Maintaining Existing Certifications
Once earned, many IT certifications nowadays come with built-in expiration dates. This is a fundamentally sound idea because it recognizes that the skills and knowledge that a certification documents can grow stale over time, and that the rapid pace of technology change means that what you learned in the past may not always relate to problems you must solve in the present.
It’s typical for both vendor-neutral and vendor-specific credentials to time out after a while, but the mechanisms by which time-out occurs generally fall into one of two categories:
- Fixed duration: A period from two to three years is by far the most common time interval you’ll encounter for fixed durations.
- Release specific: For programs that are tied to specific products, platforms and releases, certifications remain current only for a year or so after the next release occurs.
While this distinction is not entirely clear-cut, there’s a tendency for role-related certifications to time out at regular intervals (including many vendor-neutral credentials, but a surprising number of vendor-specific ones as well). Likewise, there’s a tendency for credentials that focus on specific operating systems, databases or other product releases to time themselves relative to when new versions of such systems or software become available.
Whatever the mechanism that causes a certification to begin timing out, there are also various ways to keep the credential current and valid. The most common techniques to revitalize a fading credential, which generally fall under the heading of recertification, include testing (sometimes called retesting) and continuing education, which embraces a multitude of possibilities, as I’ll explain later.
Testing Your Way to Recertification
The terminology that surrounds the activity involved in taking more exams to refresh a certification varies from sponsor to sponsor. Some vendors, like Novell and Microsoft, offer upgrade exams that permit holders of credentials based on a prior version to lay claim to credentials based on a current version. This defines upgrade paths for Certified Novell Engineers (CNEs) and Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers (MCSEs) to go from NetWare 5.x to 6.x, and from Windows 2000 to Windows Server 2003, respectively.
Other sponsors create special recertification exams or impose specific retesting requirements to tell individuals whose credentials are expiring what exams they must take to reset their credentials’ expiration periods. This applies to Cisco, for example, whose professional certifications, including the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP), Security Professional (CCSP), Internetwork Professional (CCIP) and Design Professional (CCDP), once included special recertification exams. By taking these exams before the end of these credentials’ three-year expiration period, holders could keep their credentials current. Lately, Cisco has begun to define so-called composite exams that new candidates can take to obtain initial certification, and that holders of expiring credentials must take to remain certified.
Some credentials that combine retesting with expiration dates simply require holders to take whatever set of tests applies to the certification at the time they choose to recertify. For single-exam credentials like the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), Certified Novell Associate (CNA) and so forth, this is no great hardship. But for multiple-exam credentials (as was the loudly lamented case for Windows NT 4.0 MCSEs who didn’t take the #70-240 Upgrade exam before it was discontinued), this can be a painful experience. That explains why it’s so important to understand recertification requirements for any credentials you may consider pursuing in terms of the time, effort and expense required to maintain that credential once you’ve earned it.
All this said, there are some definite benefits to the test/retest approach to keeping a certification current. On the sponsor side, it’s relatively easy to check dates for when specific requirements are met, and then to extend or end a credential. On the certified individual’s side, requirements are clear, relatively easy to meet and normally not terribly expensive, either. Those who must essentially recertify from scratch to keep some credential current can challenge my claims that this is easy and inexpensive.
Currency Through Continuing Education
Some credentials offer the option of meeting continuing education requirements as an alternative to retesting, while others impose continuing education by itself on those who wish to stay current. In most cases, those who don’t meet continuing education requirements will lose their credentials and must restart their certification process—which may involve an application form, letters of recommendation, work history and more, in addition to one or more exams.
The continuing-education model is widely used for advanced professional certifications of all kinds, including those in the legal field, certified public accountants (CPAs), airline pilots, physicians and other medical professionals, and in many other fields. Basically, this model presents certification holders with specific annual or expiration-period-based continuing education requirements. To understand what’s going on, you need to understand what kinds of things qualify as continuing education, how they’re measured and how they’re documented and reported. Keeping up with compliance status for such requirements is generally a good idea as well, especially for those individuals for whom certification may be mandatory or otherwise related to continued levels of pay or employment.
Among the many kinds of things you’ll find listed in acceptable inventories of items that meet continuing education requirements are the following (what actually counts toward any particular credential is up to the sponsor, so take this list as a catalog of possibilities rather than as anything that definitely applies to your situation):
- Attendance at a sponsor-sanctioned conference, usually one with educational content (if not required attendance at such sessions).
- Attendance at sponsor-sanctioned seminars, meetings or other educational activities.
- Classroom training in subject matters related to the credential. Often, sponsors will provide lists of qualifying classes from which certified professionals can choose, as well as a mechanism to request consideration and possible approval of other classes that do not appear on such lists.
- Reports on reading, or writing or research work in subject matters related to the credential. The content (and value) of such reports and activities varies widely from program to program.
- Participation in organization activities, such as committee work, teaching or other volunteer activities also relevant to subject matters related to the credential. For example, those who contribute question items to upcoming certification exams can get credit toward the continuing education requirement for some credentials.
For all of these requirements, careful documentation and timely reporting is essential. Write a cover letter that describes exactly what you did to meet requirements and include supporting documentation where applicable: reports, receipts, registration paperwork, certificates of completion or whatever.
Meeting continuing education requirements generally means submitting proof of attendance at various functions or classes and providing proof of time spent meeting such requirements, in the form of transcripts, continuing education units (CEUs), a letter from an instructor or institution and so forth. Just be sure to stay on top of your paperwork and submit your proof of compliance before the expiration date for your certification comes and goes. One more thing: Make