This feature first appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
From the mid-1990s onward, the question of whether achieving an IT certification increases one's earning power has been debated by nearly everyone involved in the IT industry — or so it would seem, given the vast amount of online content which has been devoted to this question over the last two decades.
Clearly a great many people want to know whether there is a positive relationship between certifications and annual income, and if so, then what the true value of that connection actually is. This subject — the link between IT certification and salaries — has been a divisive topic in the IT industry for more than 20 years.
Let's look back at the origins of this financial foofaraw. To start, we need to leap backward in time to the dot-com boom and look at how it impacted IT jobs and job markets.
In the 1990s, the explosive growth of the internet fueled the boundless financial optimism that ignited the dot-com boom, leading to a period of intense activity in the IT industry that ended in a fiery crash when the dotcom bubble� burst and the industry collapsed back into a kind of equilibrium.
The dot-com boom was a latter-day version of the California Gold Rush for anyone seeking to make a fortune, or at least feather the nest. A record number of internet start-up companies were able to coax significant amounts of investment capital from various sources. In response, many traditional IT industry giants ramped up their operations for fear of appearing out of touch and uncompetitive.
All of this activity put a spotlight on the IT industry job market. The media regularly reported that there were growing IT worker shortages across the country. In some areas of the United States, breathless news outlets trumpeted that the amount of unfilled IT-related jobs outnumbered qualified candidates 10-to-one.
In a few short years, the demand for knowledgeable workers caused IT certification to grow from an existence on the margins of career development into a highly-publicized surefire employment strategy. The dot-com hiring binge inspired thousands of job seekers with no IT background or related college degree to pursue high-profile certifications from vendors and industry associations such as Microsoft, Novell, CompTIA, Cisco, and others.
It didn't take training centers long to realize the potential business gains to be made from the growing demand for IT education. Training programs for computer technicians and network administrators sprang up in every corner of the country.
Many of these schools communicated realistic expectations when marketing their programs, particularly when discussing potential income targets upon completion. Less scrupulous training centers, however, overhyped the rewards, selling training packages to starry-eyed candidates with stories of graduates who were making six-figure salaries working for hotshot internet companies.
During these years, the IT certification hype grew to outrageous levels. At the peak of the dot-com boom, you could find online and print advertisements depicting nerdy looking guys sitting in Ferraris with beautiful women staring dreamily at them from the passenger's seat. These ads, often used to sell shady exam preparation products, also sold the promise that IT certification was the winning ticket to a rich and glamorous life.
The period of the dot-com boom — and subsequent bust — offers many valuable lessons, including one of the classic lessons of supply and demand. During the boom, rapid expansion of internet businesses created a swollen job market, which resulted in rapid growth of the monetary value of IT certifications.
A similar situation developed during the previously mentioned California Gold Rush. Small, quiet towns on the West Coast became bustling cities nearly overnight, creating a great need for workers willing to do the jobs required to support the newly expanded population. For every prospector who came west looking for gold, there were a dozen people who came looking for work.
So, returning to our initial question of whether IT certification increases your earning power, the answer during the dot-com boom was a qualified but accurate Yes. What gets lost in this simple answer is understanding the full sum of circumstances which led to it being true.
A personal story
In 1998, the question of whether IT certification leads to increased earning power became a very personal question for me: I had decided to leave my job in retail management and try to launch a new career in the IT industry. I had some intermediate computer know-how when I made this decision, but I didn't have any IT job experience.
I could not afford to jump into a four-year degree program at a college or university. I could (and did), on the other hand, manage to borrow enough money to take a year's worth of courses from a local training center. This training would culminate in my receiving both a CompTIA A+ certification and Microsoft's MCSE for Windows NT 4.0 credential.
I chose the IT industry for my career move because I wanted to work in a field I was interested in, and which I thought would result in higher earnings than what I had access to in retail. This was, as described above, during the period when IT worker shortages were repeatedly featured in popular media.
After I earned my A+ and MCSE certifications, the only work I was able to find in my hometown was doing contract desktop and network support for a friend who owned a consulting business. And while I did make more money per hour than I had in retail, I was only able to get part-time hours. At the same time, however, I was gaining critical on-the-job experience to build up my résumé.
In 2001, I bumped into one of my former IT training center instructors. He asked me how I was doing, and when I told him about my situation, he had me follow him to an office in the building where we'd met and introduced me to his new boss (at a dot-com company, no less). A day later, I started working at the dot-com for a salary higher than anything I had ever earned before.
Did IT certification increase my earning power? Absolutely. But again, the story of my certifications leading to career success is not a straight line connecting certs and salary. Just like then, today's relationship between certifications and earnings is more complex than many modern information sources tend to represent.
Which conveniently brings us back to the present day and a look at salary surveys, employment sites, and a possible final answer to the question about IT certifications and compensation.
Survey says ... ?
Just as it was for me back in the late 1990s, the question of what impact IT certifications have on earning power is highly relevant for job seekers who are thinking of investing the time, effort, and money required to earn an industry credential.
This deliberation is one factor behind the popularity of annual IT job salary surveys like the one you can read about in this very issue of Certification Magazine. These surveys offer comparative values for different IT certifications in terms of their related industry job roles and the salaries connected to them.
Salary surveys that compare education to earnings have been around for decades and are not unique to the IT industry. Colleges and universities commonly use salary survey results to sell potential students on the idea that completing a degree program will enhance their earning potential upon graduation.
The popularity of salary surveys reflects the average person's desire for a logical progression from effort to reward. Most people want to believe they will gain immediate financial rewards for successfully completing an education program.
There are other personal gains related to education, of course, but our culture rather aggressively promotes the idea that the better educated you become, the more money you can (and should) make.
As we described earlier in this article, however, the relationship between certifications and increased earning power is not a straight line. Anyone with any type of work experience would likely admit there is no single factor that triggers a raise in salary. There are typically a number of influences that contribute to an increase in earnings.
Salary surveys are useful for identifying IT job roles which garner higher salaries than others. These surveys are also helpful in that they often contain information on certifications that have yet to become mainstream, but which have attained a respectable level of industry status.
If you really want to geek out on employment statistics, I recommend the U.S. government's Bureau of Labor Statistics website in general and this page in particular, which lists employment figures and wage estimates for more than 800 occupations. Don't blame me if you dive in so deep that your eyes glaze over like a pair of donut holes.
My final answer
Does IT certification lead to higher earnings? This question remains open to debate, and likely will be debated for as long as certifications and the IT industry continue to coexist.
The roots of this ongoing conflict can be found in our desire for simple yes/no answers to complex questions. My own anecdotal evidence proved (to me, at least) that earning an IT certification can lead to increased income.
What the dot-com boom and my personal experience during that time suggest is that the monetary value of any education is heavily influenced by the global economy, the growth state of certain industries, and the financial cycles which control job markets from the municipal level on up.
The mistake most commonly made when judging the financial value of IT certification is when people, influenced by their own personal biases, either overvalue tech credentials or undervalue tech credentials. Certifications are not winning job lotto tickets, nor are they the IT industry's version of junk bonds.
IT certification should always be the end result of a learning process. And just like any professional credential, an IT certification should be recognized as validation of a person's knowledge and skills. This recognition can definitely influence one's earning power.
Does IT certification lead to higher earnings? It certainly can.