Is certification keeping pace with changes in technology and education?
Posted on
March 12, 2018

This feature first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

The world is changing fast. Does the certification world still offer a viable path to professional education and development?

To maintain a career in IT, you must constantly acquire new skills and knowledge as you progress. All successful techies understand that being a lifelong learner is a top qualification for any IT-related job posting, whether it is listed or not.

Over the last two decades, IT training and certification programs from vendors and industry associations have played a key role in the ongoing education of tech workers. IT certifications have also been associated with greater employability, career advancement, and increased compensation.

As we march boldly into 2018, it’s a good time to take a close look at the current state of IT certifications. Are they still as useful and impactful as they’ve been in recent years?

Schoolhouse certification

Harry is an elementary school student who is learning how to code. Perhaps he thinks this skill may one day make him successful in the working world, but he is currently more concerned with reaching higher levels in Minecraft, one of the world’s most popular video games. “That’s really my goal this year,” he says.

This anecdote, which originated in a story by TEACH magazine, is not unique or uncommon. Children are being taught coding and other technology skills at a remarkably early age. This fast start influences the timing of other tech-related education, helping kids to learn advanced tech skills much sooner than in previous generations.

Students as young as 13 can compete in the annual Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) World Championship, a global competition that offers challengers a timed exam testing advanced skills and knowledge of Word, Excel, or PowerPoint. The participants have all earned one or more MOS certifications as part of qualifying for the main event.

In high schools across the country, students are taking classes designed to help them earn CompTIA’s A+ certification for computer technicians before they graduate. CompTIA’s Network+ and Security+ are also popular certifications with high schoolers; they are viewed as a doorway to an entry-level job after graduation.

Other high school students work towards getting a Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) certification, which is awarded to candidates who pass an eligible Microsoft exam. Earning an MTA can also provide a student college credits from certain schools, thanks to a partnership between Microsoft and the American Council on Education.

These examples do not mean certification programs have been dumbed down to make them more accessible to young people. Rather, modern students are raising themselves up to meet the challenge of these programs — something made possible by the new emphasis on early technology education for young children.

This trend does indicate, however, that entry-level IT certifications have lost ground to traditional K-12 education, as the growing number of grade school students earning certifications represents a potential issue of reputation and credibility for these entry-level credentials.

Part of the value of an IT certification is how it is perceived by employers in the industry. If certifications such as A+ and MTA start being viewed by hiring managers and department supervisors as basic add-ons to high school diplomas, this will impact the perceived value of these credentials, particularly for older adults looking to enter the IT industry.

The world is changing fast. Does the certification world still offer a viable path to professional education and development?

Have colleges upped their tech-ed options?

Historically, one advantage IT certification has had over traditional college programs is how many different disciplines and specializations it makes available to candidates. Colleges have offered Bachelor of Science degrees for ages, and computer science was slowly folded into such degree programs as it became more relevant over time. These programs, however, initially couldn’t offer the same variety and granularity of subjects found in the realm of IT certification.

This is no longer the case. The number of colleges offering highly-specific IT degree programs has bloomed over the last two decades. Here are some of the modern degrees students can now earn:

  • Bachelor of Technology in Computer Science and Engineering
  • Bachelor of Computer Security in Computer Science
  • Bachelor of Information Technology
  • Master of Science in Information Technology

The majority of these degree programs are highly configurable in their areas of primary focus. Students can choose to concentrate their studies in any number of IT disciplines, like network design, software development, internet technology, mobile web and app design, and so on.

In addition, many colleges are offering these programs entirely online through distance education initiatives. This is an attractive option for students who live in remote areas and are unable to move away, or who have issues with mobility or social anxiety.

Colleges and universities have greatly improved their IT education options, making them much more competitive in comparison to the IT training and certification programs offered by product vendors and professional associations.

IT certifications do, however, still hold some advantages over college degrees. IT training and certification is generally much more affordable than a two-year or four-year college degree program. Certification programs offer more flexibility in how candidates can do their training and prepare for the related exam. Certification students can choose from classroom-based training, self-paced materials, online distance learning, or any combination of these options.

