Six important career skills that IT certification programs are overlooking

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This feature first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Some of the most important IT career skills are things that you typically won't learn from any certification program.Information technology certifications can be broadly divided into two categories: certifications that are primarily knowledge- and task-oriented, and certifications that include content specific to developing careers in the industry.

For example, Cisco refers to its IT professional credentials as “career certifications,” meaning that these certifications are meant to provide candidates with skills that go beyond daily on-the-job tasks. Microsoft certifications have become very job-oriented, but the company still stresses the career value of its credentials to IT pros.

That said, there are highly relevant career skills that are only marginally represented by any current IT industry certification program. These career skills are often covered by electives found in college degree programs. It can be argued that these same skills deserve more attention from any certification vendor that touts its credentials as being career-oriented.

My purpose for this article is to review six essential areas of professional expertise that should have a stronger presence in current IT career certification programs.

Co-worker training

No matter what segment of the IT industry you end up working in, you will eventually be called upon to train a co-worker. You might have to help that person understand your employer’s internal systems, or how to perform specific tech-related job duties.

For example, you might be expected to train a new hire on a ticket system used to report bugs found in a software product under development. Or perhaps it will be up to you to show someone how — and when — to use the company’s incident reporting software.

The ability to train co-workers is rarely mentioned in an IT job description, but the majority of tech companies expect their experienced employees to take this task on when the time comes.

More to the point, very few people are naturally gifted at training others. Some people have an instinctive proficiency for teaching the ins and out of how to perform this specific job task, or how to use that new hardware. Such individuals tend to be the exception, however, not the rule.

While there are certification programs for creating new IT instructors — CompTIA’s CTT+ is one example — very few certifications include any foundation-level knowledge of how to train other people on IT-specific systems. It would be beneficial to include best practices for training co-workers and contractors in any certification program geared towards mid-level and higher candidates.

Project management fundamentals

Some of the most important IT career skills are things that you typically won't learn from any certification program.Yes, we already have a plethora of project management certifications available, with PMI’s Project Management Professional (PMP) leading the way. But there is too little project management content in the slate of job-related certifications from companies like Microsoft and Cisco.

While most entry-level software developers won’t be made project leaders during their first week on the job, they will be asked to participate in established project teams operating under one or more project managers. Anyone in this situation would benefit from having a minimum level of project management awareness.

At the very least, a glossary of project management terminology, along with an overview of the most commonly used PM tools and processes, should be part of any career-oriented IT certification program.

HSE

IT employees work for businesses that range from tiny to majestic in size. Small businesses rarely have a dedicated Health, Safety, and Environment (HSE) employee responsible for creating and managing the HSE standards, policies, and best practices for maintaining a safe and healthy workplace. In these circumstances, new IT hires may need to take responsibility for their own health and safety.

For example, network administration can include spending time in high-noise locations like server rooms and datacenters, work environments that can cause long-term hearing damage if appropriate personal protection equipment (PPE) isn’t used.

IT technicians are often called upon to physically move and set up heavy equipment like multi-function office machines and battery-powered uninterruptable power supply (UPS) systems. And speaking of lithium ion batteries, what type of extinguisher should be used if a laptop or mobile device catches fire?

Some level of HSE knowledge, including the Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) laws and regulations which are most commonly relevant to IT workers, would be a welcome addition to career certification programs.

Business operation documents

Some of the most important IT career skills are things that you typically won't learn from any certification program.Documents are the blood cells of the business world. They exist at every functional level of a company, and if documents aren’t created correctly, the results can range from merely irritating to criminal penalties.

This may come as a surprise, but IT workers are commonly called upon to create or contribute to business operation documents such as:

● Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
● User Manuals for internal hardware/software systems
● Request for Proposal (RFP) documents
● Project Request forms
● IT Operations Manuals documenting a business’s IT infrastructure
● IT Privacy and Security policies that comply with international standards

Your level of participation in the planning and creation of business operation documents will vary from job to job. Having a foundation-level knowledge of such documents and how they are used, however, is an important career proficiency.

Privacy laws

Privacy as it relates to the digital world continues to grow in priority and culpability. The old policy shrug of “If you want privacy, stay offline” no longer flies with consumers, employees, or the justice system. American companies and learning institutions must exercise constant diligence to ensure they are obeying relevant U.S. privacy laws.

In addition, many U.S. organizations continue to fail at complying with foreign and international privacy requirements. If a product or service can be purchased or accessed across international borders — and that’s pretty much everything these days — then the vendor is responsible for conforming to the information privacy laws of each relevant region.

Big Tech players Google and Facebook have both incurred harsh penalties from the European Union and other regions for tripping over international privacy laws. It is important for every IT professional to have an understanding of today’s privacy laws, no matter what their job role is.

At the very least, IT pros tackling a career certification program should receive some basic training covering these current domestic and international privacy laws:

● Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) — United States
● California Online Privacy Protection Act (CalOPPA) — United States
● CalOPPA’s “Do Not Track” amendment — United States
● General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — European Union
● EU Cookies Directive — European Union
● Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) — Canada

Human empathy

Some of the most important IT career skills are things that you typically won't learn from any certification program.This last career skill is likely the most controversial one in this article, but there is a good reason why it’s included here, and why you should expect it to be a keystone of future IT industry employment. Here’s what I mean:

As you may have heard (or read), in the near future, automation is going to replace many workers with robotics and intelligent computing systems. As robots and AI systems become more capable of taking on new responsibilities, the number of jobs lost to automation will increase.

The estimates offered by the McKinsey Global Institute are sobering — between 400 million and 800 million people worldwide are expected to lose their jobs to automation in the next 10 years.

There is some dispute over how many IT-related jobs will be lost to automation by 2030. Even if the number is lower than in other industries, however, unemployed workers from every affected job market will be competing for work in the sectors that remain, including IT.

And while certain IT jobs can’t be 100 performed by robots and AIs, the total number of available working hours will still decrease, as some percentage of these job roles will be lost to automation.

The jobs least likely to be lost to automation are the ones that require employees to use their emotional intelligence and social interaction acumen to assist or otherwise work with other people. These types of jobs are as “automation-proof” as can be predicted for the foreseeable future.

Human empathy is a quantifiable component of a person’s psychological makeup and social skills. The empathy quotient (EQ) measurement system pioneered by the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University has become a standard tool used by mental health specialists worldwide.

Bottom line: IT professionals who want to stay employed during the rise of automation will need to display EQ as well as IQ. And that is what makes this a field of knowledge that career certification programs should start to cover.

The missing element

It is generally known that IT certification programs don’t offer the same broad spectrum of training found in a multi-year college degree program. IT certification vendors should start including some career skills training, however, that complements the task-oriented and skill-based knowledge of a given technology domain.

Integrating career skills training into their programs would help IT certification vendors to grow and maintain greater industry relevance as we move forward into the 2020s. Otherwise, certification programs might find themselves dealing with obsolescence problems of their own.

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Aaron Axline

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Axline is a freelance technology writer and knowledge management specialist based in Edmonton, Canada. His work has appeared in titles from Que Publishing, and on many tech blogs and websites. His professional writing site is AaronAxline.blogspot.ca.

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