Until now, most IT firms have not felt the need to have a front door.increasingly giving way to staff with professional qualifications and certificates. This is not because they wanted to impede the ingress of bailiffs, VAT inspectors or disgruntled clients, but because IT has been regarded more as a trade than a profession; and the tradesman's entrance, as every good errand boy knows, is located at the back.
Now, however, any self-respecting high-tech company is expected to have revolving doors, commissionaires and potted palms, all waiting to welcome the new breed of IT professionals. At last count, the UK boasted 19,000 professional members or fellows of the British Computer Society (BCS), 7,500 Certified Novell Engineers (CNEs), 9,000 Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs), and no fewer than 64,000 holders of IT-related National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs).
The channel - which, let's face it, is peopled largely by entrepreneurs who have climbed up their own bootlaces - has been understandably sceptical of the value of professional qualifications.
'The industry-recognised ones, like Novell, Microsoft or Cisco, are useful, but there's a lot of climbing on the bandwagon by lesser vendors,' says Duncan Crook, managing director of TDS Datacom. 'Some have qualification programmes that are nothing short of money-spinning schemes.'
Many employers fear that, the more valuable the qualification, the greater the risk since as soon as staff have achieved a portable, internationally recognised qualification, they will flit off to a better paying job elsewhere.
Increasingly, the trend is towards making staff pay the cost of their own certification exams, if they wish to take them. This costs about #400 for a CNE or Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), although the employer usually picks up the tab for the preceding training, which costs between #4,000 and #6,000.
The vendors offer cold comfort on this one. When PC Dealer asked Lutz Ziob, Novell European director of education, why anyone would want to be a CNE, he replied: 'So they can prove to their future employer that they know what they are talking about.'
He also points out that CNEs can expect to earn 10 to 15 per cent more than their non-certified colleagues. And when we asked why Microsoft's Website has advice for MCPs on how to hike their salaries, Microsoft IT skills development manager Debbie Walsh could only admit that 'it's an individual qualification'.
But not everyone is so pessimistic. 'Getting more money or getting out of a current job is not people's primary motivation,' says Neil Bassett, commercial director of training firm InterQuad. 'They get qualifications to get on in their career - whether or not that means changing job.'
Sylvan Prometric, one of the independent companies which administers the exams for Novell and Microsoft, has researched candidate's motivation for seeking certification. Career advancement was way ahead at more than 41 per cent. Advancement in current job was second at 17 per cent. Preparing for a new job scored only nine per cent, and earning more money a paltry two per cent. When asked what benefits they had derived from certification, fewer than 11 per cent of candidates said they had received a salary increase.
Those who take qualifications seem more interested in enhancing their credibility and self-esteem. 'A qualification is a visible way of saying I have reached a certain level of competence,' says Bassett. 'This is more difficult to show if you are in a technical role than if you are doing a sales job.'
It is in everybody's interests that certified people be kept up-to-date - more money for the trainers and examiners, more product knowledge for vendors, and better performance for the individual. It is not surprising that vendors like to keep in touch, laying on refresher courses and re-certification when products change. Eighty per cent of CNEs have re-certified from NetWare 3 to 4, according to Novell.
Vendor accredited qualifications like CNE and MCSE, in particular, offer practical benefits too. Novell CNEs, for example, have preferential access to support, extra technical information, invitations to conferences and seminars, and even competitions and a 'CNE Olympics' to find the best CNE in Europe.
A reseller that wants to be the business partner of a large vendor has no choice but to employ a specified number of staff with that vendor's qualifications. A Novell Platinum Systems House must have at least three CNEs and four Certified Novell salespeople, and must add more subsequently.
A Gold Specialist must employ one CNE and one CNS, while authorised resellers need at least one Certified Novell Administrator (CNA). Microsoft requires its Certified Solution Provider Partners to have three or more MCSEs on their staff, and its Certified Solution Providers must have at least two MCPs.
Even if vendors don't demand certification, potential clients, especially in the public sector, are keen to know about certification and training policies, and to see the CVs of staff who may be working on their projects.
'The more progressive of our resellers find that having certified staff wins more professional service business for them,' claims Paul Gardner, customer service director at Compaq, which offers three levels of certification for technical staff. 'It makes the difference in closing a hardware sale. It's one of the few differentiators available to resellers in an increasingly undifferentiated world.'
When recruiting new staff, qualifications can be a surer guide than gut feeling. 'People tend to oversell their capabilities, so I would feel more comfortable with staff who have shown they can perform to a nationally recognised standard,' says Anne Russell, chief executive of the National Training Organisation for IT (NTOIT). According to the Sylvan Prometric survey, almost half of resellers have used certification as a basis for hiring staff, and the remainder would consider doing so.
Despite worries to the contrary, putting staff through professional or technical certification schemes can help a business retain existing staff.
'The fastest way to get rid of someone is not to provide them with any training,' points out Rob Wirszycz, director general of the CSSA.
