Riding Out the Storm

No longer merely résumé filler, IT skills certification is now key to your career.

It was Sept. 14, and more than the World Trade Center towers had crumbled. The tire manufacturing industry in which Michael Harrill had worked for three years was also faltering. So Harrill resigned in search of new mountains to climb.

He left with 17 years of IT experience and a résumé that runs the gamut from COBOL programmer to IT director. He left with skills in programming both Java and COBOL for financial institutions and with Microsoft Corp.s Access database and SQL Server engine skills. But with all those skills and all that experience, Harrill left without a single IT certification.

Would that really matter? You bet it would. As Harrill quickly found out, the days when IT hiring managers would snap up experience like his without requiring skills certification are over, blown away by the stagnant economy and slow IT hiring environment. Even in the face of lingering concerns over certification credibility stemming from exam content piracy, attitudes toward IT certifications have transmogrified from the flush times "nice but not necessary" to the current "dont leave home without it."

"Everybody told me, Youve got great experience, but we need the piece of paper," said Harrill, in Knoxville, Tenn. He only recently landed a new position, and only after forking out $14,500 for a training and certification program.

What kind of payoff can IT professionals expect for that kind of investment? Better salaries and bonuses. Even in this recession, the value of certifications has held steady, earning those who have them bonuses that continue to average between 8 percent and 8.6 percent of base salary over the last year, according to the recently published Hot Technical Skills & Certifications Index from consulting company Foote Partners LLC.

Compare that with what employers are willing to pay for skills that havent been certified. In a sampling by Foote Partners of 29,400 employers, premium bonuses for all skills—including database, development tools and networking—shrank 13 percent from the third quarter of 2000 to the fourth quarter of last year.

That new attitude among IT hiring managers wound up driving Harrill back to school—at the age of 40—to conquer a slew of Microsoft certifications. Hes now attending New Horizons Worldwide CLC Inc. classes full time, having signed up for a years worth of classes. He fixed in his mind what his colleagues and prospective employers had been telling him: If you want to stay in IT, you need the MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) certification. Now, Harrill is working toward the MCSE, his MCDBA (Microsoft Certified Database Administrator) and his MCSD (Microsoft Certified Systems Designer) certifications.

Whats driving hiring managers to demand skills certifications? For one thing, in light of the recession-driven hiring slowdown, they can afford to be far more picky, said David Foote, president and chief research officer of the New Canaan, Conn., IT salary consultancy.

"Companies are being much more demanding about what a skill is," Foote said. "[When applicants say,] I have a skill, what does that mean? Its so open to interpretation. People [in the dot-com era] were saying, Oh, you have five years of SAP [AG experience], thats great, and theyd hire you at some ridiculous price."

Hiring managers, said Foote, see applicants whove spent the time and money it takes to get certified as more credible. "It doesnt mean a person is any smarter, but it means something about their character," Foote said. "Theres been a perception that certifications are a more solid or more meaningful, normative measure to compare two people ... [and that] the person is more committed to using that skill to further their career. Whether its true or not, its up to the employer, but clearly its a better comparison than taking somebodys word for it."

That means, for IT professionals who want or need to switch jobs, up-to-date certifications will be more important than ever. For those who fear layoffs, they serve as a visible demonstration of commitment to the profession and the job—a commitment that could make the difference between being a layoff survivor or a victim.

Of course, some certifications provide more protection than others. eWeek readers, for example, rate the Microsoft MCSE and the CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) as the most likely to provide job security and get ahead (check out eWeek IT Careers Center).

Microsofts MCSD and MCSE also rate at the top for generating pay increases.