December 26, 2000, 4:56 PM — The value of skills certificates issued by big vendors such as Microsoft, Cisco, and Sun has always been a topic of fierce debate. Should an uncertified job candidate be rejected from consideration? Or are there better ways to pick qualified workers? What exactly is a vendor-issued certificate worth, and what does it say about the person who holds it?
Two Test Center analysts, grizzled veterans of corporate IT departments, face off on vendor certifications. They start on opposite sides but find surprising common ground in the end.
P.J.: I support vendor certification programs. Bear in mind, though, that I'm talking about well-designed certification programs, ones that are not just granted for theoretical knowledge but instead those that incorporate lab work to demonstrate that the certificate holder has mastered the subject both in theory and in practice. I think those kinds of credentials are good for employers, good for employees, and good for vendors.
From an employer's perspective, certificates can provide an easy way to identify qualified candidates. Of course a lot more has to go into the hiring process: Background checks and references are always more important in judging a potential employee's suitability than any certificate. But certificates provide employers a way to assess a person's technical ability, and let's face it, that's usually the most important qualification when you're hiring technical staff.
A company can also use certificates as incentives. The prospect of a paid-for certificate might be just the carrot you need to retain skilled crew members, especially if bigger bonuses and longer vacations aren't an option. Yes, it's true that the newly certified employee might be considered a "flight risk," subject to temptation from higher-paying employers. But if you're not smart enough to write an agreement that binds the employee to repay the training cost if he or she leaves the company before an agreed upon time period has elapsed (say, for example, six months to a year), you might want to find another line of work.
Certification programs benefit employees, too. I can say from personal experience that employers value certificates, and right or wrong, you often won't get the job if you don't have the right piece of paper.
Tom: There are some certification programs -- for example the ones that Cisco, big iron, and nonvendors such as professional organizations give out -- that have real value because they emphasize practical knowledge. But most IT-related certification programs are just schemes to lock companies into a given vendor's proprietary technology. That's why I'm against them.