Dear CertMag: Should I hire a high school student with a certification?
Posted on
January 31, 2015
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 Dear CertMag is a regular feature that addresses common questions about certification and related IT issues. Have a question? Send an e-mail to editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

Are high school students ready to handle full-time IT jobs?

Dear CertMag: I operate a small computer sales/resale/repair business. I have two stores and we're hoping to open a third location at the end of 2015. I've started to see a lot of high school student kids who have, by my lights, some fairly impressive certs. A+, Security+, CCNA R&S and so forth. Are high school certification programs legit? I'd love to get some of these kids as part-time or even full-time employees, but I'm a little leery. Can high school kids actually grasp this stuff well enough to work in a real-world everyday IT operation?

— Cal, Carmel, Ind.

CertMag responds:

The challenge presented by a high school student with a certifications is the same presented to employers daily in considering certifications: The candidates may be all over the map with their capability compared to the certification. Most high schools that are implementing certification programs are augmenting computer science departments or “computer literacy” programs with the curriculum that is available from trusted vendors and institutions.

When you think about the time spent on the product in the context of a high school, it could be that the students actually get more time than an adult who attends a standard certification program. Over the course of a semester, a “one period” class could include as much as 70 hours or more of curriculum exposure to the product.

My own high school experience included a network operations program at the local vocational high school, three hours a day, for an entire school year. While the MCP and CCNA certifications were not an official part of the curriculum, we used the Cisco Academy material of the time, using the same workbooks, guidance, videos and other material that adults in the industry would have paid considerably more for.

Further, the school district could plan to have a large number of students using the same lab equipment. They offered two sessions a day, and could plan on hardware lifecycles of five years. They could educate 20 (class size) x 2 (sessions a day) x 5 (years before hardware refresh) students on the back of investing in a handful of Cisco routers, some network cables and tools, added to computers that would have been part of the classroom anyway!

The other side of the coin when it comes to student development is that the potential, capability, attention, and all of the other attributes of the candidates can vary widely. Even students who complete a high school program successfully, with a strong passing score, may lack critical skill sets for some of the needs that an employer may have.

I myself went on to work in a NASDAQ-listed company out of high school, some classmates went to college, and others never worked a computer-related job in their lives. I struggled in that first job for the same reason that you may want to use some rigor in selecting your candidates: I had technical skills that were not yet matched by the social development and soft skills to be effective interacting with customers, as well as a spectrum of older technologists with a diversity of points of view and personalities.

I would advise caution in making a hire. If the person has the right skills, don’t exclude them on the basis of their youth automatically — as I have shared, I owe a lot to my first employer for taking me on full-time and looking past my youth to give me an opportunity to prove myself as being every bit as skilled as they expected. Rather, spend longer with your candidate in an interview. Present them with conversations, and pretend to be a customer. Are they able to work well with someone who is treating them badly? How do they communicate? Can they provide character references to be trusted with access to expensive parts and equipment?

As with any hiring decision: If they fit your needs, hire them. If they do not, go on to the next candidate. My personal view, however, would be to not simply drop someone from the candidate pool because of his relative youth, or the environment of her training.

About the Author

Wayne Anderson (@NoCo_Architect) is a Service Management Architect with Avanade, a company that helps customers realize results in a digital world through business technology solutions and managed services that combine insight, innovation and expertise focused on Microsoft® technologies. He holds the Certified IT Architect – Professional credential from IASA and has completed more than 30 Microsoft certifications in his career alongside credentials from CompTIA and other industry vendors.

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