Information Technology (IT) professionals have a dazzling array of certifications available to prove they’ve mastered particular skills; the blog IT Certification Master in a recent count listed 1,961 being offered by 169 different training and testing companies. This begs the questions: Are certifications worthwhile? Can they lead to a job, a promotion, or a raise?
The answers to both questions are a qualified yes, as long as the people seeking them choose the right certifications.
"Supply and demand will dictate the value of a certification," says John Longwell, vice president for research at Computer Economics, a market research firm in Irvine, CA. "Newer technologies and higher-level certifications certainly will have some more value."
Indeed, Foote Partners, a Vero Beach, FL, research company that tracks IT salaries, found that extra pay for workers with particular skills increased in the first quarter of 2014. For people with any of 309 certifications the company tracked, the average pay premium increased by 2.1% in the first three months of this year. On the other hand, people with any of 360 non-certified skills also earned pay premiums, which increased by 0.55%. Foote says pay for non-certified skills, in areas such as databases, operating systems, and application development, has generally been strong, going back to 2004. The average market value of certifications, however, took a downturn in the 2008 recession, and is only now on an upswing.
Foote found the values of applications development and programming language certifications increased 7.2% in market value in the first quarter, while web development certifications rose in value by 6.5%. By contrast, database certifications lost 2.5% in value, and networking and communications was down by 1.1%.
Still, there are areas where certifications are in demand. Networking vendors need to have a minimum number of Cisco-certified people on staff in order to sell Cisco gear, for instance, and companies seeking IT services from contractors will often write requirements for certifications into their requests for proposals, Longwell says.
"We definitely see certain positions in which having a certification is a must," says Melisa Bockrath, vice president of IT Centers of Excellence at Kelly Services, Troy, MI, which places 10,000 people in IT jobs annually.
Bockrath says many of her firm’s clients would not consider someone for a project management job without Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, which includes not only passing an exam but also having at least 4,500 hours of experience in leading projects. The average PMP-certified manager is making about $100,000 a year, Bockrath says; managers without a PMP certification earn in the range of $85,000 to $90,000, and also tend to work for smaller companies.
There’s a high demand for expertise in security, and Kelly frequently lists jobs that require one of the several forms of Certified Information Systems Security Professional certification, particularly with companies that contract with the government or the oil and gas industry. Global Information Assurance Certification is another security designation in demand, and the Certified Ethical Hacker certification is growing in popularity, Bockrath says. Employees with security certifications earn an average of $128,000 a year.
A relatively new certification is Scrum Master, which follows the Agile framework for complex software development projects. Certified Scrum Masters earn an average annual salary close to $110,000, where the average salary of a .NET programmer is $80,000 to $90,000. On the other hand, Bockrath warns, there are not that many job openings that require it. Of 11,000 .NET programmer positions open in July, only about 1,700 of them asked for Scrum Master certification.
Some cloud computing certifications are also popular, among them Salesforce.com certification for people developing customer relations software for mobile and cloud-based platforms. Workday Human Capital Management (HCM) certification is popular for people working in financial services or big data analytics.
Certification can be a route to a job for people new to the industry, Bockrath says. Earlier this year, Kelly Services teamed up with Oakland Community College and Automation Alley, a technology industry association in Troy, MI, to run a six-week training program with a $5-million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor in the hopes of making people more employable. Graduates earned a Microsoft Certified Professional designation.
Employers will often pay the costs of the training and exam for initial certifications, Bockrath says, though they often will expect workers to pick up the lower cost of remaining certified. Longwell says corporate training budgets dropped early in the recession, from a median of $2,000 per employee to $1,500, and have remained at that level. Companies are generally happy to pay for some training as a benefit to employees and to keep abreast of new technology, he says.
Bockrath says IT professionals should not assume just any certification is worth the time and the money required. Technology needs vary between, say, the financial services industry and a big government contractor such as Lockheed-Martin, and other, personal, factors come into play, including what expertise someone already has, or how flexible he/she is about relocating. "You need to understand the type of position you want, the type of industry you want to work in, whether you want to work for a startup in your town versus a large global company," she says. "Depending on what you’re looking for, it may be worth it."
Neil Savage is a science and technology writer based in Lowell, MA.