2009 IT career survival guide: Get the right certificate

Tech certifications can give you an edge in the tight job market -- but beware that many credentials aren't all that useful

Uncertain economic times have many IT employees nervous about how to stay relevant and valued in their companies -- or at future employers if they're forced to leave. One Chicago-area IT manager and infrastructure project leader, who asked that his name not be used, wonders whether it's time to earn a certification that might get him premium pay or at least an edge over other applicants for a new job.

"Do I try to enhance my management skills, or do I dig deeper into the technology?" he asks.

[ InfoWorld has put together a special package of stories to help tech workers through the current tough times. Among the highlights:
* Slideshow: Where IT jobs are headed
* Special report: 2009 IT career survival guide
* Special report: Where the tech jobs are overseas (and how to get one)
* Special report: Tech workers under fire
* Special report: IT and the financial crisis
Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line blog and newsletter. ]

What's more, on his own tight budget, the manager is concerned that the cost of a certification will outweigh the benefits. "[Certification] really doesn't strike me as being beneficial," he says. "A lot of people I've seen with certifications frankly don't know what they're doing."

His dilemma is common, and Computerworld's 2008 Salary Survey figures seem to back up his suspicions. Nearly half (49 percent) of the respondents reported having some type of computer certification, yet 47 percent said their certifications haven't helped them land a job, earn a promotion, or gain a pay raise.

"It's no longer about certification, except in deeply technical areas like security and networking," explains David Foote, president of Foote Partners LLC, which reports that the average market value of a certification declined 3.5 percent from July 2007 to July 2008. "Employers want skills any way they can get them, in the right combination, and not simply tech skills, but hard and soft skills."

CIOs and senior managers are now looking for certification programs "that are going to help classify and categorize the value of people for things that matter to the business at hand," says Diane Morello, an analyst at Gartner. "So we're going to see more education and training in financial regulations for people in the financial industry," for example, she says.

IT leaders are also looking at larger-scale educational programs or management disciplines that will yield longer-term value. "Six Sigma, process design and project management discipline issues are going to be where a lot of CIOs and IT leaders are actually focusing," says Morello.

However, there still are a few technical areas in which a certification could yield premium pay, especially network security, project management and systems architecture, according to Foote. Depending on corporate compensation policies, IT skills premiums are typically incorporated into base salary or paid out as a cash bonus that can be adjusted annually, he says.

The CISSP certification from the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium Inc. continues to be the gold standard, Foote adds. The (ISC) 2 now offers three areas of specialization within its security certification -- architecture, engineering, and management.

IT professionals with systems architecture certifications are also seeing increases in pay or bonuses.

"Companies are realizing that they need, at least in the short term, many different kinds of architects -- from the extremely technical to the extremely business-oriented," says Foote, whose firm tracks 20 types of IT architects. "They're the people who really understand what the business needs and how we can use technology to advance or enable that need. Those people are extremely valuable."

Premium pay for a Citrix integration architect certification, for example, reached 11 percent of base pay in the second quarter of 2008.

If you're still uncertain about the right certification for your career, "follow the money," suggests David Van De Voort, an IT workforce specialist at Mercer in Chicago.

"Find out where your employer is spending money," he says. "Know the business strategy. Know the technology strategy."

Next: Hit the books to earn a graduate degree.

Read the other stories in this special report: 2009 IT career survival guide

Collett is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at stcollett@aol.com.

This story, "2009 IT career survival guide: Get the right certificate" was originally published by Computerworld.

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