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I.T. Degrees and Certifications: Can They Help Your Career?

For more than a decade, I.T. professionals have debated whether degrees and certifications are necessary to build a successful career. Matt Moran, author of Building Your I.T. Career: A Complete Toolkit for a Dynamic Career in Any Economy, Second Edition, discusses the pros and cons of both positions. His answer? A resounding "Maybe."
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One of the most common and pressing questions posed by I.T. professionals is the value of certifications and degrees. It comes up in these forms, perhaps more often than any other question I get:

  • Are degrees important/critical for my career?
  • Do I need specific certifications to get the job I want?

Or some variation.

My response is an emphatic "Maybe."

In today's competitive and fast-paced professional landscape, I.T. professionals are worried, and rightfully so. They want to ensure that they have the skills necessary to become or remain gainfully employed, or to find new employment should circumstances or desire prompt them to make a change.

Are Certifications and Degrees Valuable?

The most critical question to ask is probably this one: "Do I.T. managers value certifications and degrees?"

The 2011 CompTIA study "Employer Perception of IT Training and Certification" touts the following numbers:

  • 64% of I.T. hiring managers rate certifications as having extremely high or high value when rating expertise of candidates.
  • 89% of I.T. hiring managers say that I.T. certifications help confirm subject matter knowledge and expertise.
  • 86% of hiring managers indicate I.T. certifications are a high or medium priority during the candidate evaluation process.

Other studies rank certifications or degrees with relevant experience and training as being the most important factors.

These studies certainly suggest that certifications matter. Additionally, numerous studies indicate the value and increased earning associated with degrees. Certainly, having a degree and/or certification cannot hurt.

On the other hand, a bevy of recent articles have told story after story of new graduates who are unable to find jobs in their chosen field. This suggests that even earning a degree isn't a guaranteed way to ensure your ability to be hired.

So should you enroll in a degree or certification program immediately? Your circumstances may make such a change difficult. I think you need to consider other factors as well: your desire to learn the material and complete the course, your available time, and the nature of the opportunities you seek.

What Employers Really Want

I discuss this idea a lot. One of the most effective ways to increase your chances of being hired is to think about your job search from the employer's perspective. Contrary to negative stereotypes, employers aren't simply looking for a lowest-cost asset proposition. They aren't thinking, "Find me the cheapest, most desperate person possible." Get that idea out of your mind, because few things will permeate your job search with negativity more than viewing employers as the enemy.

Employers want valuable resources—period.

Also important to note is the nature of filling a position. Employers want to fill available jobs with known commodities whenever possible. Smart employers start searching for candidates in the following areas, in an ever-widening pool:

  1. Existing employees
  2. Former co-workers
  3. Former co-workers of existing "good" employees
  4. Connections elsewhere in the business world (referrals)
  5. Current employees' connections in the business world (referrals)

Finally, when all of these avenues are exhausted, they reach out to the most frightening and risky method for hiring employees—a want ad/job posting. This is the least desirable method of finding employees because it's time-consuming and a drain on resources. They might receive dozens or even hundreds of résumés. They could overlook someone who's great and end up with someone who's ineffective.

Yet this is where most potential employees start applying—via the employer's least desirable option.

But there are a couple of things you can do to greatly increase your chances for being hired for any job you want.

Getting Some Experience

Without a doubt, the most critical factor in the ultimate hiring decision is relevant experience. An employer wants to know that a candidate can hit the ground running as soon as possible after being hired.

The age-old dilemma is how to get experience without being hired into a position where the required skills can be developed. The "need experience to get experience" conversation comes up a lot.

However, there are some answers:

  • Part-time interning or even volunteering for a charity is often a great pathway to develop talent.
  • In the age of the Internet, training and tutorials—many completely free—are available all over the Web.
  • Community projects are also available.

All these options offer substantial opportunity to get experience prior to being hired into a position.

Do Some Professional Networking

The other method to bolster your chances of being hired is through effective networking. In fact, the aforementioned volunteering is one way to network. Another is to find trade organizations in your area—technology user groups and other associations have a cross-section of individuals employed at local companies. Get involved and become a valuable resource to the group. This action can open up opportunities for a lifetime.

Unfortunately, most I.T. professionals—actually, most professionals in any field—don't start networking until they're out of work. This can lead to a "panicked" approach to your networking. Rather than focusing on the value you can bring to those you meet, you end up focusing almost exclusively on how anyone you meet can help you get a new job. You need to fight that urge and strive to add value to those you meet, even in the process of looking for opportunities for yourself.

Round Out Your Strategy with Degrees and Certifications

If you can get some experience and work to build your professional network, degrees and certifications become an excellent exclamation point. When your résumé and cover letter get in front of prospective hiring managers and they see that your degree or certifications round out and confirm project experience, you'll rise above other candidates who have only one asset or the other.

In short, degrees and certifications are important and valuable, but only as part of a well-rounded career strategy. Always think in terms of how they confirm and validate the knowledge and experience you take to your potential employer.

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