If an employer is serious about training staff, studying for a formal qualification is useful in imposing discipline and setting up a detailed training programme. It also provides a good benchmark to establish whether staff have the competencies they ought to have.
Above all, having a more qualified workforce helps businesses do a better job. Novell claims its research shows that on average CNEs manage more complex networks, and do it better than non-qualified people. And in a business like networking, where man-hours account for the major cost of a system, doing a job more efficiently can make big savings.
The qualifications resellers like best are the vendor-specific ones like CNE, CNA, MCP, MCSE and Certified Lotus Professional. The archetype is Novell's CNE, which comes in three tracks: NetWare 3, NetWare 4 and GroupWise.
Candidates are usually required to pass seven exams, six of them on compulsory topics such as networking technologies, service and support, NetWare administration, installation and configuration, and directory services.
Microsoft's MCP involves a single exam covering one operating system (Windows 95, NT). The higher qualification is MCSE, which has six exams (an MCP counts as one if the candidate already has it), of which four are compulsory. The other two can include SQL, BackOffice, SNA Server, TCP/IP, VBasic and so on.
Most CNE and MCSE candidates spread their exams over six to 12 months, finishing one topic before they move on to the next. Most find they need a mix of on-the-job experience, formal classroom training and self-study to succeed.
Specific courses are usually provided by authorised training companies.
About 20-25 days' training is usual, says Bassett. 'Doing the test straight after the course tends not to work,' he adds. 'You stand more chance of passing if you get a few weeks' practical experience after the course.'
The exams themselves, which are administered by third parties, take about an hour to complete. Done on-screen, they recreate real-life problems which the candidate must attempt to resolve.
The exams are fairly stringent, with first-time failure rates of 25 per cent for CNE and 45 per cent for MCSE. There is no limit to how many times you may retake a test, but if the gap is too great between exams the early ones may be out of date before you have finished.
The typical student, according to InterQuad, is male, aged 22-30, and a full-time employee. He is probably already working in a Novell or Microsoft environment, but may be taking on a new product set, or may have been promoted or moved to another position. Most candidates are people who have the ability to get a university degree, but do not have one and see a CNE or MCSE as being an alternative badge of personal achievement.
CNEs, MCSEs and similar qualifications, although highly regarded, have two drawbacks. First, they are taught and tested in the classroom rather than the workplace; and second, they focus mainly on a single vendor's products.
A more practical alternative is the NVQ (SVQ in Scotland), which is specifically for people who are already in work and aims to test their real competencies rather than theoretical knowledge. There are about 15 IT-related NVQs divided into three groups: creating an IT solution, implementing it, and using and supporting it. Typical titles might be 'user support', 'implementation management' and 'system design and programming'. Some resellers also find NVQs in operational areas like logistics and warehousing very valuable.
There are five levels of difficulty in NVQs, and most of the IT qualifications are at levels 2, 3 or 4. Candidates must usually pass four or five mandatory units, plus a couple of options from a list of half a dozen. There is no set syllabus and no formal teaching or training courses. Instead, the content is tailored towards the candidate's job, and training is taken ad hoc, just as it would be during normal career development (except that you can get tax relief on personal training if it is towards an NVQ).
Candidates build up a portfolio to show they can do the job, and their work and interpersonal skills are assessed in the workplace. 'It demonstrates that people really can perform in a working environment,' says Russell.
She says NVQs can take a lot of effort, but most of it is related to the candidate's job, and should not use up too much productive time. Because no special training courses are required, the cost of getting an NVQ can be much lower than that of a CNE or MCSE.
For 16 to 25-year-olds there is also the Modern Apprenticeship Programme, allowing the employee to follow a detailed training and development plan which leads to a level 3 NVQ. Grants of up to #2,000 a year are available, administered by local Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs).
The nearest the IT industry has to a professional qualification is membership or fellowship of the BCS, usually taken by technical staff rather than salespeople. Full members must be over 25-years-old and have an appropriate mix of qualifications and experience. For example, six years' experience and an honours degree in computer science or equivalent BCS qualification; 10 years' experience and an arts degree; or 15 years' experience plus a 10,000-word written paper on a technical subject.
The BCS' own exams consist of a general foundation course equivalent to an ordinary degree or Higher National Diploma (HND); and a more specialised course equivalent to an honours degree. The structure and teaching - mostly by distance learning - are similar to those of the Open University, and the course usually takes four or five years to complete.
'We aim to provide a broad foundation, more like a degree in computer science than supplier-specific knowledge,' says Colin Thompson, the BCS marketing director.
In an ideal world, PC professionals would have both the general understanding offered by an NVQ or BCS qualification, and the knowledge gained from a vendor-specific certification.
British Computer Society 01793 417417
National Training Organisation for IT 0171 580 6677
Sylvan Prometric 0181 607 9090
InterQuad 01753 554344.
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