IT Leadership

A Certified Stamp of Approval: How Important Are IT Certifications?

While certifications are desirable—or required—for some hires, CIOs believe their real benefits extend beyond the interview room.

In the world of campus IT hiring, think of certifications as the equivalent of the SATs. They’re just one component of the overall application, along with the interview, past performance, and references. If the candidate is accomplished and well rounded, the SATs—or certifications—can be more of a checklist item. Otherwise, they may make the difference between acceptance and rejection.

The comparison ends there, however. While the SATs are irrelevant outside the college admissions process, many IT professionals believe certification can play a second, key role once the hiring process is over—in developing employee skills, helping employees identify a career path, and allowing them to connect with their peers.

First, though, applicants need to get hired. In a recent survey of 240 executives involved in IT hiring, more than 85 percent of respondents preferred that their next IT employee possess at least one IT certification. The survey, part of a paper by Scott Hunsinger, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Information Systems at Appalachian State University (NC), found that many IT leaders plan to use certification as a criterion even for candidates for managerial positions.

“There’s a common perception that [certifications] are more highly valued for entry-level positions,” says Hunsinger, “but we found they also are often required for midlevel and even management positions.”

Travis Mathna is convinced his certification from InfoComm International helped him land his current job as an audiovisual systems integration and support specialist at Gettysburg College (PA). Mathna, who has worked at Gettysburg for five years, recalls that people involved in the hiring process were familiar with the level of complexity involved in getting the Certified Technology Specialist-Installation (CTS-I) certificate.

“They understood it meant something beyond the associate’s degree I had earned,” says Mathna, who designs, upgrades, and maintains all of the audiovisual equipment related to the enhanced classrooms at Gettysburg. “The school’s classrooms were in pretty rough shape when I got here,” he adds, “and I think the certification helped [Gettysburg leaders] appreciate the potential of what I could contribute.”

Mathna’s boss at Gettysburg, Rodney Tosten, vice president for information technology and a professor of computer science, says certification is becoming a requirement for audiovisual technicians.

“More and more faculty members are using multimedia,” he says. “The A/V field is becoming more complicated, and IT is having more expectations coming our way. People want one-touch controls, multiple devices, high-definition videoconferencing, and high-quality sound. An A/V technician has to be certified nowadays in this field.”

The Shifting Realm of Certification

Not all certifications are created equal, however. As IT trends in higher education shift, some certifications have lost their relevance. This explains why pay and market demand for most IT certifications have been decreasing in recent years, says David Foote, whose company, Foote Partners, publishes a quarterly IT Skills and Certifications Pay Index based on surveys of almost 100,000 IT professionals. “Hiring organizations tell us they want IT people skilled in business intelligence, business process management, and quality management,” explains Foote. “There aren’t any certifications for those skills.”

Homegrown Certification

Five years ago, the University of Florida’s IT Training Committee decided to launch its own certification program.

The UF Information Technology Certification program repackages a variety of existing IT training resources into a guided educational program.

“We already offered IT training, but it was very segmented, and staff members found it difficult to get cohesion,” explains Anne Allen, chair of the UF IT Training Committee and manager of the Center for Instructional Technology and Training (CITT). “The idea was to make it clear which courses to do sequentially and bring all the entities that teach them together. Then, create tracks of existing courses to help our IT workers enhance their skills.”

The program is modeled after the UF Human Resource Services’ Supervisory Challenge, a set of courses that employees can take toward a certificate.

Employees can take courses through CITT, UF Network Services, the Health Science Center’s IT Center, or UF’s Microsoft IT Academy. After starting their first course, employees have 18 months to complete their selected certification track. Most certificates require eight to 10 courses.

By providing tracks for employees to follow, the training committee has been able to increase the level of participation in many courses, Allen says. Certification tracks include basic foundations, classroom technology, multimedia, databases, desktop publishing, networking, programming, and system administration. Web development and IT security are the most popular, Allen notes. If a campus work group has some specific IT training goals, new certificates can be designed to meet their needs, she adds. “Another goal is to assess our tracks and see if we want to offer new ones—we expect to do that next year.”

Foote also cautions that many certifications are the product of vendor marketing teams, whose goals are more about increasing sales than providing IT professionals with career opportunities. “They sell you software or hardware, train your employees how to use it, and then certify that they can use it,” he says. “But tying yourself to a vendor in that way is sort of a lazy way to plan your career. Rather than just learning Microsoft because it’s prevalent at your organization, it might be better to think about what role you want to play in IT long term.”

In the shifting realm of campus IT, networking and security are the two areas where certifications currently are most likely to be job requirements. Experience with web 2.0 and social media tools is also increasingly a plus.

“We are seeing a heavy rotation to information security and an emphasis on green IT,” says Terry Erdle, senior vice president for skills certification at CompTIA, a provider of vendor-neutral certifications. “In security, there is a strong sense people want to document an essential skill set and offer some level of credibility.”

“IT security is highly regulated and compliance-oriented,” adds Foote, noting that in 2005 the US Department of Defense required all employees and contractors who work in information assurance to be certified. Even basic security certifications from CompTIA and the SANS Institute are highly valued in the job market, says Foote, who also sees increasing demand in SAS’ web analytics, VMware’s virtualization technology, and Red Hat’s Linux.

Despite such specialization, the most prosaic IT skills remain the most needed. According to the Robert Half Technology IT Hiring Index and Skills Report (a survey of more than 1,400 CIOs released in September), 51 percent of respondents cited desktop support as the technical skill most in demand in IT departments.

