IT Certification: Will It Last?

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A colleague of mine, a respected participant in certification for many years, asked me recently, “ Do you think it will last?” referring to IT certification. She had experienced, as I have, 14 years of successful growth in certification in the IT industry. Now she was wondering if it would last.

I didn’t ask, but underlying her doubt is obviously the lack of growth over the past two years in certification overall in the IT industry. Fewer programs are starting, and those that exist have leveled off a bit in the number of people participating, tests taken, certifications awarded, etc. But those changes, not too coincidentally, mirror the economic troubles of the IT industry (and most other industries, by the way) over those years. It makes sense that as these companies and organizations have slowed a bit in revenue, even reorganized, they do not have the same need to grow their programs. They do, however, need to keep their programs viable and support existing certificants and customers until the economic climate changes.

My answer to my colleague’s question came quickly, almost automatically. Yes, it will definitely last! As long as the job skills are required, the technology continues to advance and the people are needed to do the jobs, certifications will be needed. I guess an alternative to certification may arise, but I can’t conceive of what that would be, and I don’t see anything on the horizon to displace it.

But I’m not confident because there is no better alternative. I’m confident because it works, has worked for decades, centuries, even millennia. And it will continue to work. It’s a system that wasn’t invented in IT 14 years ago at Novell. Testing a person’s knowledge and skills to see if he is capable at a job can trace its roots to the testing of civil service applicants in China during the Han dynasty, about 165 B.C. That’s more than 2,000 years ago! Their reasons for testing potential government officials are not much different from those of today’s IT certification programs: Where there is a lack of competent individuals, create a system capable of recruiting and identifying individuals who will remain loyal.

While it is definitely relevant, I don’t need to use ancient history to make my point. Let’s take a look at other non-IT certifications and see how they are faring, after a much longer history than that of IT certification. Do doctors still have to take licensure exams to practice medicine? Are there still bar exams? Do auto mechanics, electrical engineers and public accountants need to pass exams to prove their competence and get certified? The answer to each of these questions is yes. While these programs have been in existence for decades, and while they have had their ups and downs, they are still necessary in our society. They remain the only way to identify competent people, allowing them to be used effectively by individuals and groups in our society.

As a brief aside, there is little functional difference between certification and licensure programs. Licensure is simply a certification program that has governmental oversight: The license is necessary in order to work in the United States or in a particular state. Certification is voluntary and isn’t necessary to work from the government’s perspective. However, as many of you know, getting a job without being certified is difficult to do, and sometimes the whole thing doesn’t feel very “voluntary.”

So, when will it all end? When should you quit studying and preparing for those Microsoft exams? When should you give up on your IT certification path and look to retraining in another field? When should you go back to a “real” school to finish your bachelor’s degree in communication or go for that master’s in social work?

OK, I want this to be a useful column, so here’s my prediction. Write this down. There will be no more need for IT certifications when there is no more need for IT jobs. I know, it’s a brilliant and counterintuitive guess, but you don’t become a columnist for an industry-leading magazine without the willingness to risk a bit.

IT jobs will go away when robots take over. Or when software and hardware can install itself or solve its own problems. Or when society doesn’t need information technology anymore. Or when no more technology is possible. Or when customers are always satisfied.

Or, in other words, never. Take that to the bank.

David Foster, Ph.D., is a member of the International Test Commission and sits on several measurement industry boards.


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