Will IT certifications pay off in the long run?

Study suggests their relevance and cash value may be in decline

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the U.S. is losing momentum in IT certifications growth, compared with emerging markets such as Eastern Europe, India, and Latin America.

Now comes a report from researchers at Foote Partners that average pay for IT certifications dropped 2 percent in the three months ended Oct. 1 — which would translate into an annual drop of 8 percent if the trend continues. By comparison, pay for noncertified IT skills rose 1.4 percent on average for the same period, and 9 to 13 percent over the past year.

Are certified IT jobs just becoming more of a commodity, facing stiffer offshore competition? Are certifications becoming less relevant because anybody can go to Google and get themselves a minitutorial on almost any tech topic, any time? Or as Foote Partners CEO David Foote suggests, have enterprise employers simply refocused their priorities on “niche,” noncertified skills such as applications and Web or e-commerce development?

“Certifications are becoming the Rodney Dangerfield of the IT world,” Foote exclaims.

Ouch!

“Employers are desperate for IT professionals who can get things done,” Foote explains. “Technical skills are without a doubt critical for many IT jobs, but there’s much more. Being a desirable ‘impact’ worker means getting along with people, keeping an eye on IT’s role in business execution, and quickly delivering what customers want, which is a moving target.”

This man must surely be selling his services to the HR department, not to anybody who’s ever taken an IT certification course.

“You wanna see ‘impact,’ pal?” I imagine you certified IT pros thinking. “Try letting the network go down — or letting that virus infect all 50,000 desktops.”

But extreme or not, there’s a certain logic to what Foote’s trying to say. The IT labor market’s like one big auction, and rather than bidding based on a single skill set, employers are starting to look more at bundles of skills, of which a certification may not be the most important feature. Foote Partners’ data presumably comes from an annual survey of 55,000 IT professionals in the U.S. and Canada.

“You may have system administrators with a Unix or Linux specialization working on critical customer-facing systems,” Foote says. “You don’t want to end up lumping them with, say, MVS administrators when it comes to salary benchmarking. It’s the same thing with ABAP [Advanced Business Application Programming] and .Net developers, Java programmers, and Oracle DBAs who get thrown in with all the other developers, programmers, and DBAs paywise.”

At a high level, the implication for IT professionals just starting out would seem to be this: Try to become well-rounded; you can’t just build up one competence and expect to ride it to retirement. You’ll be perceived as too narrow and outsourceable. As environments and resources get virtualized, the managers holding the purse strings care less and less about what’s under the hood and who tuned it up, than how fast the car can go and who’s in the driver’s seat.

And one more thing. Whatever you do, don’t bail on your technical track and go into writing. Man, talk about a commodity!

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