Why certify? Making the most of your 'piece of paper'

The big question I get from my students about the certifications that we offer in my program at Southeast Arkansas College is, "OK, now that I have this piece of paper, what will it do for me?" I thought about that question myself over several years in the IT industry and drew my own conclusion: Certifications are not the only thing that matters in IT, but they are a major part of any person's IT package. Having a certification sends a message: "Yes, I do know what I say I know."

In the 1990s I worked hard at maintaining my Novell certifications, my CNEs and MCNEs, which in turn helped me to get several contract jobs. As the years have gone by, I have maintained certain certifications more than others. I am no longer Novell certified because I really haven't needed those certifications in recent years — but I am still proud of the fact that I worked on them. And I always worked hard to be certain I could do what each certification said that I could do.

Certification isn't a golden ticket: Some certifications have lost their standing in the industry, for a variety of different reasons. A lot of prospective workers claim to have a certain skill set, and maybe even have a certification, but you still have to know what you're doing. Once hired and put to task, the "what is that" look will shoot you down every time. On the other hand, there are a still plenty of certifications that hold up over time. Our school offers the Pro series certifications from TestOut: PC Pro, Network Pro, Server Pro, and Security Pro. These certifications are tied into labs, and our students get a complete set of instructional labs and a certification in one package. TestOut's combination of labs and testing is yielding big results for our students.

Several of my alumni have told me that having the certifications we offer has opened doors for them. I have six students who are working for a local school district, and all but two of them got their jobs because of some level of TestOut certification. The director of technology for this school district has been so impressed with the TestOut certifications that he has made them mandatory for all his other IT workers.

Another graduate has five different companies competing for his service, in large part because he has the PC Pro and Network Pro certifications. Most of my recent graduates, actually, have told me that they are getting a good response from employers about their certifications. We have graduates working in law enforcement, several local school districts, a local library system, and even one student who has his own PC repair business. He says his customers trust him because he has his certification displayed on the wall of his shop.

I have worked in many different industries and a variety of IT departments though the years, from the oil industry to academia to communications development, and my certifications have always been a big help "getting my foot in the door." So the next time you hear that question about the "piece of paper," remember that, with solid skills to back it up, it can do a lot for you. Certifications are going to continue to be a big part of the IT industry for years to come.

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