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After a long slump, IT certification pay bounces back

Largely vendor-driven IT certifications decreased in value for a seven-year stretch, until a recent turnaround, with security getting a renewed focus.

IT certification pay has rebounded after slumping for years, as non-certified skills, such as expertise with operating systems and databases, continue to grow.

The value of non-certified skills went up nearly 4% in the past year compared to 10% for certified skills, according to a survey of pay rates for about 200,000 jobs across 2,800 employers by Foote Partners, LLC in Vero Beach, Fla. About one-third of those surveyed work in an IT department and two-thirds work in various lines of the business.

The report also looks at the new technology being pushed by various vendors, since the push of a certain platform can actually influence the job market, although that happens less with open systems, according to David Foote, co-founder and analyst at Foote Partners.

On average, 378 IT certifications paid off with higher salaries over the past two years, after a "deep and very prolonged slump" over seven years, according to Foote.

"It means the certifications are getting a little more respect," Foote said. "Clearly, the market has a much different view of certified skills versus non-certified skills."

Some of the non-certified skills that have seen the biggest jump in value during the past six months include operating systems, database and application development skills.

It means the certifications are getting a little more respect. Clearly, the market has a much different view of certified skills versus non-certified skills.
David Footeco-founder and analyst, Foote Partners LLC

Skilled workers are in demand to deal with technical architectures and understand what an IT organization has, what it needs and how to integrate things in the future.

The value of certified skills as a percentage of an IT pro's pay was above non-certified skills until about 2007, when the value of non-certified skills grew slightly and that of certified skills dropped. That change happened just as the U.S. unemployment rate spiked.

IT certification salary-boosters today include The Open Group's Open Group Master Architect and Project Management Institute's Program Management Professional. GIAC certification for reverse-engineering malware is also up there and has been growing, according to the Foote report.

In general, IT certifications that are increasing salaries include ones related to architecture, security and cloud, including those that require deep systems knowledge, as well as certifications on skills specific to a platform or vendor, Foote said.

Even if some of the most in-demand skills begin to see salary rates drop slightly, it may not be a sign that those skills are no longer hot -- it may simply be the supply of workers is catching up with the demand, so the certification payoff isn't as strong.

One job that will stay at the top of the hot-skills list: security. That's because members of companies' board of directors are getting personally sued after security breaches, putting security concerns squarely in the C-suite, Foote said.

For example, the value of an Information Systems Security Management Professional certification has gone up by 40% in the past six months.

Some IT certifications lose value as others gain

The value of certifications steadily declined for years because certifications were often narrowly focused and vendor-driven, with companies such as SAP and Oracle leading the way. Some certifications were so easy to get that you could get two-thirds of the questions on the exam wrong and still become certified, Foote said.

"If you are selling a product and nobody has the skills, that is a problem," Foote said. That was part of the logic behind vendor-specific and product-specific certifications.

There's been a renewed focus on the data center, he said, which has led to the introduction of certifications for data center architecture. The list of 378 certified skills in Foote's survey remains dominated by large vendors, including Cisco, Cloudera Inc., EMC, Oracle, Red Hat Inc. and VMware.

When cloud computing began to gain popularity, a new set of certifications were introduced.

"There was another area that vendors could seize on and sell certifications," Foote said.

While certifications remain driven by vendors, there are process and ITIL certifications that are not vendor-specific.

Skills before IT certifications

DevOps is a recent addition to the list of non-certified IT skills.

"It really should have been two or three years ago, but it took companies a while [to reward DevOps skills]," Foote said. "It is not an experiment now; it is a way we are doing things."

While the value of non-certified skills has hardly increased, very few have actually dropped. Alone on that list is SAP and business application skills, which have gone down by almost 2% in value over the past six months, according to Foote's survey.

In general categories, the largest growth in non-certified IT skills in the past two years has been database and application development skills. Lately, that has been focused in the area of architecture and big data, Foote said.

big data is a category that continues to be refined, with the addition of specific categories that include data scientist and data cleansing.

Big data skills are currently garnering an 8% pay premium in the past six months, Foote said.

"These premiums are generally amounts paid outside of salaries for specific skills," Foote said.

At the top of the list for pay are enterprise architecture and data architecture skills. Some of the faster growing and highest-value skills include complex event processing and event correlation, COBIT and Oracle Coherence.

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at [email protected].

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