IT certifications no longer sure path to premium pay

Pay hikes from IT certifications hit an all-time low -- you're better off knowing your way around big data and the cloud

There's been a raft of good news about the IT jobs market lately: Hiring is strong, and salaries climbed about 5 percent over the course of 2012. Now another, more complex piece of the jobs story is in, and it's absolutely essential for IT pros to understand. Premium pay for certifications, which has been dropping for three years, is at an all-time low. This decline is offset by an increase in pay for a set of specific, noncertified IT skills.

In the last quarter of 2012, the average market value for 317 noncertified skills inched up about 0.5 percent, a tiny increase, but notable because it was the ninth gain in the past 11 quarters. At the same time, average premium pay for certifications declined for the 22nd time in 24 quarters, this time slipping by 1.57 percent, according to a survey by Foote Partners, which tracks the pay picture at more than 2,400 U.S. and Canadian employers.

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Why are these key indicators moving in opposite directions? "If you look at what employers want, you'll see that many of the skills and competencies that they need are not easily certified; or certifications for them simply don't exist," David Foote, CEO and chief research officer of Foote Partners, told me.

The erosion of premium pay for certifications may have bottomed out in a few areas, he says, but overall, the downward drift is likely to continue.

Big data, cloud, and business skills are hottest

If you've followed InfoWorld's reporting on the IT jobs market over the last few years, a consistent theme has been the increasingly tight link between business and IT. More and more CIOs have MBAs and are judged by their success in finding ways to profit from the vast stores of data held by the enterprise. Given that reality, it's no surprise that the successful IT professional now has a variety of complementary business and technical skills.

"Employers continue to aggressively pursue workers with multiple talents mixing technology, domain, business process and people skills," says Foote. Unfortunately, IT pros that have been out of the workforce for some time aren't likely to possess those skills, he adds, and certifications may not be the way to obtain them.

"Traditionally the certification industry was narrowly focused," says Foote. "It grew years ago when IT work was systems, security, networks, and server configurations. That world was blown up when the Internet came in." The certification industry, of course, moved to catch up, but now big data and cloud computing are making traditional certifications less relevant.

That's not to say that people with the right mix of pure technical skills aren't in demand. They are. For example, as Foote writes in his firm's latest report: "Cloud administrators who are adept at automating the configuration and operations in a cloud environment by combining a variety of different skill sets around systems administration, virtualization, storage, and network administration. It's not about just configuring and running a server."

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