Hot tech certifications in a cool job market

Not all credentials will boost your career, so in tough times you have to choose wisely

If the doomsayers prove right, throngs of laid-off tech workers will soon be competing for only a handful of available jobs. Technical certifications, once thought to be the ticket to higher pay and more prestige, may be needed to simply avoid the unemployment line. The trick is to get the ones that will really help keep or land that job, since it turns out many certifications won't be all that useful.

So what are the hottest tech certifications in today's cool job market? According to Foote Partners' fall survey of more than 22,000 IT professionals, covering some 170 certifications, the most valuable certificates today settle mainly into two camps: architecture and security. Microsoft and Cisco certifications also got good grades.

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In terms of pay growth, here are the top five certifications, according to Foote Partners:

* IT Certified Architect (ITCA/OPenGroup)

* Certified Information Security Manager (CISM)

* InfoSys Security Architecture Professional (ISSAP/CISSP)

* Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator: Messaging (MCSA)

* Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP)

Good architecture equals real tech savings
As the economic crisis has deepened, good enterprise architects have become treasured assets. In fact, over the last six months, seven of the eight fastest-growing certificates are for enterprise architecture, which barely registered a blip a year ago, says David Foote, president of Foote Partners. "One of the things you invest in during tough times is architects," he says, "because if you want to save money, you have to architect carefully."

Certification plays well in areas that are grand in scope (and thus ill-defined), business-critical, and chock-full of complexity. Experience varies from enterprise architect to enterprise architect. Job histories on résumés can be exaggerated or even contain outright lies. Enterprise architecture certifications, on the other hand, "bring industrial strength" to the résumé and can be more easily confirmed, says Carole Schlocker, who runs iSpace, a technical staffing firm.

Enterprise architects are "abstract thinkers at the design level, almost like business analysts," says Foote. They transcend technology and cross into the business realm. Indeed, many tech workers aspire to journey down this path, and a certification can show that they are making progress.

Hiring managers, too, want to see more than just technical chops from job candidates. "They're looking for people who are good thinkers, have a feel for what goes on in other parts of the business, and understand how IT can be integrated," says Jerry Luftman, vice president at the Society for Information Management. "They want people with a holistic view." (Luftman is also associate dean of graduate information systems at Stevens Institute of Technology, which offers a dozen credentialed IT-business programs, such as IT for financial services, IT for health care, and IT for outsourcing.)

Project and process management certs are also in demand
Certifications that command some of the highest pay have close ties to revenue, such as those that involve improved project management, process efficiency, increased productivity, and better budgeting. Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology, has seen an uptick in demand for people with ITIL certification -- most notably, the ITIL v3 Master -- which can help an organization save money.

The oft-ballyhooed PMP (Project Management Professional) certificate and its related certificates from the Project Management Institute (PMI), for instance, ride on the process-improvement wave. "When companies are hiring project managers, they like to see the PMI certification," Schlocker says. "Often, the hiring manager is PMI-certified."

Most tech certifications are no longer so valuable
Conversely, technical certifications aren't faring as well, with the exception of security. "During a study of IT services firms, I asked if their client cared about [technical] certifications," says Foote, "and pretty much all of them said, 'Not really.'" The vast majority of certification categories showed a decline in value. Web development certifications, in particular, plummeted.

Of course, that's not to say technical skills in areas such as networking, databases, systems administration, and programming aren't in demand. Indeed, there are hot IT jobs out there, as well as recession-proof ones. What's happened is that the technical certifications in these areas are no longer as important in the hiring process.

The big exception to this trend away from technical certifications' value is security certification, says Foote. For starters, banking, financial services, and similarly regulated industries often require a security certification, so you often won't get a job in these industries without one. Security also is very specialized, so certifications can help clarify exactly what skills an employee or job candidate brings to the table. "Security is heavily technical, with so many facets and niches," Foote notes.

According to Foote Partners, security skills in demand include e-discovery, penetration testing, vulnerability assessment, security auditing, and ethical hacking. Banks also need anti-money-laundering pros who have prevention, detection, and investigation skills.

Another exception to the decreased value of technical certifications is Cisco networking certification. Cisco certs are hot commodities, too. But earning a CCNP certificate is no easy task, taking up to 250 hours of training, says Victor R. Garza, an InfoWorld Test Center reviewer who also teaches Cisco courses to telecom workers. Robert Half's Spencer Lee says she's also seeing a rise in requests for IT workers with Cisco Certified VoIP Professional certifications, given VoIP's growing adoption in the midmarket.

Employers spend less on training, but employees want it as insurance
Garza says certification training is likely "cooling off" because companies are less willing to underwrite employees, but he notes that IT workers still want it. "[Certification-seeking] students want to keep themselves marketable," he says. "As opposed to wanting to move up in the company, a majority of my students this past three months want training so that they can get a [new] job if they get laid off."

Indeed, certifications play an important role in a tough hiring environment, agrees Spencer Lee. When faced with two comparable candidates, a hiring manager can be swayed by a certification. Spencer Lee often receives IT job reqs that mention a preference for a particular certification, and she's noticed something very telling: "The person who gets the job usually has the certification."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.