Why so many people are spending time and money chasing certification

As IS environments become more complex, companies are demanding more professionals who implement and support their technology solutions. Firms must find, hire, and retain qualified professionals. As a result, many companies regard professional certification as a benchmark of employee skill, and many employees are arming themselves with professional certifications.

However, certification isn't cheap. Taking each Microsoft exam costs $100. Getting an MCSE certification costs a minimum of $600 in exam fees, and getting an MCSD certification costs at least $400 in exam fees. Training is also expensive. One 5-day course at a Microsoft Authorized Technical Education Center (ATEC) can cost as much as $2100. Other materials that help students prepare for certification exams, such as study guides and computers, can add considerably to the total cost of certification. Additionally, everyone seeking certification must consider an indirect cost--time. Preparing for certification exams takes time, a significant investment busy administrators can't afford to ignore.

Despite the expense, many firms and IS administrators consider certification a worthwhile investment. Certification offers you and your firm five benefits that offset the cost of preparing for and taking certification exams.

BENEFIT #1
Easier Hiring Decisions
Whether candidates for an IS position have professional certification can influence their interactions with a prospective employer from the moment the employer receives the candidates' résumé. Evaluating candidates is an equivocal process, and firms often have difficulty determining who is most qualified for a job. Some organizations look at professional certification as a quantifiable, objective measure of skills. Consequently, certification is becoming an important part of some firms' screening process.

"Certification guarantees a minimum level of knowledge about a product," said Herb Martin, owner and chief instructor at LearnQuick.Com, a company in Texas that trains experienced professionals about Microsoft products, often in preparation for certification exams. Additionally, Martin asserted, unlike many other résumé builders, certification is a candidate claim that firms can easily verify. With one call to the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) program, a company can ascertain whether candidates' certifications are current and which tests they have passed.

Certification does not replace experience or aptitude, but it can give one candidate an advantage over another. (For 10 tips on landing a job, see the sidebar, "Get That Job!", page 133.) "Certification may give a slightly less-qualified person an edge," said Mike Erwin, technical services manager for CompuCom, a systems integrator and reseller in California. "Professional certification indicates that a candidate's foundation skills might be better than his or her competitors' skills."

"More than anything, certification shows dedication," said Carol Spear, director of placement for Software Education of America (SEA), an ATEC in California that specializes in training people for new careers and back-to-work programs. Many students who complete the SEA program never take the Microsoft certification exams. Therefore, the people who earn their certifications set themselves apart from their peers, Spear said. She has found that placing certified candidates into companies requiring skills in complex technologies is much easier than placing uncertified job seekers.

"Certification is a benchmark," said Gene Mockler, an account manager for Pencom Systems, a nationwide recruiting and placement firm headquartered in New York. "It is a way for a candidate to establish instant credibility."

BENEFIT #2
Increased Productivity
Certification benefits businesses not only by making hiring decisions more clear-cut, but also by increasing employee efficiency. "Companies with certified people on staff handle bigger systems, deploy bigger systems, and do both with fewer people," Martin said.

SKATE

Empirical evidence backs up this assertion. In 1995, International Data Corporation (IDC) conducted a study of companies investing in certification training programs. The study compared two groups of employers: advocates (firms that required certification for prospective employees) and nonbelievers (firms that did not require certification). The study found the advocate companies more efficient in two key areas: operating costs and employee productivity.

Advocates' operating costs were generally lower for two reasons. Nonbeliever firms had more unscheduled downtime than advocates, and each incident of unscheduled downtime cost nonbelievers more, on average, than advocates. Advocate companies' downtime incidents each cost an average of $699 per server; nonbeliever companies' downtime incidents each cost an average of $1102 per server. The net result was an average monthly savings of $866 per server for advocate companies. These efficiencies persisted despite the fact that the average advocate firm had a more complex system, which supported more users and servers across nearly twice as many sites, than the average nonbeliever firm.

The study also found increased productivity among certified professionals. Advocate companies' employees handled an average of 21 support calls per day. Nonbeliever firms' employees averaged 15 support calls per day. This increased productivity made the increased cost of employing certified professionals worthwhile for the advocates. The study found that each certified employee cost an average of $9500 more per year than each noncertified employee, as a result of certified employees' generally higher salaries and some companies' expenses related to employee training and testing. However, when IDC took the economic benefits of reduced downtime and reduced support costs into account, IDC calculated that advocate companies' annual savings amounted, on average, to $13,812 per employee, yielding an annual net savings of $4312 per certified employee.

