After years of having their value called into question, the worth of many IT certifications is rising, spurred in many cases by governments’ use of them to describe expectations.
This year’s first quarter brought the largest annual increase in market pay for certifications in more than 15 years and the fourth consecutive quarter of growth, according to analyst firm Foote Partners, which tracks a number of technology credentials.
“Over the years, I’ve witnessed references to certifications in job descriptions go from ‘nice to have’ to ‘preferred,’” says W. Hord Tipton, Executive Director of (ISC)2, a non-profit that offers several security-related credentials. “Now we’re watching it grow from ‘preferred’ to ‘absolutely mandatory’ on many jobs.”
To IT professionals, certifications can provide a boost in terms of hiring, promotions and salary. While companies tend to value experience as a technology worker’s career progresses, certifications help candidates get their foot in the door and assist employers by providing some validation “that the people that you’re hiring are who they say they are,” in Tipton’s words.
For example, he points to the Defense Department’s “8750” skills-matching and mapping initiative, which seeks to define the required skills for a number of information assurance positions. The effort makes some certifications, such as the (ISC)2’s flagship CISSP—or Certified Information Systems Security Professional–mandatory.
Such approaches have been sorely needed, Tipton says. “I screamed at them for years when I was CIO [at the Department of the Interior] for not having properly written job descriptions,” he recalls. They’ve also had several impacts: For example, the effectiveness and cost-efficiency of commercial certifications now have a government seal of approval, credentials will be required in many cases of both uniformed and civilian government employees, and veterans will leave the military with credentials that the private sector understands.
The demand for certification, particularly in security, is spreading to the private sector and driving salaries up there, Tipton adds.
In a recent survey by the SANS Institute, 58 percent of cybersecurity professionals said they believe certifications are key to a successful career and can boost pay by up to 5 percent. In a separate survey by (ISC)2, 46 percent of respondents said their organizations require certifications. The government-defense and information technology sectors put the most emphasis on them, at 84 percent and 47 percent respectively.
Governments are emphasizing the importance of certifications in areas beyond security. For example, they’re leading the way in demand for the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Professional, or PMP, according to Frank Schettini, the group’s vice president of information technology. “Organizations are acknowledging [that] every dollar they spend has to be on the right project and the project has to be successful,” Schettini says, adding, “The certification is a reflection on the individual as being a professional and in the case of governments, more and more are requiring a PMP to work on their projects.”
Having a PMP can have real impact on a project manager’s compensation, also. PayScale recently reported the credential can come with a pay premium of 8.7 percent. Others can bring in even more money: The Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) credential can reward its holder with a premium of up to 23.97 percent. Still, not all certifications have such a dramatic impact. Indeed, look at the overall picture and they add just 0.7 percent to the average paycheck.
Premiums can be an important part of the hiring equation for those with the right skills. Particularly in government, internal pay ranges can restrict how much new hires can be paid. In such circumstances, premium pay allows employers to throw some extra cash at candidates who have the most-needed skills.
“You could raise their base salary but that causes all kinds of problems—the skill may cool off in the marketplace down the road, for example, and then you’re overpaying,” observes Foote Partners CEO David Foote. “Or you may decide to promote the person to get the higher base salary when they otherwise don’t qualify for a promotion, and that has all kinds of potentials problems later.” A pay premium is a way to offer additional compensation that can be adjusted later if the skill cools off.
Plus, Foote sees other value for employers. “If a company can identify the skills and certs it needs going forward and is willing to pay extra for them, and communicates that to its workforce, it will attract the more motivated, aggressive types who think about their career development and are willing to take steps to become more valuable to their employers,” he says.
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