Certification Issues: Some Thoughts
Certification Issues: A Shattered Industry?   

By Ben Ice

In today's tough IT job market, it is popular to bash certifications. IT workers and career changers have been shelled with multimedia bombardments that woo the unsuspecting with promises of dream jobs and big paychecks. Many have been left with extensive debt and little hope of employment. Others are mired in thankless entry-level jobs that bear little resemblance to the land of milk and honey they were promised. So it isn't hard to understand the daily rants on forums all across the Internet. If they could set fire to the Imperial Microsoft Palace, we'd almost certainly see a French Revolution style revolt with Steve Balmer and Bill Gates being led by an unruly crowd of techies to the guillotine.

In pre-Y2K years the news was full of dire warnings that we didn't have enough skilled labor to fill a tech market booming from the explosion of dotcoms. US Congress passed a bill raising the number of H1B applicants to provide struggling companies with skilled workers. Experienced techies were suddenly commanding premium dollars. Even college grads were being heavily recruited, with perks like signing bonuses, clothing allowances, company cars and more.

Fast forward to the current state of affairs. High rolling marketing machines promising gold at the end of the tech rainbow are failing, often leaving unpaid workers and fleeced students. Companies at all ends of the training spectrum are falling like snowflakes, melting from the heat of over a half million IT jobs that have disappeared since 2001.

In a recent series on the state of training, MCP Magazine addressed the darker side of the downturn. In his report, "What's Happening with Training Companies?" senior editor Keith Ward uncovers "an extreme example" of what has been happening in the training industry. Many training companies and "bootcamp" style organizations are shriveling up and, in the case of the company at the heart of MCP Magazines story, Global Training Solutions (GTS), leaving instructors and students alike in a lurch.

GTS may be at the extreme end of things, but their story underlies a larger trend, according to the article. Other companies cited, including Ottawa Canada-based Xintra Computer College, Unisoft School of Technology and Computer Learning Center, were just a few of the victims of economic fallout from reduced hiring.

In eWEEK, Jeff Moad digs into the psyche of certifications. In the article he states "the list of what's hot and what's not changes about as fast as teen-age fashions." And therein lies a fundamental issue in the faltering training industry. Clever marketers are quick to jump from one certification bandwagon to another. Not long ago it was Cisco. Then Linux. And although Linux is still hot, it is overshadowed by the deluge of security certifications inundating the unsuspecting. Often these companies have to resort to freebies like "exotic" vacations and "buy now pay later" financing to entice shell-shocked IT workers into coughing up for training that may or may not help them nail down a good job.

These market forces also feed a thriving black market for training materials and test preparation. New web sites like Transimulator (an obvious knock-off of the popular Transcender products,) brain dumps and sites selling pirated materials have oozed out of the woodwork like so many cockroaches. Like their insectoid counterparts, these sites get stomped out by Microsoft and CompTIA only to emerge from another hole. Jaded IT workers, many struggling to find work of any kind, find it difficult to justify spending thousands of dollars when the pirates booty of cheap, purloined training plays to a worn and frazzled pocketbook. Even the threat of losing certification if caught using braindumps and pirated materials carries little weight.

To borrow a well-worn phrase, "It is always darkest before the dawn." According to industry analysts, hope may be in sight for beleaguered IT workers.

In a recent IDC (International Data Corp.) survey, 85% of companies interviewed said they would either increase or maintain current spending levels for IT. In a press release dated February 25th this year, IDC said "The study, based on a survey of nearly 1000 CEOs and CIOs in 12 countries, indicates that many organizations will re-evaluate their IT spending plans on a constant basis throughout the year, with improvements in business confidence likely to translate into a solid recovery for IT suppliers." It goes on to say that external factors (such as a prolonged conflict in Iraq) can still negatively affect a rebound.

More positive light was shed in a recent article from Business 2.0 titled "2003 Employment Outlook - What Are You Worth?" that says even though jobs have been lost, real income has actually risen in many sectors. It goes on to list the fastest growing job categories through 2010 as "Software application engineers (7.2% a year through 2010), Computer support specialists (7.0%), Software systems engineers (6.6%) and Systems administrators (6.2%)."

If anything, IT workers should focus on their "soft skills" in addition to pursuing specific certifications that fit their long-term employment goals. Written and oral communications, public speaking and leadership skills can be play critical roles in establishing credentials that stand out above the crowd. Proficiencies in desktop application skills should not be overlooked either. It is often the little details that make or break a candidate's chances for a good job.

So take heart. Most of the bad news in IT looks to have run its course. Don't chase after certifications that don't meet your objectives, and shop carefully for your training and certification needs. Practice your skills whenever and wherever you can. And most of all remain persistent. Good things come to those who don't wait around for their ship to come in. They meet it at sea.