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Pick a popular entry-level IT certification, I don’t care which one: MCP (Microsoft single-exam credential, Microsoft Certified Professional), any major CompTIA cert (A+, Network+, Security+,…), CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate), and so forth. For each of these items, and others I don’t mention as well, I often find myself involved in answering questions that might be summarized as “Let’s assume I earn the . What kind of job will that get me?”
Before I respond to this question, let me make some observations about IT jobs in the civilized world:
1. Right now, it’s an employer’s market. That means employers currently enjoy the upper hand over prospective job candidates, in the sense that there are more candidates looking for jobs, than there are jobs looking for candidates. This goes double for entry-level jobs.
2. IT Certification, especially at the entry level, has become a “checkbox item” for individuals, rather than a “differentiator.” In simpler language, this means employers often expect candidates to hold certain certifications, and find those expectations met rather more often than not, rather than being able to pick outstanding candidates on the basis of whether or not they hold certain certifications. Again, this goes double for entry-level jobs, especially now that so many associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs include certification opportunities or requirements along with the rest of their degree plans.
3. Employers want people with degrees, certifications, AND experience. Anyone who’s lacking in any of these areas is automatically a less attractive job candidate. Paradoxically, the experience criterion even applies to entry-level positions, where a lack of experience is not supposed to matter, but often does matter a lot.
How should aspiring and active IT professionals look at entry-level certs in this light? My answer: “Purely as stepping stones. Treat any other additional benefits as pure gravy, and expect nothing from these credentials.” Entry-level certs have always been designed to certify minimal skills, knowledge, and competence and that’s really how employers treat them nowadays. Gone are the go-go days of the late 90s and early part of this century when any certification looked like a sure ticket to a good job, or a key ingredient for hopping from a current position to a new one.
OK, it’s still the case that certain certs–such as the CISSP, CCIE, SAP Consulting, and so forth–are indeed enough to make the difference between landing a job and missing out on an offer. But entry-level certs appear nowhere in this list, nor are they likely to make this grade any time soon, barring a radical and global economic upturn.
Does this mean that entry-level certs have no value, or that you can skip them? The answer to both of these queries is “No,” and both ultimately point to where the value of entry-level certs really come from–namely, what kinds of things they entitle you to learn and earn next. Hence the term “stepping stone.” Unless you plan to climb to the next rung in a multi-step program that treats a particular cert as a pre-requisite or that satisfies certain component requirements, it may not be worth spending the time, effort, and money needed to acquire one.