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Survey says: IT certifications are losing value

Real-life experience trumps formal IT certifications when it comes to salary, according to Foote Partners research.

IT certification can help IT pros get in the door, but after that they have to walk the walk to advance in their careers, according to new research.

Premium pay for IT certifications is at its lowest point in 12 years, while premium pay for noncertified IT skills is at a 12-year high, according to a Foote Partners survey of pay data from 29,250 IT workers in the first quarter of 2011.

The survey finds that average premium pay for 252 non-certified IT skills, such as business process management, rose 4.2% over the last year and 1.4% for the quarter while average premium pay for 231 IT certifications declined 3.5% for the year and 1.9% for the first quarter. IT certifications now draw an average of 7.19% more pay per skill, while non-certified skills earn an average of 8.54% in premium pay per skill.

Most IT pros working in data centers say they're not surprised by these results. As more automation and virtualization makes its way into the data center, most users say certifications can be used as a filter in the first step of the hiring process, but aren't the key to higher-paying jobs long-term. Knowing how to look at the big picture and work with business units effectively are now more important skills than the ability to pass a certification test or deploy single technologies expertly, users say.

"We're more a part of the crowd that does not lean on certifications," said Ben Stewart, senior vice president for facilities engineering at Terremark, in an email. "We have always more focused on the fit of a potential employee in our culture than we have on certifications. … If the employee has IT skills and integrates well with the existing team, that is far more valuable than a certified candidate that does not integrate well."

Certs don't show real-world skills
IT pros say certification tests often don't reflect working knowledge of technology, but rather "your ability to commit a considerable amount of information to memory and retain it there for a short amount of time," said Johnny Figueroa, an architect for a healthcare company in the Southwest.

"Some of us don't test well, but put us in front of an actual problem and we'll solve it," said Wayne Gateman, an area coordinator of virtualization at a Fortune 15 company in the medical distribution and software field. Conversely, "I've seen so many people who know how to study for an exam, but ask them a practical question, and they don't know the answer."

Meanwhile, though piling up certifications on specific technologies is generally declining as a means of career advancement, enterprise IT pros say there are still at least a few hot certifications on the market, mostly those that deal with process management, architecture and design expertise. While Foote's research concludes that an ability to work with business units is becoming more valuable, sometimes certifications are the only accessible way for business and HR managers to gauge an IT pro's experience.

For example, the Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE), or its Windows Server 2008 equivalent, the Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP), designations are viewed as essential even though they don't seem to boost their holders' salaries.

"At a minimum, you have to have an MCSE, MCITP or an SCSA [Sun Certified System Administrator], or equivalent work experience, to work on my team," said Chris Rima, supervisor of infrastructure systems for a utility in the Southwest.

"There's a big push in our organization to get certifications like the MCITP," said Christian Metz, a systems administrator at a Fortune 300 company. "They're something tangible, and that can be important on the HR side, where they ca'’t necessarily talk to you on a technical level."

There are also some areas of the market where certifications are still considered a must, especially  in the channel. "It depends on where and who you work for," said Chris Dearden, a U.K.-based systems integrator. "Vendors tend to rank partner tiers based on certifications."

One of the more valuable certifications in Dearden's world is the Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE), which Foote ranked among the highest-paying IT certifications. VMware virtualization certifications are also still hot in Dearden's eyes, though the VMware Certified Design eXpert (VCDX) and VMware Certified Professional (VCP) declined ,according to Foote.

VCDX, especially, has been the subject of intense debate among some IT pros of late; an intermediary certification, VMware Certified Advanced Professional (VCAP), was not included in the Foote survey.

Beth Pariseau is a senior news writer for Write to her at

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