Certification is a hot topic - not because people are dashing to their nearest IT training centre, but because it never fails to result in some heated debate.
This usually is because the value of most certifications is difficult to pin down. There are at least two sides to the issue of certification: the individual and the company.
For individuals, certifications are tempting for a number of reasons.
They are the quickest method of gaining new skills, to change careers, or to get a foothold on the IT ladder. Certifications often are used to help thicken a thin CV to make individuals look more attractive to recruitment agencies or prospective employers.
Certifications can result in you earning a better salary, although this depends on which you have, and economic conditions affecting the IT sector. At present, the salary-boosting argument is under some strain.
Finally, they are often sought by experienced IT people looking to use certifications to back up years of on-the-job experience or to open up new job opportunities. The advantages to the individual are quite clear-cut. But for companies, things are not as obvious.
With the exception of enterprising individuals using their free time, or the time that recent unemployment has given them, companies tend to foot the bill for certifying staff. This often can be a tricky situation.
Whether it is for handling internal projects or acquiring additional skills to attract new business, companies are faced with the choice of certifying a member of staff or forking out for an IT contractor.
At an average of £30 per hour, the cost of having a contractor on board for even a couple of weeks mounts up fast.
The other option is to send someone on a course. This costs in terms of fees, and the far more expensive 'time out of the office' penalty.
After three, six or nine months, that company becomes the proud owner of a certified IT employee who will solve all their internal IT niggles or bring in a lot of new business. Hurrah!
Until, that is, the newly certified employee quits to go to work for someone who will pay them more money now that they are certified. This is the uncomfortable position that many companies find themselves in.
"There isn't any clear pattern, but many companies think if they give employees certification training they'll just use it to get a job somewhere else," says Brian Sutton, chief educator at QA Training. "Unfortunately, when the market is down, that mentality tends to hold sway."
Even if they make the employees sign agreements in blood that they will pay back the cost of certification, it is rarely a guarantee that they will get their money's worth. The return on investment (ROI) is not very clear-cut for companies.
And, in hard times - something the IT sector has been wallowing in for a couple of years - ROI becomes the mantra before companies spend anything. Since training, along with marketing and advertising, is not essential to business survival, the training market in the UK has taken a battering over the past few years.
"I think it's safe to say that it has been fairly disastrous," Sutton claims. "The slump has been dramatic, especially in public programme training and certification training. All the training companies have had real difficulties over the past three years."
Alex Keay, group manager for training, certification and readiness, small mid-market solutions and partners at Microsoft, says: "There's no denying that market conditions have been challenging, but certain training companies have taken advantage of those conditions to ensure they have the right offerings.
"Of Microsoft's training certifications, there are pockets that are very active and others we would like to see more active."
Alex Charles, a director at The Skills Market, creator of the popular iProfile electronic CV that is now used by more than 650,000 IT professionals in the UK, says: "Companies have certainly restricted their training budgets; it's one of the first things to go.
"The private training market has dropped off a lot and even contractors have not had the money. That said, there has been an upturn in the past two months, with recruitment agencies reporting their best figures in years.
"They are already talking about supply shortages in some IT areas, with any excess being soaked up quickly."
That growing demand is also borne out by recent survey results from e-skills UK, which has seen the demand for skilled IT contractors rising amid muted signs of recovery. Although there was a drop in private-sector IT spending in the third quarter of 2003, the number of people employed there rose by 27,000.
Also, vacancies for contract IT staff increased by four per cent on the previous quarter and contract rates grew by an average of £3 per hour. However, a survey by the Learning and Skills Council found that nearly one in five UK IT vacancies has been hard to fill because of a shortage of applicants with the required qualifications or skills.
Nothing in training and certification is certain. The economic slump has meant a lot of training has been curtailed, which has hit the sector hard. For example, large training company Knowledgepool went into administration before being sold on earlier this year.
Market conditions have forced change on IT trainers. This is nowhere more evident than in the rise of blended training. It quickly became clear that companies that were prepared to train staff were not prepared to let them out of the office for 10 or 20 days to do so.
The cost of the course has always been negligible, compared with the cost to companies of having staff out of the office.
Charles says: "From my own experience, the daily cost of training is usually less than the income that person generates daily. It's the time away that really costs."
Keay adds: "We are doing some research now on the barriers to certification, and it's always about time. Ideally, (resellers) would like the location of the course to be just around the corner, and for the course to be free.
