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Certifications lose star power, still help at bonus time

Certifications can help IT professionals differentiate themselves in this tight job market, but they shouldn't expect too much bang for their buck, experts say.

With the IT sector coming out of another bad year and companies faced with tight budgets and layoffs, certifications can help IT professionals differentiate themselves in this tight job market. But they shouldn't expect too much bang for their buck.

Certification's ROI

Even with salaries down and budgets tight, certification still has maintained its return on investment.

According to Tim Sosby, editor of Certification Magazine, the average cost for the most popular certifications is $1,100.

At that price, most certifications pay for themselves in the first year. Here are some of the most common certifications and the average first-year raise they gain.

  • Novell -- CNE

  • Microsoft -- MCSE

  • Cisco -- CCDP

  • Cisco -- CCNP

  • Oracle -- DBA OCP

  • Cisco -- CCNA

  • Citrix -- CCA

  • Microsoft -- MCP

  • Prosoft -- CIW

  • CompTIA -- A+

    Source: Certification Magazine

  • Monetary rewards for IT professionals with certifications are down, said David Foote, president of Foote Partners LLC, a New Canaan, Conn., research firm that specializes in tracking certifications.

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    That should not be surprising, he said. Salaries for those with certifications tend to be tied to the economy as a whole and to the success of specific vendors; the more routers and switches Cisco Systems sells, the more Cisco-certified professionals will be required to install and maintain that infrastructure. Right now, sales of networking infrastructure are stagnant, as are salaries.

    Foote's research has found that, as a percentage of salary, bonuses for those with network-related certifications are down about 6% compared with last year. Cisco certifications have been hit the hardest, with some of them down as much as 18% compared with last year.

    That might sound like bad news, but Foote said the thing to remember is that those people are still receiving bonuses. And he says they are doing better than those without certifications. While on average, certified people lost 6% on their bonuses as a percentage of base pay, those who simply had the skill but no certification lost 17% compared with last year.

    Foote said that many IT professionals are beginning to obtain more certifications in a broader range of technology areas. Many people today have three or four certifications. This approach can be very useful because many larger companies no longer have single-vendor infrastructures. These companies are looking for people that can work with products from Microsoft as well as those from Cisco, Novell and other vendors.

    Becky Nagel, editor of, an Irvine, Calif.-based online publication that tracks certification, said that many people with Microsoft certifications are beginning to branch out and gain a Linux or Unix certification.

    But not every employer will be sold on certification, and certification without experience is not of much value. Leo Judge, director of MIS for The Money Station, an Indianapolis mortgage lender, said that he is much more concerned with a candidate's experience than he is with the candidate's certifications. Real-world experience for him holds more value than a piece of paper. But a combination of the two is best. Judge himself has a number of certifications.

    The one certification that is bucking the trend is security. Following September 11, companies became serious about security, and there are not nearly enough people in the market with the expertise to do the job. Salaries are up, and so are bonuses for experienced and certified security professionals. Foote said that IT security is likely to remain a hot field through the first half of 2004.

    But before everyone runs out to get their security certifications, Foote warned that security is not something that anyone can pick up overnight. And just showing up with a certification and no experience, regardless of the field, will not land anyone a job.

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