IT certifications are everywhere, but what do they really prove?

Boston Medical Center and Boston-based Partners HealthCare Systems Inc. hire entry-level technical workers through Atlantic Associates Inc. Both organizations look for similar qualities in their new hires, but there's one telling difference: Boston Medical Center specifically seeks to employ workers with certifications such as A+ and Microsoft Certified Professional. "We think it's an indicator of professionalism and dedication to the industry," says Darren Dworkin, chief technology officer at Boston Medical Center.

While Dworkin stops short of calling certifications a requirement, he says he uses them to differentiate between candidates.

Carlo Severo, who manages the help desk at Partners, sees certification as a bonus but not necessarily a differentiator. "I have people with certification and without. I would challenge you to tell me who was which," he says.

So, who has it right, Dworkin or Severo? Can certifications really tell something about the people who hold them, or are they minor points on resumes today?

Downward Slide

Lately, certifications seem to have lost some of their allure. A study by Foote Partners LLC, a research firm in New Canaan, Conn., shows that for the 12-month period that ended April 1, noncertified workers received a larger average pay increase than those with certifications -- 3.6% compared with 2.9%.

Some say the study shows a shift in the value IT executives place on certifications.

"It's being put in its right place," says Robert Miano, president and CEO of Harvey Nash USA, the U.S. arm of London-based Harvey Nash PLC, a global recruitment company. "Certifications are going to stay, but they're not as highly regarded as they have been in the past."

Miano says he has seen a change in the way the market treats certifications, which were initially well received. He says they have become "watered-down and diluted" as the number of certifications and third-party teaching centers has grown. Certification exams have also become less stringent, he says.

"What has happened is the value of certification has gone down because you can get it so easily," he adds. "Companies realize that certification isn't as meaningful as it used to be."

As a result, Miano says, his clients put a higher value on experience.

William Butler, an IT technician at the Gilmer Independent School District in Gilmer, Texas, has also seen this shift during his nearly 20 years in IT. "Certification at one point was a standard that could be used to gauge an individual's proficiency. That was in the early years," he says. Now most certifications are awarded by vendors and "seem to be more of a vehicle to promote their products."

Butler has no certifications; he says he has relied on his reputation to advance his career.

Jerry Luftman, associate dean of graduate IT programs at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., and an officer of the Society for Information Management (SIM) in Chicago, also downplays the value of certifications.

"I would certainly weigh experience as much more valuable than a score on an exam," Luftman says, adding that he sees IT employers increasingly seeking out marketing, communication and leadership skills that aren't measured by any exam.

The Foote research "certainly suggests that one should question the merits of the certifications," says Luftman. "But again, is technology the only criteria a manager uses to give pay increases? No."

Others agree that job offers and compensation ought to be based on factors ranging from experience to attitude. "There are other key criteria you're not going to get through certification," says Stephen Pickett, CIO at Penske Corp. in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and president-elect of SIM.

And Pickett confirms the Foote study's findings that people with certification don't necessarily command higher pay: "I'm going to pay the same money for the same base knowledge," he says.

That's why many say experience is the real key. "If you have someone with experience but no certification vs. someone with certification but no experience, you're going to take the person with experience," says Jack Harrington, president of Atlantic Associates, a Boston-based firm specializing in IT staffing and consulting.

Brian Ellis, a network analyst working as a part-time contractor at Massachusetts General Hospital, is a good case in point. Ellis is a Microsoft Certified Professional and holds A+ and N+ certifications. He says he considered going for the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certification but opted against it. "I have five years as a systems engineer with Microsoft products. I don't feel like I need to prove that I can pass a test," he says.

Ellis adds that he's busy enough -- and well compensated -- with his work at MGH and as an owner of a Concerto Networks Inc. franchise in Stoneham, Mass. "I will probably never get certified in anything else," he says. "Continuing education is important. It's absolutely important. But I'm not a big fan of certifications."

On the Other Hand

Not everyone shares Ellis' views. In fact, some managers still place a high value on IT certifications. Pickett says many IT managers see certifications as a sign of a self-starter who is willing to learn. He says that when he reviews entry-level candidates who have just a few years of work experience, certifications are "a good differentiator, but not the final decision."

Certifications are also valuable for midlevel professionals charged with very specific duties, he adds. That's when Microsoft, Oracle or Cisco certifications are desirable -- though they're still no substitute for experience on those vendors' systems.

Though some managers claim that experience trumps certifications, Harrington says his clients still prefer to see certifications on applicants' resumes. Clients particularly want certifications in newer technologies, such as Linux, and they're willing to pay for them. "It is a good selling tool if you're certified," Harrington says.

Sharyle Doherty, vice president of product management at The Ultimate Software Group Inc. in Weston, Fla., sought someone with a security-related certification when the company created a security analyst position. "We look at certifications as an indicator that someone has gone the extra mile to prove their experience in a certain field," says Doherty.

When Doherty couldn't find a certified security expert, she sent an in-house worker for certification to fill the new position. The worker was compensated for the training. "We consider it an accomplishment and something to reward her for," Doherty says.

So the verdict? IT certifications are neither a guaranteed money magnet nor a guaranteed waste of time. They may indicate drive as well as knowledge, but they can't measure experience or non-IT skills. Executives, hiring managers and workers at all levels conclude that it's best to consider them as just one part of the overall picture. "If [job candidates] aren't certified, it's not going to prevent them from being hired. It's more of an added bonus," Doherty says. "But you still have to check into their actual job experience -- that it's not just book knowledge, that it's knowledge they can apply."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. You can contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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