Dear CertMag: Should I hire a high school student with a certification?

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 Dear CertMag  is a regular feature that addresses common questions about certification and related IT issues. Have a question? Send an e-mail to editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

Are high school students ready to handle full-time IT jobs?Dear CertMag: I operate a small computer sales/resale/repair business. I have two stores and we’re hoping to open a third location at the end of 2015. I’ve started to see a lot of high school student kids who have, by my lights, some fairly impressive certs. A+, Security+, CCNA R&S and so forth. Are high school certification programs legit? I’d love to get some of these kids as part-time or even full-time employees, but I’m a little leery. Can high school kids actually grasp this stuff well enough to work in a real-world everyday IT operation?

— Cal, Carmel, Ind.

CertMag responds:

The challenge presented by a high school student with a certifications is the same presented to employers daily in considering certifications: The candidates may be all over the map with their capability compared to the certification. Most high schools that are implementing certification programs are augmenting computer science departments or “computer literacy” programs with the curriculum that is available from trusted vendors and institutions.

When you think about the time spent on the product in the context of a high school, it could be that the students actually get more time than an adult who attends a standard certification program. Over the course of a semester, a “one period” class could include as much as 70 hours or more of curriculum exposure to the product.

My own high school experience included a network operations program at the local vocational high school, three hours a day, for an entire school year. While the MCP and CCNA certifications were not an official part of the curriculum, we used the Cisco Academy material of the time, using the same workbooks, guidance, videos and other material that adults in the industry would have paid considerably more for.

Further, the school district could plan to have a large number of students using the same lab equipment. They offered two sessions a day, and could plan on hardware lifecycles of five years. They could educate 20 (class size) x 2 (sessions a day) x 5 (years before hardware refresh) students on the back of investing in a handful of Cisco routers, some network cables and tools, added to computers that would have been part of the classroom anyway!

The other side of the coin when it comes to student development is that the potential, capability, attention, and all of the other attributes of the candidates can vary widely. Even students who complete a high school program successfully, with a strong passing score, may lack critical skill sets for some of the needs that an employer may have.

I myself went on to work in a NASDAQ-listed company out of high school, some classmates went to college, and others never worked a computer-related job in their lives. I struggled in that first job for the same reason that you may want to use some rigor in selecting your candidates: I had technical skills that were not yet matched by the social development and soft skills to be effective interacting with customers, as well as a spectrum of older technologists with a diversity of points of view and personalities.

I would advise caution in making a hire. If the person has the right skills, don’t exclude them on the basis of their youth automatically — as I have shared, I owe a lot to my first employer for taking me on full-time and looking past my youth to give me an opportunity to prove myself as being every bit as skilled as they expected. Rather, spend longer with your candidate in an interview. Present them with conversations, and pretend to be a customer. Are they able to work well with someone who is treating them badly? How do they communicate? Can they provide character references to be trusted with access to expensive parts and equipment?

As with any hiring decision: If they fit your needs, hire them. If they do not, go on to the next candidate. My personal view, however, would be to not simply drop someone from the candidate pool because of his relative youth, or the environment of her training.

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Wayne Anderson


Wayne Anderson (@NoCo_Architect) is a Service Management Architect with Avanade, a company that helps customers realize results in a digital world through business technology solutions and managed services that combine insight, innovation and expertise focused on Microsoft® technologies. He holds the Certified IT Architect – Professional credential from IASA and has completed more than 30 Microsoft certifications in his career alongside credentials from CompTIA and other industry vendors.

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7 thoughts on “Dear CertMag: Should I hire a high school student with a certification?”

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  4. I would have no hesitation hiring someone directly out of High School with a CCNA if they are clean, well dressed, and presentable. I see very little value in shuffling someone off to four years of college and a mountain of debt to “learn” IT when what is taught is actually 50% irrelevant, 49% programming, and 1% useful/relevant.

  5. I agree with the Author on so many different points. I taught the CCNA track and basic networking classes at a Charter school and tried to incorporate my customer skills learned at Xerox. We took a typical kid that wanted to build a pc and play games and developed networking skills that he or she could build on.The age of the student was less of an issue but maturity was. What I found was the skills learned in the classes gave them confidence and molded many of their choices for further education in the military (I am a retired veteran) or college. If they didn’t go on to college, it improved their chances for employment in the technology field. Few will give a high school grad more than a few dollars above minimum wage until they prove themselves in many areas. The promise of 30K + wasn’t realistic as an entry level opportunity for someone that is 18 unless they have had a mentor guide them for a while. The other challenge was the majority of job opportunities were across town, at least an hour commute one way. Not many young people want to go that far to work.

    I still feel like investing in a high school student is a great idea but the soft skills need to be there as well. The best customer skills I have learned was from the 13 year at Xerox.
    Without training beyond the certification, they will get discouraged and could drop out of the field.

  6. As Wayne said, age should never be a factor, either young or old. Look at the total package.

    I’d venture to say that individuals coming out of high school have a much better grasp of technology than the proceeding generations. However, performing IT work for a company is much different than performing IT work for friends and family. This is an issue a lot of new IT professionals have a difficult time grasping. There are programs that you can use for free for personal use that require a license purchase for commercial use. Getting new IT professionals to learn industry best practices and following processes and procedures is the biggest hurdle for a hiring company.

    Soft skills are actually more important than certifications. You can teach someone the technical aspects of the job. Teaching them how to interact with fellow employees and customers can be much more difficult.

    I highly suggest following Liz Ryan of Human Workplace on LinkedIn, both for employees and employers, Read her postings on interviewing.

    • I completely agree, Kilroy. The total package is key, NOT age. I am one of those that got hired right out of high school. Do I look back at the way that I conducted myself then, and measure against today’s yardstick and cringe? Absolutely. But I was hired because 1) I was cheap and 2) I could offer skills to the company that were both formally certified and informally demonstrated. Ultimately I had a lot of growing still to do, however the right opportunity can be matched with the right person.

      Just as you would never look around at all [30|40|50|whatever] years olds and say ALL [30|40|50|whatever] year olds are immature beer drinking morons OR that all [30|40|50|whatever] year olds are stodgy old fogies: you would recognize that yes, there are outliers of some of each and lots of good, solid, employable people in the middle.

      I think that rather than looking at Age, look at experience! Does this person have anything else that shows they are committed to the job? Have they worked an internship before? Have they gotten involved in local groups? Can they conduct themselves in an interview with reasonable capability? Can they handle a basic customer conversation?

      Personally, I feel like no where in the job world should age be an immediate bar, not for a promotion to director or VP, and not for entry level technician in charge of nothing at all. It’s the skills, experiences, and capabilities that really should be applied to figuring out the fundamental question: can this person do what I expect someone in this role to be able to do successfully? This month, 3 months from now, and hopefully even better 18 months from now?

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