Career Doctor: Investing in the Right Certifications

By Katherine Lee Spencer | January 2009

I recently was laid off from my job as a mainframe operator. There is no demand for this job, and despite my 23 years of experience, I have no special talents to place on my resume. I have an interest in network security, and I’m thinking of taking a "boot camp" course for A+ and Network+. But if these certifications are not in high regard, I don"t want to throw my money away. Do you have any suggestions?

Katherine Spencer Lee responds:
IT professionals in the midst of a frustrating job search often look to certifications as a kind of "golden key" that will open doors to employers. But many find that weighing the pros and cons of all the different certifications can be almost as challenging as the job search itself. It’s difficult to know which of them will actually benefit your career and which will prove to be expensive but meaningless badges.

While a certification may indicate knowledge in a particular technical area, employers are most interested in the proven ability to apply that knowledge to business problems. Nevertheless, the right certification can serve to round out your resume – and to draw employers’ attention to it in the first place. Consider certifications as one element of your overall career strategy.

Certifications in context
The value of any certification is subject to fluctuation. Pursuing a currently hot certification can leave you holding a rapidly cooling designation when your training is complete. That’s one reason current demand should not be your only consideration. Instead, look to areas of technology that are likely to see long-term growth. Network security, which you mentioned, is one such specialty. Security certifications are becoming more valuable as companies recognize IT security as a key part of their overall risk management strategies.

Entry-level certifications such as A+ and Network+ may well be a worthwhile investment for you. By complementing your many years of experience with a demonstrated willingness to learn new skills, you stand to make your resume more attractive to employers. For some employers, the skills represented by a particular certification may be less important than evidence of your commitment to learning.

Security concerns on the rise
Once you’ve become more familiar with network security, you might consider pursuing more advanced certifications. The Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), for example, is in increasingly high demand as more data travels across wider-ranging networks. Among IT certifications, the CISSP ranks near the top in terms of average annual salary, according to recent surveys by TechRepublic.

Other security-related certifications worth investigating include the Certified Information Security Manager (CISM), Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA), and Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC) Security Expert. Key vendor-specific security certifications in high demand include Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP). For the latter, the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) can serve as a stepping-stone.

Sorting through all the available certifications to identify those that would most benefit your career is, at best, an inexact science. Talk to colleagues and friends about the certifications and courses they consider to be the most valuable. Read IT trade publications for up-to-date information about increasingly valuable designations. And, perhaps most importantly, check local and online job listings for the certifications employers in your area require.

Secure your network
Keep in mind that your ability to network may have just as much impact on your success as your technical qualifications, especially in an employment market where leads and referrals from professional contacts have become more important to landing a new position. Build your network by joining local community and business groups such as your Chamber of Commerce. Attend meetings of local chapters of IT associations and alumni groups. Connections can come from unexpected places, so be sure to let friends, relatives and even acquaintances know that you are looking for a new position. The benefit of networking is that the more people you tell, the more they can put you in touch with others they know, thereby multiplying your contacts. Also take full advantage of online networking tools such as LinkedIn.

Another way to bolster your network – and your skill set – is to register with a staffing firm. By doing so, you gain connections with professionals who already have long-standing relationships with employers. Contract or project-based job assignments may let you explore technical areas that don’t duplicate your experience. The firm may also provide free online training to help you broaden your skills or pursue a new designation. They also can offer valuable career advice and resume tips.

Train for the long term
A frustrating job search can make it tempting to pursue whatever certification seems hot at the moment. But in the rush to find new work, it’s easy to lose sight of what interests you. Even if a certificate helps to land you an attractive job, the result can be a career dead-end if you¿re not stimulated by the work. Instead, try to find a balance between your interests and the realities of the IT job market. By pursuing training that both stimulates you and rounds out your resume, you give yourself the best chance to take your career in a satisfying new direction

Katherine Spencer Lee is president, Southeast Operations at Robert Half International.