Qualifies the competency of entry-level IT service technicians

The number of people who obtained A+ certification in 1998 grew 300 percent from the previous year. More than 107,000 people are currently A+ certified technicians, and the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) expects the number of certified individuals to reach 150,000 by the end of 1999. Based on its popularity, this certification merits a closer look.

In 1993, CompTIA designed A+ certification to qualify the competency of entry-level service technicians in the computer industry. This certification is vendor-neutral and assesses a competency of 6 months of computer support and repair experience. Computer repair and technical support organizations often require potential employees to be A+ certified. In addition, many people who hold advanced technical certifications (e.g., MCSE, CNE) seek A+ certification to round out their resumes or as a result of their employers' encouragement. CompTIA created the A+ certification exam to accomplish the following goals:

  • Set an industrywide, nationally recognized standard of basic competency.
  • Maximize organizations' efficiency in recruiting, hiring, training, and promoting employees.
  • Help fill the current need for an IT workforce by providing people with in-demand skills.
  • Offer job seekers career paths, transferable skills, and industry-recognized credentials.
  • Provide educators and trainers with a competency standard so they can better prepare potential employees to meet current IT job requirements.

Major companies such as Compaq Computer, IBM, Microsoft, Lotus, and Novell, as well as 7500 other organizations, are CompTIA members and support A+ certification. Many of these organizations are also A+ Authorized Service Centers, which means that at least half of their technical professionals are A+ certified. Forty countries worldwide have A+ Authorized Service Centers, including the United States, which has almost 1200 service centers.

In addition to the technical companies that support A+ certification, the US government, universities, community colleges, and public school systems sponsor, support, and administer A+ certification programs. A+ certification is gaining popularity worldwide: You can take the exams in German, French, Portuguese, traditional and simplified Chinese, and Japanese.

Subject Areas
CompTIA requires you to pass two exams for certification: Core and DOS/ Windows. CompTIA plans to revise the exams every 2 years, so expect the next revision in the summer of 2000. Before CompTIA revised the exams in 1998, it surveyed 5000 A+ certified technicians and asked them to analyze their job tasks. Based on this information, CompTIA updated the exams to include Windows 95 (the previous exam tested only knowledge of DOS and Windows 3.x). About 75 percent of the current DOS/Windows exam questions relate to Win95, and the rest of the questions are about DOS and Windows 3.x topics. CompTIA also updated the Core exam, but the exam still focuses on desktop PCs, portable systems, and printers.

CompTIA calls the subject areas that the exams cover domains (this term isn't related to Windows NT domains). Table 1 lists the Core exam's domains and the percentage of questions from each domain. Table 2 shows the same information for the DOS/Windows exam. The Core exam's Customer Satisfaction domain comprises 10 percent of the exam's questions. However, answers to these questions don't affect your pass/fail score. CompTIA's members debated the value of customer service skills and decided that these skills are important enough to test, but not important enough to help you pass or cause you to fail the exam.

The Core exam includes 69 questions, and candidates have 1 hour to complete it. To pass the Core exam, you must score at least 65 percent. The DOS/Windows exam requires a score of 66 percent to pass, and candidates have 1.25 hours to answer 70 questions.

You must pass the Core and DOS/Windows exams within 90 days of each other to obtain A+ certification. You can take the exams as many times as you need to pass, and A+ certification is good for life. CompTIA members discussed requiring recertification, but they decided that technicians who obtain this entry-level certification will probably maintain or increase their technical abilities.

Cost
The way you prepare for the exams and the number of times you must take them affect the cost of obtaining A+ certification. Training courses usually take 3 to 5 days and cost between $300 and $500 per day per person. The cost depends on the training company, what facilities the course provides, and whether the class is public or private. Private classes at your company's site usually cost less per person than public classes that must provide a facility and equipment.

A+ certification training books and media range from $40 to $175. Be careful when selecting an A+ certification book; the more expensive books aren't necessarily the best. I recommend that you pick up a good reference book and a smaller study guide. A good reference book usually includes a CD-ROM that contains text, pictures, and video simulations; a good study guide usually includes references to other books (usually at the end of each chapter) and a CD-ROM that provides practice test questions.

Each A+ certification exam costs $128, but you can get discount prices for volume orders of more than 50 exams. If you work for a CompTIA member organization, you can obtain a test voucher from your company to save $50 or more per exam. In addition, some CompTIA member organizations sell discount test vouchers.

The cost of taking the exams can rise quickly if you don't pass them the first time. If you fail an exam, you have to pay to retake it, and if you pass one exam and don't pass the other within the 90-day period, you must retake both exams.

Making the Grade
IT-industry newcomers and advanced technicians can both find many resources to help prepare for the exams. CompTIA's Web site lists several training providers and helpful publications; however, this list isn't comprehensive. For a list of online resources, see the sidebar "A+ Certification Online Resources." In addition to books, CD-ROMs, and formal training, the following activities will help you prepare for the A+ exams:

  • Build a computer (i.e., put a computer together from its basic components).
  • Install MS-DOS 6.22, Win9x, and Windows 3.x.
  • Configure MS-DOS, Win9x, and Windows 3.x—­explore working with MS-DOS's autoexec.bat and config.sys; Win9x's regedit.exe and sysedit.exe; and Windows 3.x's system.ini, win.ini, and progman.ini.
  • Study the OSs' components—­know which files to configure (e.g., command.com, msdos.sys, io.sys) to make each OS run.
  • Use the disk utilities—­know how to partition, format, and scan a hard disk.

As with any exam, preparation is key. Technicians interested in A+ certification need hands-on experience with PC hardware and knowledge of MS-DOS, Win9x, and Windows 3.x.