WLAN Skills on Radar?

Devices may be gaining momentum, but many enterprises have yet to target wireless certifications.

It started with cell phones and pagers. Now, more and better wireless devices are creeping into more organizations every day—and not just through the back door. And, as enterprises arm workers with WLANs (wireless LANs), it stands to reason that theyll look to hire IT professionals with proven wireless skills and experience. So does that mean that IT professionals in search of a career boost should rush out right now and plunk down a couple of grand on WLAN skills training and certification?

Well, maybe not just yet. Although some experts say wireless expertise will one day be a hot commodity, the market is still in a state of flux right now, confused by a variety of vendors whose products dont necessarily interoperate and a standards picture that has not entirely come into focus. As a result, even some vendors have put plans for wireless training and certification programs on hold. CompTIA (Computer Technology Industry Association) and Ericsson AB, for example, recently shelved plans for wireless certification offerings.

With that kind of uncertainty hanging over the WLANs, IT pros and companies might want to think hard before spending scarce dollars and devoting the time to acquire wireless certification, said Maria Shafer, an analyst at Meta Group Inc., in Stamford, Conn.

"It might make sense for someone to get certification as part of a longer-term strategy," Shafer said. "A couple of years from now, [he or she] could be ahead of the game."

For now, however, knowledge of wireless devices and networks isnt at the top of employers lists of critical IT skills, according to Shafer. Just 2 percent of respondents in Metas latest look at emerging technologies even mentioned wireless expertise as a sought-after skill, she said.

Leah Blalock, associate partner, technical search at Lucas Group, a nationwide recruiting company based in Atlanta, concurred. "In general, I have not really seen an increase in specific demand for wireless skills. In fact, I have run across many excellent candidates [hardware and software engineers] currently on the market with 802.11 experience that have been unable to find a good opportunity," said Blalock.

So its not surprising that wireless certification isnt even on the radar in some places. "I did not even know there were wireless certifications," said Kevin Wilson, product line manager for desktop hardware at Duke Energy Corp., in Charlotte, N.C., and an eWeek Corporate Partner.

"While I do not work on the infrastructure side of wireless, I cant see a certification being an overriding plus for a candidate [for an IT position]. I would think that security certifications would do more for a wireless candidate in a company with extensive wireless infrastructure ... than a wireless certification would," said Wilson.

Although wireless instruction is in the works at FN Manufacturing Inc., a precision machining manufacturer in Columbia, S.C., certification isnt necessarily part of the plan, said Ed Benincasa, director of MIS and an eWeek Corporate Partner.

"We are planning to begin a wireless project in the second half of 2003 [to] provide mobility to stores, receiving and shipping functions," said Benincasa. "Later, we may expand to provide user mobility throughout our facility for laptops, tablets, etc.

"When we embark on this, I will not require my people to become certified, but we will learn the technology first and may take the same classes that are offered for certification. ... I would rather my people take the classes and concentrate on learning the technology rather than having them ... worrying about memorization for a test," Benincasa said.

Proving It

Nevertheless, some it skills certification companies are going forward with gusto, launching several wireless certifications (see chart, Page 50). And they report that wireless classes are filling up.

The day will come when knowing how to jury-rig a WLAN for the branch office managers wont be enough; IT pros will have to prove they can build, implement and secure it, said Ed Fisher, senior network engineer and a senior instructor at Online Consulting Inc., a training and consulting company in Wilmington, Del., which offers Planet3 Wireless Inc.s CWNA (Certified Wireless Network Administrator) course, among others. CWNA certifies the recipients knowledge of the skills to install, administer and trouble-shoot wireless networks.

Even if the financial rewards arent there yet for wireless certification, its still a good idea for IT pros to fill in gaps in their own knowledge, said Fran Rabuck, president of Rabuck Associates, a Philadelphia-based IT consulting company, and an eWeek Corporate Partner.

Rabuck, who became CWNA-certified earlier this month, said the course provided comprehensive vendor-neutral expertise in an array of products and was useful as a way to get educated not only about wireless gear but also about the agendas that vendors might bring to market along with their products. "In this unlicensed spectrum area, you need to be aware of competing technologies," he said.

In addition, "WLAN [technology] isnt plug and play," said Rabuck: A wireless network may start out as an easy demo, but things can get a lot more complicated during an enterprisewide rollout, he said.

Although employers may not yet be seeking out wireless skills and certifications specifically, statistics show just how popular these devices and networks are becoming. Meta estimates that the WLAN market will grow at a compound rate of 30 percent annually, with some differences among emerging products in the enterprise, consumer and public markets.

Furthermore, according to Metas analysis, released in November, the market has evolved from emerging to a full-growth area, and core WLAN technology is quickly becoming commoditized. In addition, research from Kinetic Information LLC, of Waltham, Mass., indicates wireless technology will attract renewed IT spending, to the tune of $80 billion by 2006.

Getting certified now makes good sense precisely because of the technologys immaturity, said Kevin Sandlin, co-founder and CEO of Planet3, an Atlanta-based company that is developing three wireless certifications. "It would be a mistake for IT workers not to touch it," he said.

Although he wouldnt provide hard numbers, Sandlin estimated that the number of people becoming certified in Planet3s CWNA is doubling every month.

When, or if, wireless warrants specialized certification might be open to debate, but industry observers agree that, once standards come into focus, wireless skills will be a prime target for growing numbers of enterprises.

"Enterprises will have to get control of this. ... Theyll either have to turn it all off or learn to deal with it," Rabuck said.

eWeek Labs Managing Editor Mary Stevens can be reached at mary_stevens@ziffdavis.com.