The next five years of IT certification
Posted on
March 23, 2020

This feature first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Tech writer Aaron Axline jumps five years into the future of IT certification.

What do you see yourself doing five years from now? It's a question commonly asked at job interviews (and on more than a few first dates). The point is to get candidates to peer into the future and make an educated guess at how they think their career trajectories will develop, based on how their personal and professional lives are trending.

IT professionals ask a version of this question when trying to predict the future of their chosen industry. It isn't easy to chart the course of modern technology — the only constant in IT is its constant state of change. But tech workers must monitor the evolution of technology with a close eye, so they can adapt their skills and knowledge to stay employed in an industry known for its volatility and unpredictability.

The people who manage IT training and certification programs must also constantly assess the present state of the tech industry, and attempt to predict which skills and disciplines will be the top priorities in the near future so they can develop the next wave of IT certifications.

But there is a larger question hidden behind all of the commonplace certification program activity: What is going to happen to IT certification itself over the next five years?

Will it remain an ongoing series of training material revisions and exam updates? Will employers continue to place the same value on IT certification as they do now? What current certification programs could wane in popularity over the next five years, and what are the potential top industry credentials of 2024?

Role-based certifications

In recent months, industry giants Microsoft and Cisco have made sweeping changes to their training and certification programs, revising their credentials around job roles rather than individual technologies. Both companies say these changes were driven by IT employers who want to see a more focused relationship between certifications and the job role(s) they are relevant for.

Microsoft and Cisco both recognize that the value of a given IT certification is largely determined by the industry recognition it receives. While the needs and desires of certification candidates are certainly part of the equation, feedback from IT employers is clearly the greater influence.

This situation is not likely to change over the next five years. IT certifications will continue to be rated by their value to industry employers, which translates to monetary status and job market importance.

Some thought should be given, of course, as to what the IT job market of 2024 will look like. Which job roles will maintain their current statuses over the next five years? And which roles could decline based on the growing trend of automation and the resultant worker surplus?

Automatic vs. manual

Tech writer Aaron Axline jumps five years into the future of IT certification.

Nearly every industry in North America (and elsewhere) is going to be affected by automation over the next five years. Robots continue to grow in capability while becoming cheaper to manufacture. Sophisticated algorithms and self-learning AIs will be used to perform the work normally given to analysts, researchers, and other middle industry knowledge workers.

Some observers have adopted a more positive tone concerning job automation, stating that jobs won't disappear, but be redefined to maintain a human worker element. This reasoning raises an interesting scenario, one that's linked to the trend toward earlier technology exposure and education for K-through-12 students.

It's probable that the average age of a candidate earning his or her first IT certification has dropped in recent years. A large number of American middle and high schools are using initiatives funded by municipal and state governments to incorporate IT certification training directly into their curricula.

It's already not uncommon, and is rapidly becoming less so, for high school students to graduate with both a diploma and IT certification or three. CompTIA's A+ credential, the Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) certification, and Cisco's CCNA series (soon to revert back to its former status as a single credential) are popping up with increasing frequency on the resumes of teenagers.

This youthful workforce could potentially fit well into those redefined IT industry jobs where automated systems requiring less intervention and simpler oversight remove the need for expert-level workers. Such jobs would indeed be redefined — as entry-level positions requiring a high school diploma and one or two IT certifications.

Yes, there will still be higher-level IT job roles in 2024, and while these jobs will also be touched by automation in some way, these roles will still need the relevant knowledge and skills taught in colleges and universities. Experienced IT professionals, albeit fewer of them, will still have a place at the table.

But what about the next wave of expert U.S. tech workers to emerge from colleges and universities? There is increasing evidence to suggest that they may soon be overqualified for the jobs that, until recently, would have provided their introduction to the global IT workforce.

School is out

Tech writer Aaron Axline jumps five years into the future of IT certification.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a multinational association dedicated to creating policies for driving economic prosperity while also addressing social and environmental challenges. One of the metrics tracked by the OECD is the percentage of people in specific age groups who have completed some form of postsecondary education: college, university, technical schools, and so on.

Here is a list of the top 10 countries with the greatest percentage of people between the ages of 25 and 34 who have achieved some form of two-year degree (e.g. a U.S. associate's degree or equivalent). This list is based on OECD data from 2014:

1) South Korea
2) Japan
3) Canada
4) Russia
5) Lithuania
6) Ireland
7) Luxembourg
8) Switzerland
9) United Kingdom
10) Australia

The United States is conspicuous by its absence — though it in fact appears at No. 12, between Norway and Israel. If you change the data to show the countries with the highest percentage of people between the ages of 25 and 34 who have earned a four-year bachelor's degree or the equivalent, then the Unites States drops even further down the list, to No. 18. Narrow the scope to graduate degrees, such as a master's or doctorate, and the United States doesn't appear until No. 26.

