IT Certifications: Lessons From Other Industries

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I’m always fascinated when I come across people working in fields other than IT with jobs that are not IT-focused. It’s hard for me to fathom that people can exist day to day without knowing what terms such as A+ and MCSE mean! But alas, it’s true—there is an entire other world outside of IT. This revelation has led me to wonder what the world of IT certification looks like in relation to certifications in other fields. What can we learn from other industries and their certifications, and what needs to happen to further the awareness of IT certifications within industry? The following observations about professional certifications help to provide some insight on where the IT certification industry today and how we can change for the better.

IT Certifications Grew Out of Business Needs
One of the most fundamental differences between IT certifications and non-IT professional certifications is how the need for them arose in the first place. While most professional certifications grew out of a need for standards, IT certifications grew out of a business need for IT vendors to know that their products were supported. The first widely recognized IT certification was the Certified Novell Engineer (CNE) program (originally called the Certified NetWare Engineer program). The founders of this program recognized early on that if their products were going to be adopted broadly and receive proper support, they needed people in the workforce who had proper training and validation of those skills. It’s unclear whether the originators of this program really understood that they would be credited with “building an army of loyal supporters of their products” and spawning a huge trend of IT certification, or if they simply were trying to fill the need for qualified workers within their reseller channel at the time. But whatever their intention, the result has been truly phenomenal. Today there are estimated to be more than 120 IT vendors offering more than 1,000 IT certifications, and those numbers, although slowing since 2001, are still growing.

Non-IT Certifications Grew Out of a Need for Standards
“Professional certifications are defined as those that are needed to perform in a particular profession, such as medical licensure exams or the Certified Public Account (CPA) credential,” said Don Boucher, vice president of global marketing for Prometric, part of the Thomson Corp. “They may also be value-added credentials for a professional such as PMP, C-MBA or ACHE.”

Like IT certifications, many professional certifications may or may not require academic degrees. Where the two types of certifications differ, however, is that most well-known non-IT professional certifications have arisen out of a need for standards in a certain job area. For example, the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) credential has been around in some form since the 1920s. The credential grew out of the government’s, professionals’ and the general public’s need for standards around accounting. Similarly, if you’ve had your car repaired lately, you might have noticed that your technician was ASE-certified; the Automotive Service Excellence credential has been around since the 1970s. The need for the certification grew from a public feeling that many mechanics were engaged in fraudulent business practices when repairing cars. Further investigation by the government and organizations such as Educational Testing Service (ETS) revealed that the problem was not fraudulent mechanics, but improperly skilled mechanics. As a result, the ASE organization was formed to provide a much-needed baseline credential for mechanics.

Other Certification Differences
Besides their different “roots” (IT certifications developed to solve a business need, and non-IT professional certifications developed around a need for standards), non-IT professional certifications are different from IT certifications in a multitude of other ways.

Most well-known, professional non-IT certifications that exist today have been around for years. The organizations that “shepherd” the certifications either existed long before the certification and thus represented the profession or the industry or in some cases were formed exclusively to manage the initiation and development of a certification—as is the case with ASE. The benefits of time and centralized focus through their professional associations have afforded the opportunity of developing job role definitions that have become recognized by industry, government and the public at large. Out of these job role definitions, the standards around each of the job tasks contained within a job role emerged. From there, certifications were developed that accurately measured and validated a person’s ability to perform certain tasks and ultimately a job role. Over time, organizations came into being that created “standards” around what could be called a certification for various industries. The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) is the accrediting body for many of the certifications that exist within industries today. Beyond passing an exam or set of exams, much thought has been put into how much work experience a person must have in order to receive a certification and what recertification requirements are needed in order to maintain the certification.

Imagine the power that ultimately results from having this kind of definition and focus around a certification. For example, government knows exactly what is expected within a job role and can begin promoting the certification’s acceptance and promotion at federal, state and local levels. Employers understand the skills they are getting when they hire an individual and have some assurance of that person’s ability to perform those skills. Industry professionals belong to a centralized organization and work together to further the value of their certification to industry and its recognition in the public and private sectors. Standards are put around certifications within the industry so that there are definitions around what can be called a certification, resulting in a smaller number of certifications that all have standardized measures and outcomes.

Moving IT Certification Forward
Unfortunately, the IT industry and its certifications have not had the benefit of the “time” that other industries have had. The PC industry itself is not much more than 20 years old, and IT certifications began to emerge in the late 1980s. The business need for software skills on the part of vendors and the employers that were embracing technology was so pronounced, there was neither the time nor the focus needed to build certifications around such things as job roles and standards. Many industry leaders today would agree that a push for standards in those early days would have been to the disadvantage of the industry overall, resulting in a slowing of the development of IT certifications. But many of those same people would argue that the time is right to take a step back and implement standardization. Carolyn Rose, former senior vice president and general manager of Novell Education and founder of Integral7, feels that the time is right to make a shift toward standardization. Rose said that the “good news is that the collaboration and cooperation needed is beginning to occur.”

So what has to happen in order to give our industry the focus and standardization needed to move it forward? What can we learn from non-IT professional certification counterparts?



  • A Formal Definition of Industry Job Roles: The definition of IT job roles is critical to ensuring that individuals learning a specific discipline are in fact prepared to go out and perform as productive members of the workforce. Organizations such as the National Skill Standards Board (NSSB), CompTIA and the National Workforce Center for Emerging Technologies (NWCET) are leading the way to define IT job
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