Tightening Up IT Skills Certifications

A group of companies that do IT skills testing hope that a new seal of approval will head off a crisis of confidence in their certifications brought on by test pirating.

Scrambling to head off a looming credibility crisis, an industry consortium next month will roll a program to validate that IT skills certification providers are taking steps to ensure that answers to their tests arent being pirated.

The validation will come in the form of a seal of approval issued by the ITCSC (IT Certification Security Council), a 10-month-old consortium made up of the industrys largest IT training, testing and certification providers.

The group, which includes Microsoft Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc, is also considering a plan to collectively take legal action against individuals and groups that violate confidentiality agreements by posting IT certification test information online or engaging in other acts of piracy.

The ITCSC seals of approval would be issued to providers that adhere to a series of best practices intended to reduce piracy of copyrighted certification testing material, according to Robert Pedigo, executive director of the ITCSC, in Seattle. The best practices would spell out, for example, how providers should draft and enforce non-disclosure agreements that they ask certificate candidates to sign, how they secure copyrighted information online and how they administer processes such as retesting.

"The seal of approval will indicate that a program is tightly run," said Pedigo. "There have been some occasions where individuals have made improper use of information that is improperly available on the Web. We want to make that much more difficult because, to a certain extent, certifications that are cracked lose their value."

In attacking piracy, vendors are attempting to protect what has become a large and fast-growing business. With the advent of Web-based e-learning, IT training and certification revenues industrywide rose to $25.4 billion in 2001 and are growing fast. Driving much of that growth has been the insistence by many enterprise IT hiring managers on certifications as objective proof of a job candidates technical knowledge. One of the larger administrators of IT skills test and certification programs, Thomson Prometric, a unit of The Thomson Corp., of Toronto, claims to have conducted over 6 million skills exams in 2001.

At the same time, a sub-industry has developed consisting of Web sites that provide IT certification tests either free or for a fee. For example, www.it-success.net sells various tests for the Microsoft Certified System Engineer for $95 each. The site guarantees that customers will pass certification exams on their first attempts if they study using its "preparation tool." Other sites ask individuals to submit tests or questions from IT certification tests.

CompTIA (Computer Technology Industry Association), an Oak Brook, Ill.,-based IT testing and certification provider and member of ITCSC, last summer received an injunction against www.cheet-sheets.com after filing a copyright infringement action, according to Fran Linhart, director of certification programs at CompTIA. The site was barred from publishing CompTIA test materials and currently presents a blank page when called up.

Increasingly, some IT hiring managers are questioning the value and validity of some certifications. Although theyre not sure how much cheating goes on, some said they have encountered increasing numbers of job candidates, certifications in hand, who clearly lack the skills they claim to possess.

"I have seen paper certification candidates [whose] ability to execute is by no means near the level needed in the IT environment," said Gregory Smith, vice president and CIO for the World Wildlife Fund, in Washington, and an eWeek contributing editor. "Were having to ask more closely questions about how people got their certifications. The piracy issue is degrading the comfort level among senior IT executives regarding certifications."

Certification and testing providers involved in ITCSC said theyre in favor of the seal of approval. Mark Muth, vice president of corporate services at Thomson Prometric, in Minneapolis, said such an effort would protect the credibility of certification and training programs that IT professionals and providers alike are spending lots of time and money on.

IT professionals are a bit more dubious that the move will have any effect on an issue that revolves around human nature. "I dont think its going to have a large impact on the … pirated certification market," said Smith. "An individual whos bright can read up on a certification manual and pass the exam. It just helps if they have pirated material. … In the end, it always comes down to trusting an individual."

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