Over the years, the demand for information technology (IT) certifications has ebbed and flowed. Today, it seems to be at an all-time high. According to Global Knowledge’s “2019 IT Skills and Salary Report,” “Eighty-five percent of all IT professionals hold at least one certification. That number trends up to 96% in Asia-Pacific, 93% in Latin America and 87% in EMEA. North America (81%) is the only region below the global average.”

Why is interest in certifications so high, and are they worth it? Let’s find out.

The IT Certification Landscape

There are hundreds of IT certifications available from a range of providers, ranging from vendor-sponsored certifications to vendor-neutral certification authorities. There are certifications for everything from basic IT fundamentals to advanced topics that require years of experience before qualifying to take an exam. CompTIA’s IT Certification Roadmap is a helpful resource showing popular certifications from multiple providers, organized by topic area and level of expertise.

While the data varies based on the ranking and criteria used, data from Skillsoft’s “Tech Learning Consumption Trends” report and Global Knowledge’s report indicate the following most popular areas for certifications:

  • Entry-level skills
  • Cloud
  • Security
  • Project management
  • Networking

Another way to evaluate certifications is to consider the salary an IT professional can make after earning the certification. The Global Knowledge report identifies certifications in these areas as the top-paying certifications:

  • Cloud
  • Project management
  • Scrum
  • Server
  • IT service management (ITSM)
  • Security
  • Networking

The Value of IT Certifications

To discuss the value of IT certifications, it’s important to separate the value to the certified professional from the value to the organization that employs him or her.

The Value to Certified Professionals

  • Increased attractiveness to potential employers.
  • Higher salary potential.
  • The ability to prove a baseline of knowledge.

The Value to Employers

  • Certifications can help organizations with hiring. When faced with two candidates with similar backgrounds, hiring managers may pick someone who has put in the effort to prepare for and pass a certification exam.
  • Certifications may be required for organizations that provide technical consulting. Requests for proposals (RFP)s often require staff with certain certifications in order for the organization to bid on or execute an engagement.
  • If an organization is hacked, and outside organizations (like government or legal agencies) investigate, saying that you provided security training is often not enough. However, the ability to point out how many of your staff have security certifications can go a long way toward mitigating government or legal repercussions from a security incident.

The Big Debate: Certification Versus Real-world Experience

Some IT professionals downplay the importance of certifications, placing a higher value on real-world experience. This claim is valid, and given the choice between an inexperienced person with a certification and a highly experienced individual without a certification, most firms would choose the latter. But it is important to note that this is not always an either/or scenario. There are many highly experienced individuals who have also put in the extra effort to prepare for and pass a rigorous certification exam(s).

It is also important to note that many certifications are designed to enhance different stages in a person’s career. People who are considering switching to a career in IT or who are just starting their career tend to gravitate toward beginner or novice certifications. As they progress through their career, there may be certain areas where it could benefit them to earn a certification.

Certifications also provide a great pathway to learning. Even if a learner is not interested in taking the certification exam, the learning paths created to support certifications are created to give people the skills they need to perform better in their roles.

Next Steps

A good place to start your investigation of the value of certifications in your company is to poll IT managers and team members. Are there particular certifications that managers would like their people to have? Are there certifications that team members think would help them in their jobs or careers?

Once you have identified the people who value certifications and you have some initial data, the next step is to learn how managers are certifying their teams and how individual team members are preparing for certifications. Then, it is up to you to review all the input and start evaluating options for certification preparation training — which I will cover in my next article.

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