Dispelling the Stigma of the Paper-Based Credential
“Paper-based certification”: an offensive, derogatory term bequeathed to those individuals who successfully complete an IT certification regiment without so much as laying a finger on a piece of hardware or software. Experienced certificants don’t like it. Employers deplore it. And IT certification programs are desperate to discourage it.
The stigma of the paper-based credential reduces field credibility, cheapens the credential and leaves suspicion in the minds of employers and customers alike.
But what if there were some way to alleviate this problem? What can we, as IT companies, do to provide newbie IT professionals the necessary experience they need to be fully competent and confident in their profession? That is to say, what could we do to provide hands-on skills to those who desperately need them?
Let’s start by looking at other occupations and their requirements for entry. In order to become an accountant, for example, individuals must pass the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam and must also possess a number of years of experience before they can become a CPA. Electricians have an apprenticeship requirement as well. In the state of California, for instance, individuals applying for a general contractor’s license must provide proof of 8,000 hours of experience in addition to successfully completing an exam. In some states, teachers are required to conduct student teaching for at least one semester before they can obtain a teaching credential. I could go on, but I think you get the point—where is this same sort of practical skill requirement for our friends in IT?
In a CompTIA study completed last year, respondents indicated that it takes approximately six to seven months for entry-level IT employees to reach a full working level, and close to a full year to achieve mastery in a job. Additionally, results from the study indicated that the average number of unfilled IT positions within a company ranges from 8.5 to 13.8. On average, an IT department loses 12 workers to attrition each year. Even with the workforce reductions the industry has experienced over the past year, projections indicate that the IT field is expected to grow for the next seven years. It is still clear that the IT community has a large gap to fill in terms of qualified workers.
The search for practical, hands-on IT skills leads to a pilot program currently being implemented by CompTIA and the Office of Apprenticeship Training, Employer and Labor Services (OATELS). The purpose behind the program is to increase the supply of competent IT workers across the United States and to facilitate the cost-effective attainment of IT worker competency, leading to new entrants becoming “industry ready” in a shorter period of time.
Pilot programs for a variety of IT tracks are in process across the United States and will soon be registered with the U.S. Department of Labor for employers nationwide to adopt as their own preferred training method for entry-level IT workers.
A participating apprentice in this program receives a minimum of 2,000 hours of on-the-job training and a minimum of 144 hours per year of related classroom instruction. Apprentices are typically employees (full-time or part-time) who receive wages on a progressive scale that is tied (at least partly) to the achievement of certifications. For more information, see www.comptia.org/sections/workforce/apprenticeships.asp.
Programs such as this are a great start. However, I wonder if there isn’t something more that IT certification programs can be doing to encourage program participants to “walk the talk.” Could we, for example:
- Provide a list of tasks with a specified amount of practice time required for a given certification?
- Provide mentors for IT certification candidates so that they can learn from “experts” in their IT departments?
- Ask supervisors to sign off on completed tasks so they can monitor their progress?
- Create paid and/or non-paid internships in all levels of business to help candidates gain experience?
- Create links between IT certifications and employers looking for specified skills?
The implementation of these ideas is possible in our organizations today.
Dispelling the stigma of the paper-based credential will take work on all our parts. Remember, certification is about one thing: providing competent professionals. Whatever we can do to help individuals develop and maintain their skills benefits IT companies, the products they sell and support and the customers they serve.
Jamie Mulkey, Ed.D., is the worldwide exam design and management manager for Hewlett-Packard’s HP Certified Professional program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.