The OECD data makes it clear that the United States is falling behind other nations when it comes to postsecondary education among that key 25-to-34 age group, a demographic responsible for the next generation of working professionals. What does this suggest about the nature of IT certification and its relationship with the IT job market over the next five years?

Domestically speaking, we should expect IT certification to gain in popularity with both workers and employers over the next five years. Candidates will increasingly favor certification over more expensive and time-consuming university and college degree programs. Consequently, tech employers will need to give more consideration to IT certifications as viable qualifications, as the number of young adults earning college and university degrees continues to wane.

Historically speaking, a Bachelor of Science degree was the de facto employment requirement for a career in IT. This idea has weakened in recent years, and will continue to be reconsidered as the industry advances toward 2024.

America's postsecondary education shortage could also potentially impact another program linked to the IT industry: the H1-B employment visa program used by U.S. companies to hire skilled foreign workers for select positions.

H1-B workers must have a minimum of a four-year bachelor's degree (or equivalent experience). According to the OECD data, almost 20 other countries are awarding more four-year degrees than the United States. This could lead IT employers to lobby the federal government for new increases to the number of H1-B visas being granted, to make up for the shortage of U.S. workers with a university or college degree.

That being the case, how will IT certification program managers tailor their programs to appeal to a fresh wave of potential IT workers? And, no, the answer shouldn't be A, B, C, or D.

Information test: You vs. your phone

Tech writer Aaron Axline jumps five years into the future of IT certification.

People in the modern world have outsourced the job of remembering information to the virtual realm. It is no longer uncommon for people to have all of the info relevant to their lives saved on their smartphones. The act of remembering a fact now has more to do with our fingers than our brains.

This development has had a heavy impact on traditional methods of education, and the rote learning model in particular. Rote learning is learning through repetition: repeating a piece of information over and over until it gets stuck in your mind, like doing multiple trips through a deck of flash cards to learn the periodic table of elements, or the sections of human anatomy.

Rote learning is firmly tied to standardized testing, an exam format introduced to American education in the 1800s. The classic version of standardized testing is the multiple-choice exam, in which candidates are presented with a question and a number of answers from which they must select the correct one.

The majority of IT certification programs employ a version of standardized testing. It's true that program managers have introduced minor innovations in an attempt to make exams seem less standardized. The use of drag-and-drop questions, questions that require problem solving or computations, and even simulation questions where candidates perform tasks in a simulated environment, has grown in popularity.

But multiple-choice questions requiring the recall of names, facts, or terminology still make up a large portion of modern certification exams. Again, this is the same type of recall most people have turned over to their smartphones.

Which brings us to a burgeoning argument regarding standardized testing, technology, and the IT industry. The argument goes like this:

I would have passed that exam if I'd had my phone with me.

Perhaps, but you won't be able to use your phone to help you solve problems when you're on the job.

Umm ... what? Really?

Well, you could use your phone to help you, but your employer will demand you respond faster than using your phone will allow.

And, that's the current stopping point. The amount of time needed to look up the answer to a problem on a mobile device is not as fast as having the answer memorized.

But what if the interface between our minds and our devices were to speed up? What if devices continue to shrink in size while growing in computing power? What if the question/ answer interval between our devices and our minds becomes indistinguishable from current internal brain inquiries?

The point is that mobile technology has irrevocably changed the way we manage information in our personal and professional lives. Rote learning and standardized testing are ancient tools that need to be put in a museum where they belong. IT certification vendors and industry employers will have to adapt to a growing number of young adults who reject the notion that they must memorize information in order to be considered skilled.

The argument You're not allowed to use your phone is not going to hold up to the scrutiny of future waves of IT employees.

Brave new world

Tech writer Aaron Axline jumps five years into the future of IT certification.

The next five years will see IT certification take on new importance at every level of the tech industry, from entry-level to expert. Some job roles will lessen in importance, or will be redefined by automation into new starting positions for high school grads. Fewer university and college graduates will place greater attention and value on mid-to-high level certification programs.

Certification vendors and employers, on the other hand will have to accept that the recall of information is no longer tied to rote lessons or memorization, but is now a chore for our personal technology.

Technology is the most volatile industry on the planet — it will be interesting to see how it (and its related certification programs) change as we move into the year 2020 and beyond.

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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