Debate rages among IT professionals over the value of certifications, but a survey of 700 network professionals jointly conducted by Network World and SolarWinds may help put that argument to rest. Among those who earned certifications, most saw a significant boost in their careers as a result.
Some 60% said a certification led to a new job; 50% said they earned more pay, with 40% saying their pay increased by more than 10% directly because of a certification; and 29% said a cert led to a promotion.
Respondents also offered advice on when to get certifications and which ones to get. Interestingly, they named Cisco certifications as both the most, and the least, valuable.
"I have certifications, and yes they've been a big help to me," says Jeff Schoonmaker, a junior network administrator in Portland, Ore., who has a Cisco CCNA, a Microsoft MCITP (Enterprise Desktop Administrator) and the CompTIA A+. Schoonmaker has been an IT professional for a little over a year and says his CCNA helped land him his job and the MCITP has already led to a promotion. He's working on his CCNP, and when he achieves that, he'll get another promotion.
"As far as my career is concerned, certifications are huge. I will continue to chase certs from Microsoft and Cisco throughout my career," he says.
Half of respondents said they pursued certifications to get a promotion or to be eligible for a new job. "My company wanted a Microsoft-certified IT manager, so the MCSA helped me get the job I am currently in," said one respondent. "I was able to stay working for a defense contractor when one contract expired by moving to a different contract due to the certifications I held," another said.
Since three-quarters of respondents had certifications, that means one-quarter (26%) saw no value in them. "I have no certs to my name at all. I do have an MBA. I have been in IT hardware and network admin/engineer roles for over a decade now without a single piece of paper related to the field. You learn as you go, better than you learn in some stupid classroom," commented James7360 on a Spiceworks forum.
But James7360 is in the minority. Even network professionals earning the highest wages -- more than $110,000 -- had as many, or more, certs as those in lower salary brackets.
That's not to say that the certs themselves are solely responsible for these high salaries. Those earning the most money also had more years of experience (75% had more than 10 years) and more traditional education (25% had a master's degree, compared to 11% in the lower salary brackets).
But even so, among the highest-paid IT professionals who had certs, 58% said a cert led to a salary boost or bonus, 63% said it led to a promotion, and 30% to a new job. These numbers are similar to those in the lower salary brackets, who also overwhelmingly said that certs lead to a salary boost or bonus (55%), new job (62%), or promotion (27%).
Those earning the highest wages, $110,000 or more a year, were also more likely to have particularly difficult (and expensive) certifications, like the CCIE, RHCE or CISSP.
"I have had a certification lead to a new job or promotion, the CISSP, which isn't even a technical certification. It really teaches how to control and translate security into business objectives. But it is required for a lot of security jobs and has requirements like ongoing education in order to maintain it," says Lee Eddy II, a senior security analyst in Redwood City, Calif., with more than 10 years of experience as an IT professional. The CISSP helped Eddy land a job with a big salary increase, and is mandated for most of the higher-paid jobs in his field, he says.
The value of a certification clearly depends on a lot of factors. Some hiring managers want them more than others, and timing is an issue, too.
"I'd have to say certs tend to be more valuable when they are coupled with the building of experience," says Craig Norborg, a network engineer for Trowbridge & Trowbridge, Albuquerque, N.M., with more than 15 years of experience and a variety of certs, including the CCNP, CCDA, MCSE, SCP (Solarwinds Certified Professional) and others.
"If you get them too early, people think they're book certs. If you get them too late, you're just proving what you already know, which may not be required," Norborg points out. "Employers are pretty suspicious of many high-end certs from a young person, or someone just entering the field."
The difficulty of the certs and the type of technology they cover can also add value - or not. "My MCSE hasn't really done anything for me. My last two employers actually would rather I not touch servers, but instead specialize in networking," Norborg says. Note that for Windows Server 8 and beyond, Microsoft has discontinued its umbrella MCSE certification in favor of a range of technology-specific, MCITP certs.
In a survey of network professionals, it's not surprising that certifications on network technology were the most popular and deemed the most valuable. Some 67% of respondents had earned one, with Cisco certifications far and away the most popular. Forty-four percent of those making more than $110,000 had the ultra-hard (and expensive) CCIE. Among those with lower salaries, only 4% had earned it. Microsoft certs were held by 39% overall, and the CompTIA Network+ by almost one quarter.
Cisco certifications were named the most valuable - leading to more promotions, new jobs or pay raises than any other. But, oddly, Cisco certifications were also named among the least valuable.
"I do think networking certifications are the most valuable when coupled with some real-world experience. I wouldn't have gotten my last two positions without them," Norborg says. "It also depends on the cert itself. CCNA is OK. CCNP, CCDA and CCDP are better. I'm sure CCIE is even better, but once again, they'd be suspicious of a very young person with one."
Eddy adds: "The reason Cisco certs are seen as most valuable and least valuable is that it depends on the certification. The CCNA is entry-level and easy to get, but the CCIE is still hard and a lot of employers want it."
Security certifications also came in strong. Over one-third of respondents had one, with the CompTIA Security+ the most common. Among respondents making more than $110,000 annually, security certifications were held by 38%, particularly the CCSP, earned by 36% of this group. In comparison, only 9% of those making less than $110,000 had the CCSP but 32% had the CompTIA Security+.
The least popular certifications were for network management technology - only 17% of our 700 respondents had one. While network management is often categorized as a mid-level job, surprisingly, those that earned the biggest salaries, over $110,000, were far more likely to have one (40%) than those under $110,000 (22%).
Least popular of all were certs involving virtualization technology from Citrix or Red Hat.
Beyond jobs and promotions, some certification holders felt that certs had other value. One said, "As I'm the only member of IT staff here, people have become aware of the more complicated jobs I perform here, having seen the certifications I've passed."
Twenty-seven percent of survey respondents said they chose to get a certification simply to learn about the technology, not to pocket more dough. While no one argues that a cert is more valuable than hands-on experience, "they can be helpful when implementing a new technology," Eddy says. "One of the things I like to negotiate with a new purchase order is that the vendor throws in the certification on their product."
He also says he gets the most value out of live classroom training. In a group setting, people will experience and troubleshoot a wider variety of problems as they learn. It will also help you build a network of other users to call on when you need it.
For more details on which certifications impact jobs and pay, see the full survey results.
Julie Bort is the editor of Network World's Microsoft Subnet and Open Source Subnet communities. She writes the Microsoft Update http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/1926 and Source Seeker http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/6116 blogs. Follow Bort on Twitter @Julie188.
Read more about infrastructure management in Network World's Infrastructure Management section.
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.