IT learning on the cheap

Fast, cheap and easy: Five IT certifications that won't break you

Looking to get a certification to boost your IT career? Here's a shortlist of relatively easy-to-obtain and inexpensive certs that are valued by employers.

Are it certifications worth it?

Getting an IT certification that will advance your career doesn't have to break the bank. While the costs associated with acquiring some certifications are high, others that can carry weight with employers are much easier on your wallet -- and your time. No certification worth its salt is easy, but some are easier to complete than others.

With this in mind, Computerworld asked experts in the certification and training industry to name their top picks: those IT certifications that are relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain -- and that employers value.

The certifications that meet these criteria tend to be foundational. They may be best suited to those new to a discipline or to IT professionals who want to pick up skills in areas adjacent to their core expertise.

Related story: Free and cheap ways to study for IT certifications

Before you make a decision to pursue a certification for your own career needs, these tips can help you decide whether a prospective certification is a good fit. With that caveat, here's the shortlist.

1. CompTIA A+

If you're just getting started in IT, this is the certification to get. CompTIA A+, which covers the job skills required to configure and maintain personal computers (including laptops) and mobile devices, is one of 17 certifications offered by CompTIA, a nonprofit trade association that's highly respected in the industry.

Unlike CompTIA's more basic Strata IT Fundamentals certification, A+ is a foundational certification for professionals that can qualify you for a job; in fact, it's often cited as a requirement. It's also one of a handful of IT certifications that are accredited by a third party -- in this case the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

CompTIA A+ is broad-based rather than vendor-specific, there are no prerequisites, and you can do all of your studying online or using books, says Jim Zimmermann, director of product marketing at e-learning vendor Skillsoft. "Most people just use books to prepare -- no need to take an instructor-led course," he adds. (Not that they aren't available: Global Knowledge Training, for example, offers a classroom-based training course for $3,295.) You will, however, need access to hardware and a network at home or at work for hands-on self-training.

Expenses related to the A+ certification include the price of two exams, at $188 each, plus a study book, which will typically set you back $50 to $80. Time requirements will vary with your level of experience. "If you're just getting started, an A+ certification can be daunting," says Zimmermann. But if you already have some experience, spending a few hours with a preparatory book may suffice, says James Stanger, senior director of certification product management at CompTIA.

2. Microsoft Technology Associate

Microsoft offers its product-centric MTA certifications in three tracks: IT Infrastructure, Database and Development. You can earn an MTA certification by passing any exam in one of these tracks, from Windows Server Administration Fundamentals in the IT Infrastructure track to Software Testing Fundamentals in the Development track.

"The MTA appeals to those new to IT... and those already in IT who want knowledge in areas adjacent to their current job role," says Greg Timpany, senior marketing research manager at IT training firm Global Knowledge. "This gives you entry-level exposure." Exams are priced at $115.

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