A 1995 survey by Southern Illinois University and Applied Research Consultants also found disparities between certified and noncertified employees' performance. The survey asked supervisors to rate certified and noncertified employees in five categories: information systems planning, information systems maintenance, software support and consultation, network administration, and hardware installation and maintenance. Supervisors rated 70 percent of Microsoft-certified systems engineers as having advanced to expert capabilities in every category except hardware installation and maintenance. Only approximately 45 percent of noncertified personnel received the advanced or expert rating. The study concluded that the MCP program effectively selects professionals with high-level competencies in most of the tasks systems engineers perform.

BENEFIT #3
Better Consulting Jobs
Certification is particularly important to firms providing contract and consulting services to other companies. "For contractors and those selling services, it's much easier to place certified people than noncertified people," Martin said. Certification is a metric that a contractor can show its customers. "Companies use consultants so that they don't have to go through the hiring process. Firms that hire contractors like having confidence that the person they are hiring has some Microsoft approval."

Through the Solution Provider program, Microsoft provides a form of accreditation to companies that deploy Microsoft technology. To become a Solution Provider, a company must have at least two MCPs on staff. (An individual becomes an MCP by passing an exam on an operating system, such as Windows NT Workstation, NT Server, or Windows 95.) Solution Providers must go through the recertification process every year.

"Any company that lacks certification doesn't have the credibility to do large-scale deployments," Erwin said. His firm, CompuCom, provides services for large businesses operating nationwide. "If you do not have certification in your engineering workforce, you cannot credibly go after and capture large-scale business."

BENEFIT #4
Reduced Turnover
Of course, certification benefits both employers and their employees. Some companies include certification in their training programs because they have found that earning professional certification helps keep employees satisfied with their work. Employee satisfaction, in turn, reduces costs associated with a high rate of employee turnover.

"Education and training on new products and new technologies is everything," Mockler said. "Training is the number one thing that keeps technology employees happy. Certification is an extension of training. Generally, people like to put on their business cards or résumés that they are certified on Microsoft products or other technology."

Many engineers and technicians appreciate companies that are willing to invest in them. Additionally, companies that invest in employee certification usually deploy more complex and interesting systems, so their engineers are more challenged and more satisfied.

"We spend a tremendous amount of money on training. It's a corporate philosophy that we invest highly in engineers," Erwin said. "Certifications are tangible goals and training targets for individual engineers to measure their personal growth. That aids in our retention."

BENEFIT #5
Increased Compensation
Not only do certified employees tend to be happier with their jobs, but they tend to make more money. How much can administrators who become certified expect their salaries to increase? "I tell people $5000 to $12,000 per year," Martin said. "You're not going to suddenly make $75,000 if you were making $25,000, but if you make $35,000, you'll probably make $40,000. These numbers may even be low."

The IDC study found that certified employees earn an average of 11.7 percent more than noncertified professionals. A January 1997 survey by Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine, a publication about Microsoft certification, found that MCSEs earn an average of $70,700 per year; MCSDs earn an average of $76,400 annually; and Certified Product Specialists earn an average of $54,100 per year.

Many firms take certification seriously and offer financial incentives for certification. "We give bonuses to reward engineers who get certified," Erwin said. Some types of certification may even move employees to a new position or salary, particularly if the certification is related to the company's business goals and objectives. "I would promote an employee who became an MCSE and give that employee a significant bonus," Erwin said.

Certification won't guarantee you a higher-paying job as a technician. "We haven't seen people saying they will pay $60,000 for noncertified and $65,000 for certified people," Mockler said. "Perhaps in the future, as certification becomes more popular, that will change."

Increasing numbers of IS professionals are earning their certifications. From August 1996 to August 1997, the number of MCSEs increased from 11,100 to 25,756 (a 132 percent gain). MCSDs increased from 2200 to 5056 (a 130 percent gain). But the increase in companies' demand for certified professionals outpaces the increased supply. Microsoft estimates that the demand for certified employees will continue to outstrip the supply three to one for the foreseeable future.

Martin observed, "Certification says something about a person. It says this person has initiative, focus, and intensity. It either says the person has intelligence and certification was easy, or certification was hard and the person worked for it." Apparently, employers agree.