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College Degree vs. Certification

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I get a lot of e-mails from people who are considering one kind of IT certification or another, or who are curious about what such certifications are really worth. In fact, there are two questions I've been called upon to answer more often than any other questions, as these people try to figure out if and when they should chase a certification.

These two questions are:
1. Is an IT certification worth more than a college degree to employers?
2. What's more important to employers: an IT certification or experience working with the products?

Let me tackle these questions in order, and share the results of some recent research with you, as well as my opinions on these subjects. Before I respond to these questions, I feel compelled to state some of my own biases on these topics, so you'll be able to understand the context in which my answers appear:
1. I think IT certifications represent a great way to show interest and initiative in technical subject areas.
2. I think ongoing education and study is part of working in the IT profession.
3. I think there's a big difference between a general education, like getting a college degree, and obtaining an IT Cert.
4. Many certifications do not test for real-world skills and abilities, so the value of certification versus experience is often one-sided in favor of experience.

All this said, let me now go on to address these two questions.

1. Is an IT certification worth more than a college degree to employers? (The most common variant of this question is: Should I finish or obtain my degree, or get an IT certification instead?)

To a very small extent, the answer to this question is "That depends on the certification." For extremely high-level and demanding certifications, like Cisco's CCIE or the high-end consulting certifications from companies like SAP, JD Edwards, or Software AG, going through the learning and preparation required to get the certification represents a level of learning and effort that's pretty comparable to the learning and effort required to get a college degree.

That said, many such certifications do expire with time; once obtained, a college degree may go out of date, but the college or university will not take it away from you and tell you to come back to earn another one!

For just about any other kind of IT certification, I believe that a college degree (particularly, a Bachelor's or more advanced degree) is worth more to employers than an IT certification. My research in talking to a group of more than 100 IT employers across a broad spectrum of industries tells me that they think so, too.

If you find yourself asking this question, and are forced to choose between one or the other, I recommend that you choose the degree (but you could always take it in an IT-related subject, to better prepare yourself for your chosen field of effort).

Another explanation for the importance of a degree, distilled from my interviews with employers, is that obtaining a degree is as much about demonstrating general learning skills and developing good study habits, as it is about mastering any particular subject matter. Especially in technical fields, most experts and educators agree that personal knowledge bases must be refreshed every 5 to 10 years.

Employers look at college degrees, and related honors or academic achievements, as evidence that an individual can learn new material as needed, as well as evidence of whatever subject matter they have studied. But even with a degree in computer science or MIS, you may still want to pursue IT certification in addition.

That's why an increasing number of colleges and universities are offering--and in some cases, requiring--IT certifications from VMware, Microsoft, Cisco, and so on to the students in such programs. That's because a college degree only demonstrates general familiarity with some subject matter or field of study, where most IT certifications are strongly focused in some particular field of study, or on some particular vendor's products and technologies.

In the final analysis, both a college degree and one or more technical certifications in areas relevant to job activities and performance create the most desirable combination for most employers.

2. What's more important to employers: an IT certification or experience working with the products? (One tell-tale variant of this question comes out as "I've got a certification, but no experience, and I can't find a job. What should I do?" I'll answer this question along with my discussion of the experience versus certification issue next.)

Although this may come as a shock to many individuals who regard certifications as the key to improved employment and a bigger paycheck, every one of the more than 100 employers I talked to, and every one of the dozen or so technical recruiting firms that I interviewed, responded to this question by saying: "We always prefer relevant experience to technical certification." But before you give up hope, and decide not to pursue the IT certification you've been considering, let me quickly add some of the important ways that certification does make a difference, both to employers and recruiters:

1. Both audiences that I had a deal with (employers and recruiters) agreed that certification matters most for entry-level positions, and for junior-level positions in general. The attitude here might be summarized as "If I have to choose between two candidates who have similar backgrounds or degrees, and one is certified while the other is not, I will tend to choose the certified individual."

2. For more senior level positions, experience is much more important to these audiences than is certification. Most of the people I interviewed said that for positions paying more than $75,000 a year, they are far more interested in a person's track record, and their level of direct, hands-on experience and ability in dealing with the tools and technologies they must manage, than they are in the certifications that such an individual may or may not hold.

All this said, there is a significant minority (about 25%) of such organizations where they require their IT staff, both junior and senior, to obtain and maintain current technical certifications, not just to enter but also to stay in their jobs. The thinking here appears to be that a current technical certification, on the order of an MCSE, CCNA, Security+ or CISM, is evidence that these individuals are current in their fields of expertise and up to date on new and emerging technologies.

Finally, for those who've obtained a technical certification and still can't get a job, let me explain that "any experience is good experience." If you look around your community, you'll quickly learn that many churches, charities, school systems, and not-for-profit organizations welcome volunteers, even for IT-related positions and activities. You can probably find one of these organizations in your area that would welcome any kind of help they can get with their IT operations. This is not only a great way to get some valuable experience--and a letter of recommendation to go with it--it's also a great way to do some good for your community while improving your employment opportunities at the same time. It's great to help others while at the same time helping yourself!

Ed Tittel
LANWrights, Inc: Network-Oriented Writing & Consulting.

"...The exam does not care if you know better, more effecient way of doing a task, all it wants is the correct answer. When you are in the field, your boss does not care if you passed that exam, all he wants is the correct solution for the situation."
Ruben Hidalgo, Network Administrator