the points I emphasize repeatedly is that the primary value of taking certification exams is in what candidates learn while preparing for them. Brain Bench has a “Job Role” concept that groups tests in various categories together to match the skills needed for the given job. An example set of exams for their “Database Administrator” job role could be the following:
- Data Modeling Concepts
- RDBMS Concepts
- SQL (ANSI)
- Data Warehousing Concepts
- Oracle 11g Administration
- Oracle PL/SQL
The above list covers a very reasonable set of skills to learn for someone new to the Oracle database. Taking all of the tests, however, would cost $300 if paid for individually, or $200 via an annual subscription. This is moderately cheaper than the roughly equivalent OCA Database Administrator certification from Oracle (two exams totaling $375). On the other hand, the OCA track does not cover data modeling, data warehousing, or PL/SQL. Comparing the relative merit between the two is not an exact science. My opinion would generally be that the higher visibility of an Oracle certification outweighs the cost differential. In certification, as in so many things, you generally get what you pay for.