"That said, we are finding more of a shift towards 'just-in-time' training, where companies invest in training only if they see a pipeline of business waiting from customers."
Pressure on traditional training methods came from the rise of online training firms offering the same certifications, but allowing staff to do it online or via correspondence.
Training 'boot camps' also cropped up, promising certifications that would normally take months in just a few weeks of intensive, 14-hour days.
Arguments about the pros and cons of all of these approaches could rage on for weeks, which is why it will have to suffice that all of these factors converged to make the big training companies create a new way of training.
The 'blended approach' is the result, supplementing a shorter out-of-the-office schedule with an array of alternative teaching methods, including CDs, net-based classrooms, tutorials, testing facilities and mentoring.
E-learning has come a long away and is helping overcome the resistance to letting valuable staff out of the office.
Sutton gives this example: "The Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator qualification has four exams and requires 18 days of classroom training. You might have to spread it out over 10 months or a year. That is a big chunk of time out of the office.
"If you are in the channel you are also trying to make money, and that can be the straw that breaks the camel's back. You could go down the boot camp route, but only if you can stay awake.
"Now we can use e-learning, books and CD-ROMs, as well as net-based virtual classrooms for the knowledge side. We do the skills side with e-labs and bringing people in. That can reduce the original 18 days out to just seven days of classroom training.
You still have to do the other work, but you have saved 11 days out of the office. This means the course can be done in six months or less. The pass rates are the same, and higher in some cases, while the cost is generally the same.
But if you factor in the time saved by not being away from the office, it is dramatically cheaper, with 40 to 50 per cent saved."
Keay says: "Blended training is the way forward. Companies such as QA have done some great work in this area. You can't turn the clock back here."
On top of certifying individuals, resellers have the added burden of staying up to date with vendors' certifications, which usually arrive with new products and solutions. These can range from some light, online study of new features to full-blown training, requiring staff to train with the vendor.
Regardless, this kind of certification is usually needed to achieve, or retain, some level of partner status with that vendor. When you are selling products from 20 different vendors, this can become a real burden, which is why many resellers opt for a set of core competencies in their key products areas.
Smart vendors have recognised the pressure that resellers are under and tried to adapt how they approach certification for their own products.
"The IT market has been slightly depressed over the past year or so. As a result we have been a bit more lenient with partners getting certified on our products," explains Tara Mullally, international channel marketing manager at 3Com.
"Instead of the one-year limit, we have let them extend it by a few months. You have to be realistic, and we have not seen too much of a drop-off. Being too rigid about certification can work against you.
"We are all here to make money, but there is a fine balance between having the right mix of solutions and skilled partners."
However, Microsoft's partners for example had to prepare for dramatic changes. On 23 April the Certification Scheme was reclassified into three tiers: Registered Member, Certified Partner and Gold Certified Partner.
Resellers have to complete the new certification and Microsoft is taking a hard-line approach with those that do not. Microsoft claims it "is not worried about losing partners that are not committed".
Some resellers have reacted angrily to the overhaul, labelling it inconvenient and a money-making exercise, but Microsoft is sticking to its guns.
"It's an evolution of the existing programme, which has been in place for 10 years," counters Keay. "Products and solutions have changed drastically in that time. There are a number of improvements, especially around IT solutions."
Certifications are not just about individuals and the firms that pay for employees to get certified now wanting more bang for their buck. When certifying staff these firms are now using the same criteria they have been applying when buying new PCs or a piece of software.
Simply put, what are they getting out of the deal? It is a side of the equation that Keay admits has been ignored for too long.
"The key inhibitor is ROI. Previously with certification, it was about what is in it for the individual and the path to greater wealth and glory. But often it is the organisation that funds the training, and we often don't make the best ROI arguments to show them what is in it for the company.
"We need to do a better job of showing organisations the value back. We have taken some early steps down that road."
As with all certifications, their value is equal to what you put in.
General certifications and many of the entry-level certifications are considered by many to be little more than CV padding.
Charles concludes: "If you are doing bog-standard certifications, such as some of the entry-level Microsoft ones, it'll make no difference to you. I filtered a search on rates by those contractors that had a certification and those that did not, and there's no difference in rates.
"Obviously, there are exceptions. Those with Cisco CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) certifications have a real stamp of quality about them, and rates vary wildly."
3Com (01442) 438 000
London Development Agency (020) 7680 2000
Microsoft (0870) 601 0100
QA Training (020) 7656 8484
The Skills Market (020) 7354 9669
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