IT certifications lose their luster among employers

As vendors crank out more and more certs, their value is flattening, while premium pay for underlying skills continues to soar

IT certifications lose their luster among employers
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It’s still an employee’s market for IT jobs. But as always, the right skills are commanding the most pay. Over the 12-month period that ended in July, premium pay for both certified and noncertified skills soared by 9 percent, according to the latest survey of pay in the IT industry by Foote Partners.

Not surprisingly, hot sectors such as security, application development, big data, and the cloud experienced the most gains. But the new report contains a surprising bit of information: Noncertified job skills are increasing most rapidly as some employers question the value of certifications. “They [noncertified skills] are less immune to manipulation,” says David Foote, the research firm’s chief analyst.

“The truth is that there are so many skills that employers find worthy of extra pay, and for these skills either certifications don’t exist or the ones that do are perceived as too easy to attain,” he says. “Employers have always had their own ways to evaluate and accredit skills expertise.”

What’s more, vendors have been flooding the market with new certifications to support areas such as cloud, security, and virtualization, an increase in supply that may ultimately affect employers' perception of the value of certs going forward.

Nevertheless, IT certifications are still valuable tools, and despite some doubts employers continue to pay solid premiums. Indeed, the average market value for 378 IT certifications has increased for nine straight quarters, the longest run in the 16 years Foote has traced the industry.

(Foote’s numbers represent a premium paid over and above a base salary for specific skills or certifications.)

Who certifies the certifiers?

“In theory, anyone can set up a certification business: Create a few online tests, charge X for taking a course online, pay for a little marketing, and -- hey, presto -- you’re ready to issue certificates,” David Bolton, a U.K.-based developer with more than a decade of experience recently wrote in a blog post on

Foote doesn’t go nearly that far, but he says, “Certifications are largely vendor-driven and managed to sell and resell products.” When a product or service is new, vendors will push certifications as a way to get their products into businesses. Eventually the supply of workers with those skills increases, and the value of those certifications declines -- but not of the underlying skills.

Cloud-related skills that don’t require a certification increased in value by 5.4 percent in the six months ending in July. But cloud certifications declined by 2 percent in the same period, Foote reports. The disparity was even more noticeable in skills related to big data. Noncertified skills increased in value by 8 percent over the past six months, while certified skills declined by 1.2 percent.

The increasing value of big data-related skills followed a marked slowdown last year. “The problem that developed in 2014 is too many employers have not been satisfied with the return on their sizable investments in big data initiatives," Foote said last year.

But that’s changed. “Many employers are taking a more measured, longer-term perspective on their big-data investments,” he now says. That likely means more spending and more hiring.

Spending on cloud-based big data will grow three times faster than spending on traditional, on-premises solutions, and in the United States alone there will be 181,000 deep-analytics roles in 2018 and five times that many positions requiring related skills in data management and interpretation, IDC predicted late last year.

Salaries still the bottom line

Employers are beginning to fold the value of skills in cloud and big data into base salaries, say Foote. Those salaries remain mighty rich.

A survey by, a large tech-focused job board, found that the average base pay for five big data-related skills is well over $110,000 a year. Knowledge of Sqoop, a tool for transferring data between Hadoop and relational databases, for example, is worth $114,000 a year. A “data scientist,” what we used to call a data analyst, pays nearly $117,000, while a data architect commands a salary of $118,000.

Those salaries do not include premium pay, a metric Foote tracks carefully, but Dice does not.

Looking out over the next six months, some of the noncertified, cloud-related skills that are likely to increase in premium value include Apache CloudStack, cloud security, Microsoft Azure, and SolarWinds, while the only cloud-related certifications expected by Foote to appreciate is Windows Certified Design Expert.

Noncertified big data skills likely to command larger premiums include Apache Hive, Cassandra, CouchDB, MongoDB, and Hadoop, while four Cloudera-related certifications will gain value.

Trends in premium pay are obviously related to overall market conditions. Not too long ago, employers were actively outsourcing huge chunks of their infrastructure operations, and the value of certifications plummeted from 2006 to 2012. That reversed, and we’ve seen growth in certification premiums for more than two years.

But then, the market appears to be changing again -- and that’s likely to change the market value of certified skills.

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