Which Certifications Will Hold Their Value?
When it comes time for IT professionals to start thinking about certification, they’re well-advised to take the long view. This means thinking about not only which certification programs will be around five or 10 years from now, but also which will still be relevant, valuable and meaningful. There are a lot of factors that can help savvy IT types assess the pros and cons of certifications they may—or may not—decide to pursue. What you’ll find here is a set of critical matters to consider when deciding whether or not to pursue any particular certification path.
To begin with, it’s important to understand that certification programs and credentials take three different kinds of value, depending on the role and the perspective of the party that ascribes such value:
- Their value to the vendor or sponsor that creates and maintains the certification.
- Their value to the employers that require certification or grant hiring weight to specific certifications.
- Their value to individual certification holders, who pursue and obtain—and who must often recertify or maintain—specific certifications.
Each of these parties brings a different set of priorities, motivations and interests to this situation. But the primary answer to the question, “Which certifications maintain their value best?” is based on the idea that when the vendor or sponsor, the employer and the individual certification holders all converge on specific programs or credentials, then such programs or credentials are most likely to hold their value. Of course, there are technology, urgency and adoption criteria involved as well, which is what makes the job of assessing which certifications are likely to hold their value and which ones aren’t both risky and interesting.
The Three Faces of Certification
There are lots of good reasons why vendors create certifications; likewise for sponsoring organizations. But the two outlooks differ somewhat, so we tackle them in order:
- Vendors like certifications because they create qualified, knowledgeable individuals outside the vendors’ technical staff. They also like certifications because they can create knowledgeable, enthusiastic champions for their products and technologies within the organizations where certified professionals work. Finally, vendors like certification because they can build training and testing organizations around such programs and turn them into sources of revenue. For large companies like Microsoft, Novell and Cisco, training and certification are (or have been) worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year in business.
- Sponsors generally represent industry or professional associations or vendor consortiums (like CompTIA) that create and maintain certifications to help establish certain basic levels of skill and knowledge specific to certain job roles or responsibilities. Sponsors like certifications as a source of revenue. But support from members, be they individual professionals or corporate donors, is every bit as important to sponsors as income from creating and maintaining test banks or labs for specific exams and credentials. Successful certifications gain value by becoming required or highly recommended elements for candidates to put on their resumes. One successful certification makes it easier to stay in business, be it to focus on a specific subject matter (like various accounting, auditing or security certifications) or to provide entry-level certifications for all kinds of topical areas (like CompTIA does).
- Employers like any employee records or indicators that give them some objective way to determine who’s knowledgeable and competent and who’s not (or perhaps more important, who is more or less so). Though the perceived value of certifications to employers waxes and wanes—often in direct proportion to ongoing reports about “paper certifications”—employers tend to find them useful and informative, especially when trying to distinguish among otherwise identical candidates. In a real sense, an employer’s perception that a specific certification is valuable is probably the most beneficial to holders of that certification, simply because that perception can influence hiring, raise and promotion decisions.
- Individual IT professionals tend to like certifications to the extent that they feel that such credentials make them more employable or more likely to get raises and promotions. The key to being valuable is to possess skills and knowledge that are useful on the job, and hence add value to an employee’s contribution at work. Although it’s not out of the question for individuals to plan their careers out several years in advance, current trends and market demands often seem to drive “what’s hot and what’s not” for certification. Taking a longer view may lead to different choices and may help to build stronger, more secure careers.
Taking the Long View
Things get much more interesting when you look beyond whatever credentials might be hot one year versus the next. On a short time horizon, things tend to pop in and out of consciousness rather quickly and trends can seem to come and go equally fast.
Web survey reports for the “Hottest Certs” for 2002 and 2003 show considerable volatility from one year to the next (and radical changes in ranking). For one thing, in one particular survey half of the certifications mentioned in a 2002 report are absent from the 2003 report. For another, of the five items that appear in both reports, rankings are completely reordered from one year to the next.
This shows that while such surveys provide useful information about what IT professionals may be thinking about certification from year to year, they do not make great tools for long-term planning. In fact, the top three certifications mentioned in 2002 are absent from the top 10 for 2003. What kinds of criteria might savvy IT professionals use instead?
This is where the concepts of demand, technology, urgency and adoption come into play:
- Demand reflects the appetite of the marketplace for particular solutions at a particular time. Demand changes quickly in response to economic circumstances and in the wake of technology introductions. While a certification may reflect strong demand in the short term, that certification must evolve to keep pace with workplace needs over time if it is to remain valuable in the long term.
For example, in the area of wireless technology, demand is quite strong right now, but if wireless certifications do not evolve, they will not maintain their value over time. Thus, only if demand is likely to remain strong and at least constant, if not rising, over a time horizon of five to 10 years, does demand make a good certification planning criterion. Given the ramp-up in wireless deployment and use, and projections for growth in the five-to-10-year time frame, wireless certifications do appear to meet this criterion.
- Technology reflects the need for all players in the certification game to understand and support technologies in use in today’s marketplace and to plan for tomorrow’s technologies as much as possible. As new technologies emerge, players must exercise their judgment to determine if they’re suitable subjects for certification, either in their own right (as with wireless) or if they should be part and parcel of related platform or administrative certifications (as with directory services, for most modern networks and operating systems). Because technology changes quickly, it’s hard to pick winning certifications on the basis of technology alone.
- Urgency or need work well as certification valuation criteria in both the near term and from the longer view. The trick, of course, is to recognize which matters of urgency at the moment are also likely to remain urgent for the foreseeable future—information security in the wake of 9/11 and recent virus a