Additionally, product vendors and professional associations can usually be much more agile and responsive than colleges when it comes to updating curriculum and exams with the latest information on evolving technologies. And any IT professional with the requisite knowledge or relevant work experience can simply take an exam and get a certification. That’s an option that more or less doesn’t exist in the world of college degrees.

So, while colleges have come a long way in modernizing their computing science degree programs, IT certifications have maintained a number of advantages for students to consider.

What’s a certification worth to you?

A lot of ink has been spilled in the media on the value of IT industry certifications. It is a hotly debated topic, with people on both sides passionately convinced their perception of what IT certifications are worth is correct.

Every certification and degree has one thing in common: They are statements of intent, made by people who have chosen a career path and are acting on their own behalf to advance down that path.

Career advancement can be done honestly or dishonestly. The same goes for college degrees and IT certifications. They can be achieved with integrity and through honest effort, or they can be cheated through and attained in a shoddy, fraudulent manner.

Any experienced HR person or IT department manager will treat a certification on a candidate’s resume as a mark of potential competency. A certification on its own does not guarantee a candidate is well-trained and a good hire. It does indicate, however, that the candidate has chosen an industry they want to work in, and that they have reinforced their decision by spending the necessary time, energy, and money to earn a relevant certification.

The monetary value of certification is continually proven and reinforced by industry studies and salary surveys. There is a consistent theme in these studies — IT professionals who hold one or more certifications agree that:

  • There is greater demand for their skills.
  • Getting certified increased their problem-solving abilities.
  • Their certification(s) contributed to being hired by an employer.
  • Being certified has increased their earning potential.

It’s fairly obvious that IT certifications have not lost ground when it comes to their industry value. If anything, certifications have gained a more positive reputation in the industry because they are not overexaggerated in value, as they were during the years of the dot-com boom.

The next phase of IT certification

Major certification vendors like Microsoft, Cisco, and Oracle have maintained the industry status of their programs through aggressive advocacy with their partners and associates. Industry associations like CompTIA, ISACA, PMI, and EC-Council also use strong advocacy strategies, the difference being that these groups aren’t linked to sales of specific IT hardware and software products.

IT certification isn’t going to fade away any time soon. But, these organizations will need to consider the growing impact of early technology education in traditional K-12 schools, and the improved IT programs available through colleges and universities. These growing trends will continue to take mind share (and market share) away from established certification programs.

A more pressing issue for certification vendors is looming: the waning value of traditional testing methods such as multiple-choice exams.

The mobile computing revolution has forever changed the perceived value of memorizing facts and figures. Everyone has a computer in their pocket that can pull up a ridiculous amount of information in a matter of seconds. The performance of virtual assistants from Google, Microsoft, and Amazon will improve with each iteration, and every year’s crop of new graduates will be less concerned with having information permanently stored in their minds.

Many certification vendors still rely primarily on traditional multiple-choice exams to test candidates. Other vendors have tried to address this issue by adding performance-based questions, or by making their exams so esoterically complex that they are sometimes indecipherable — Microsoft is a notorious culprit for this latter practice.

Every workplace is currently dealing with the impact of the growing sophistication of personal technology. The Internet of Things (IoT) has made nearly every mundane object a potential data leak. Full HD cameras are currently concealed in eyeglass frames and watches. It won’t be long before this technology is completely undetectable.

The world is changing fast. Does the certification world still offer a viable path to professional education and development?

For IT certification to remain relevant, it will have to adapt to accommodate the rapidly evolving workforce. Today’s young graduates demand to have speedy access to information at all times; in the future, the technology providing this access will be invisible.

Finally, there is the incoming automation of jobs previously thought to be the sole domain of workers. Will a certification in network administration be relevant in a future where that function is performed by an AI or other type of learning machine?

It may be that when the industry reaches that point, the entire structure of information technology education — including IT training and certification — will undergo a dramatic sea change.

For now, IT certifications remain highly relevant, visible, and valued in the industry. With some foresight and skillful management, certification vendors and industry associations can continue to keep their programs from losing ground in the overall arena of technology education.

About the Author

Aaron Axline is a technology journalist and copywriter based in Edmonton, Canada. He can be found on LinkedIn, and anywhere fine coffee is served.

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