Degree Versus Certification

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A recent poll on tells us (perhaps not surprisingly) that our readership feels having a handful of certifications is more attractive to employers than just a bachelor’s degree in computer information technology (CIT). The numbers were close though, close enough that a lengthy discussion on our boards ensued.

Our resident diplomat, Wagnerk, suggested exploring degree programs with certifications as part of the curriculum.

“More and more colleges and universities are doing this now, see WGU, for example,” Wagnerk said. “If the colleges or universities that you’re considering do not do this, you always have the option of still doing the degree program (a degree is for life and shows that you have reached a certain level) and doing self-study in the evenings or during the summer holidays for a couple of IT professional exams. You do not really need to attend a course in order to do the exams. While professional IT certifications will help you in your current position or getting into IT and attaining a certain position, a degree will help in your career progression.”

Less diplomatic posters pointed out the meaninglessness of a bachelor’s without a certification. A forum post by Nolijseeker showed the frustration of trying to break into IT with just a bachelor’s degree:

“What I have realized is that certificates will more likely get you a job than a B.S. I have a B.S. in IT and could not get an entry-level IT job, while my friend who just earned his certificate was getting all kinds of job offers. I currently work for a bank as a cash analyst, which is totally different from what I have studied at school. If you want to get an IT job, get your certs and forget about the bachelor’s.”

While acknowledging this, forum member Wayne Anderson points out that when taking a holistic view of your career, a degree will still end up being more useful than not:

“The B.S. degree is important as you progress in your career. In your initial few jobs, it really is a matter of proving that you are going to be bringing something to your employer, either by applying past experience or by showing a trusted set of knowledge in a particular area, a la certification. Your current job as a bank cash analyst will not really apply in the IT realm, so making sure that you have at least an internship or some solid certification credentials is important to try and put yourself in a strong position to go after positions that other entry-level candidates will have in their backgrounds. Also, note that your bachelor’s will become important later in your career, as you start positioning yourself for potential paths in management or when you apply for jobs at large firms. In the U.S., for example, some defense contractors will not even look at your resume if you do not have a certain type of degree, because their candidate volume is so high that they can afford to be selective.”

One forum poster, Rexon, agreed, adding that it’s also the work and dedication that goes into getting a degree that shows prospective employers your dedication to finishing something:

“One thing about getting a bachelor’s degree is that some companies consider the dedication of getting the bachelor’s degree very important. I have a fellow graduate who received the same degree as mine, but did not get a job in the IT industry. Getting your certifications is good. It also keeps you updated with the newer technologies and enforces that you want to continue your education and update your career.

“The debate is a worthy one and has been going on for decades, not only in IT but anywhere there is demand for hands-on experience smarts versus book smarts. A lot of times, it’s just up to the person doing the hiring. If they’re someone with a fairly traditional background with a bachelor’s degree themselves, they’ll be likely to appreciate the effort behind it and see it [as] essential. If the person doing the hiring has a more hands-on background, he might see the experience and knowledge a cert brings [as] more valuable. Of course, there’s no way to know a prospective employer’s background when going into an interview, but you’ll probably figure out which way he leans by the end. If not, then you will when you find out if you got the job or not.”

Sell the Sizzle, Not the Cert
Let’s face it, in an overcrowded IT marketplace, you have to sell yourself. Even if your experience and certifications are impeccable, you still need to frame and present yourself in a way that attracts employers in 2007. High schools and colleges are big on this; resume classes are practically mandatory in each, and competing publishers try to outdo themselves (and their competitors) yearly with how to write a bulletproof resume. After all, Generation Y has less experience, but they can get your attention and they’re smart enough to figure it an advantage. Quite understandably, being out of academia for even a short time can weaken your written communication skills, just like being out of the gym weakens muscles.

“What does it take to get a job in IT for the first time?” CertMag forum user Southbaydog asked. “I just earned my CCNA certification back in August of this year, and nobody will give me the time of day. I’ve been working with computers for 10 years in one form or another. And let me air a little of my dirty laundry about Dice, Monster, etc. The headhunters practically own those sites; you can’t get anywhere without them getting in the way! I’m not looking for $80,000 a year; I’m willing to work for OK money just to get in. What is the deal? I thought the CCNA cert meant a lot? It really doesn’t seem to be worth all the time I put into it. At least bagging groceries pays something!”

“It’s probably something to do with your resume,” cpattersonv1 responded. “More than likely, how you list the ‘10 years in one form or another.’ It took me a while to figure out that although I knew the stuff I was working on was related, most companies looked specifically at job titles and not much else. Consider if you have a lot of turnover on your resume. Don’t list jobs you were at for fewer than six months. If you have unrelated things on your resume, that can reflect poorly, too. Sometimes people put things on their resumes because they see value, where an employer is simply looking for the right fit. Don’t include jobs where you worked bagging groceries if you’re going for IT.

“Nobody wants the guy who’s going to come in and do his job the same way every day anymore. Now you have to show that you are able to change with the technology. Show people that you’re up on the latest stuff. If you’re not being called for interviews, it’s more than likely your resume, though.”

Another forum poster, Kieran, said that the particular cert in this case, the CCNA, has become more of a requirement than a plus.

“If you were looking for the CCNA to get you the job, then I’m afraid you will almost certainly be disappointed,” said Kieran. “Where the CCNA once made a person stand out, it’s now a requirement to simply be on par with many other people. If you truly have 10 years of solid IT experience, get it down on your resume in a way that impresses. That should get you interviews. The CCNA will look good in addition to that.”

Unfortunately, Southbaydog didn’t respond further, so as of press time we don’t know if it was a resume issue or a misunderstanding of the value of his particular cert. He or she could have just found that $80,000-a-year job. Either way, as experienced as an IT person may be, he or she still has to remember some self-marketing basics. As fast as software is growing, and with more and more certifications coming out every day, odds are even at best that you may be slightly behind the curve. So, remember to sell the sizzle, not just the cert.

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