To meet that demand, CompTIA created a basic “Strata” level of certifications that cover a broad introduction to technology, to help organizations fill the help desk support role. The Strata exams do not certify technical skills, but demonstrate that an individual has knowledge of IT terms, equipment, and functions.

For instance, CompTIA’s new Strata Green IT certificate is designed to demonstrate knowledge of topics such as cost-cutting power management, environmentally sound waste disposal, and an awareness of global organizations mandating standards and regulations. To earn the certificate, applicants must score 70 percent on a 30-question, one-hour test. A certification around cloud computing is expected in the second quarter of 2011, says Erdle.

According to Robert Half Technology, the certifications now most in demand are the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), offered by the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium; the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE); the Project Management Professional (PMP), offered by the Project Management Institute; and the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

Wanted: Real-World Experience

Almost every IT leader acknowledges that certifications—regardless of their relevance in today’s market—have their limitations. As IT becomes increasingly integrated into departments across campus, organizations are looking for skills that go beyond the purely technical. IT professionals now can expect to work in specific areas such as finance, logistics, or human resources. According to Foote, their experience in these arenas is often more critical to the job than their technical skills. It is the ability to meld technical know-how with real-world savoir-faire that employers want.

“When I am looking at prospective employees, a certification is good, but it doesn’t prove they can think on their feet,” says Nelson Velez, director of network operations at Bunker Hill Community College (MA), who oversees 20 employees. “I have had people come in with Cisco Certified Network Associate certifications, but they couldn’t formulate a thought. I look at education and experience first.”

It is an attitude that is reflected in the hiring guidelines of many institutions nationwide. At the University of Alaska, for example, the Office of Information Technology doesn’t require certifications. “On our job descriptions, they are labeled ‘desired’ or ‘preferred,’ ” says Steve Smith, chief IT officer for the university, “but there is no pay differential for people with certifications. Department managers want to see that the person has experience working with the type of system they are going to be working on here.”

That doesn’t mean that the university won’t require employees to get certified once they’re hired. Almost two years ago, Alaska’s Office of IT required its employees to go through training and certification on ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library) as it established a new framework for IT services management.

“We did this so they would all have a common background and understanding of the ITIL approach,” explains Smith.

From the perspective of Michael Pearce, system vice president for information technology at the University of South Florida, the value of a certificate depends on the type of job. “If I am hiring for the data center, would I care if they have a certification in virtualization technology?” he asks. “Probably not. I would look much more closely at their work experience. When you are hiring someone to manage a data center, experience speaks a lot.”

On the other hand, when Pearce created the position of director of information security and compliance, a CISSP certification was a requirement. “When you are hiring for positions with certain specific skill sets, the certification does tell you that this person has taken the time to develop a special emphasis in an area, such as how to respond to a cyberattack,” says Pearce.

Beyond the skills and best practices learned, Gettysburg’s Tosten sees other benefits to his employees earning certifications. One involves risk management: “A certification is a demonstration to constituents outside of IT that IT follows best practices and thus is reducing the risk that something will go significantly wrong,” he says.

Charting a Career Path

Many of the IT leaders interviewed for this article believe that the value of certifications goes beyond simply validating a specific skill set. Certification, they say, can help employees identify and follow a career path, as well as connect with peers in the field. Employees seem to agree.

Alex Campoe, the director of information security and compliance at USF, earned a CISSP certificate prior to joining the university. While he believes the certification helped him win the job, he also feels that preparing for the test turned out to be extremely valuable in itself.

“There are 13 different bodies of knowledge ranging from network security to legal compliance,” he explains. “It is difficult to be an expert in all of them. The training for certification helps fill in the gaps.” It also helps him stay in touch with a community of IT security experts, some in higher education and some in other industries.

On some campuses, certification is part of a career path from desktop support to system administration. Debra Chevallard, associate director of information technology for facilities services at Cornell University (NY), requires systems administrators to earn an MCSE certification and all desktop support staff a Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) within 18 months of hire. The MCSA helps demonstrate their ability to administer a Windows network, while the MCSE demonstrates their ability to design, install, configure, and troubleshoot network systems.

“Getting the certification says that you have a good grasp of the fundamentals. There is also a certain discipline involved, and it helps demonstrate a set of problem-solving skills,” Chevallard says. Plus, she says, she could think of “only one time in the last eight years when we hired a systems administrator who wasn’t an internal hire from desktop support. We definitely create a career path.”

Another benefit is that certified individuals can become a part of a community of peers. For example, in addition to taking ongoing courses to maintain his certification, Gettysburg College’s Mathna has joined several communities of interest, including one for people who work in A/V in higher education. He maintains contacts through InfoComm online groups and its annual conference, which draws 30,000 people a year.

Tosten sees that community-mindedness as key: “We try to look for certifications that have workshops offered at conferences or major shows, so that the individual can join a community with other members sharing ideas, lessons learned, and best practices,” he explains. “A certification should not be a moment in time when an individual passes a final test, but should be the entryway to becoming a member in an intellectual community exchanging ideas and enhancing the particular field.”

Resources

Cisco: cisco.com/web/go/certifications

CompTIA: comptia.org

Foote Partners: footepartners.com

InfoComm International: infocomm.org

International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium: www.isc2.org

Microsoft: microsoft.com/learning

Project Management Institute: pmi.org

Red Hat: redhat.com

Robert Half Technology: roberthalftechnology.com

SANS Institute: sans.org

SAS: sas.com

VMware: vmware.com

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