Certification – it's expensive, and it's hard work. So is it worth it, to get a few letters after your name? That's the sixty-four thousand dollar question.
The first thing to think about is what a certification like Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) or Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) actually means. It shows prospective employers that you know certain things, but there are plenty of networking professionals who will also know those things without necessarily having a certification to prove it. So particularly with the lower level certifications, an employer may be less impressed with the certification than with a few years' experience. A common mistake amongst IT rookies is to assume that a low level certification will open the door to IT jobs. It doesn't
But if you're reading this the chances are that you've been in the industry some time, and you may well already have a certification or two under your belt. So the question is this: is there any point in spending the money and taking the time to get a higher certification? And if so, which is the best investment? Which one will help you get a better job or command a higher salary? Ultimately, the question is a financial one: which one offers the highest return on investment?
In terms of landing a new job, there's no doubt that having a higher level certification opens some doors. That's because many employers – especially service providers and other organizations with customer-facing staff or even staff at their customers' premises – will only employ people with a certification to prove their skills. Call it covering themselves or whatever you like, but they need to be able to say that their staff are fully certified to reassure their customers that they are getting the best people – even though certification is not necessarily an alternative to experience.
Like most investments, a certification is risky, as you can never be absolutely sure of the return you'll get. That's because the market changes rapidly, and what's hot one year is not the next. The Sarbanes-Oxley regulations caused many companies to in-source a large number of network professionals last year, but this year it's not causing such a distortion.
What tends to happen when there is strong demand for a particular skill set is this: Employers seek the right people, and those with a certificate to prove they have that skill set get picked up first. Such is the demand that they can also command a premium salary over those without the certification. But because demand is so high, there are plenty of people without the certification – but with the necessary skills – who also pick up jobs. A certification, in other words, gets you higher pay, and that's where you get a return on your investment. "Most certifications get you a 8.5 percent bump in pay on average, while top ones, like Cisco's CCIE, will get you well beyond that with about a 10 - 15 percent pay premium," says David Foote, chief research officer at New Canaan, Connecticut-based Foote Partners.
What about the lower order Cisco qualifications – the CCNA and CCNP? Many recruitment companies find that the more demanding the job, the more reassured clients when prospective candidates have a certification, so a certification opens doors. "If you are looking for Cisco people, especially on the design side, clients are certainly more confident that candidates can do the job if they have a certification," says Leanne Thomas, a consultant at global recruitment company Hays. "For network support it's probably not as important as experience, but for hardcore networking roles, there is a lot to be said for a CCNP. If you have a CCIE you can walk into a lot of jobs."
What about Microsoft qualifications? Thomas says that the majority of networking jobs of the last twelve months have been IP related, so it's the Cisco rather than Microsoft qualifications that have been most in demand. "If you are good then you don't need a Microsoft qualification. We're not being told by clients that they won't take customers unless they have one."
So aside from Cisco's CCNP and CCIE, what other qualifications are worth looking at? The answer is VoIP: a Cisco, Nortel or Avaya IP telephony certification is likely to be a sound investment. Remember – when demand is weak it will open doors, and when it is strong it will likely earn you a premium salary. "We're seeing VoIP more and more in demand these days and not many people have the qualifications," says Paula Murphy, an account manager at international IT recruitment company SCom. "These qualifications are today what a straight Cisco qualification was five or six years ago. Everyone and their dog has got a CCNA certification these days, so it doesn't mean much."
And don't forget security. Security concerns are never going to go away, and that means that any security certification you have is going to make you more employable and more valuable. "Any flavor of security product certification is advantageous, it doesn't really matter what," says Hays' Leanne Thomas.
So remember, a qualification costs money, and isn't worth much unless it distinguishes you from the rest of the crowd. So don't follow the pack. Think long and hard before going for any certification, and what benefits it will bring you. But pick the right one and it could pretty well guarantee you well paid employment for a long time to come.