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Computer training vs. certification: What's the difference?

Computer training takes place every day, everywhere people use computers, and on at least three levels: informal, semiformal, and formal training. Informal training happens hourly in virtually every IT department in the country: Someone shows somebody else how to do something. And in the course of that process, a skill is transferred, and the person who learns this skill acquires knowledge and abilities that make him or her more productive -- and in turn, valuable to the company.

People who work in IT invariably benefit from this process, and often know people who build entire careers on it. These people are often in their departments for years -- if not decades -- and know every system inside out. They're the go-to guys for seemingly insoluble problems; the department's fount of knowledge.

The limits of informal training

After a while, however, smart employees start to wonder why, with all of their knowledge and skills, these folks remain in the same company year after year, and why they may earn little more than more junior staff. The answer? His or her skills aren't portable. Those who have zero IT certifications can't prove their worth to alternative employers.

Worse, the current employer may know this as well. When it comes to negotiating a raise, these individuals have no leverage. Their value in the job market is way less than their skills, knowledge and ability should justify.

Enhancing employment opportunities with training

Of course, not everyone who's failed to acquire computer certifications ends up in a dead-end job. However, there's real evidence -- as well as common sense -- to suggest that those who do have relevant qualifications are generally more employable. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition says as much when discussing a wide range of IT-related jobs. For example, for computer network, systems, and database administrators, it observes:

Jobseekers can enhance their employment opportunities by earning certifications, which are offered through product vendors, computer associations, and other training institutions. Many employers regard these certifications as the industry standard, and some require their employees to be certified. In some cases, applicants without formal education may use certification and experience to qualify for some positions.

This view was reinforced in 2011 by CompTIA, an IT industry body, which published the results of its survey into the importance of computer certifications. It found: "Professional certifications are already viewed by hiring managers as a high-value validation of IT skills." And 80 percent of the specialist human resources professionals it polled believed that "IT certifications will grow in usefulness and importance over the next two years."

Certification vs. on-the-job training: a financial knockout

Being more employable usually means earning more money. And, sure enough, that's often the case for those who enhance their IT training with certifications. In 2011, the Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals claimed that its certifications often result in a 10 to 20 percent increase in salary.

And it went on to quote the sorts of increases it says are typical. These range from $15,000 to $40,000 for a chief information officer to $6,000 to $18,000 for a programmer analyst, network administrator or business analyst.

A caveat: A while back, in the wake of the credit crunch and Great Recession, the salary boost provided by some computer certifications wilted a little. That may have been because competition for less specialized posts was great, thus driving down the premium that certification could previously command. Given that it can take up to two or three years to obtain some of the most challenging qualifications, this is a real issue.

However, according to Foote Partners' IT Skills and Certifications Pay Index, many IT certifications retain their value even during difficult economic times. Those considering undertaking a course may be well advised to research which qualifications are -- and are likely to become -- most in demand.

The benefits of ad hoc training

Where does this leave in-between or semiformal training -- that which involves classroom study, but doesn't lead to an official certification? This kind of learning takes place in computer training centers, community colleges and continuing education classrooms around the country, as well as in companies' own conference rooms and IT centers.

In the latter case, it's often provided by firms looking to bolster their roster of tech talent to fill in-house vacancies. It's also valuable for workers who've been given or are seeking new responsibilities within the company -- if you've been put in charge of the corporate newsletter, it's not a bad idea to brush up on Adobe InDesign and Photoshop.

Finally, semiformal training can be the next best thing to certification for job hunters. Desirable job postings often attract hundreds or thousands of applicants. Large enterprises and recruitment consultancies tend to use optical character recognition (OCR) technology to "read" resumes; if key phrases aren't scanned within a document, then it is unlikely ever to be looked at by a human being.

Smaller companies generally struggle to do justice to large piles of resumes, and are frequently forced to speed-read for the same predetermined phrases -- with the same result. No one's going to look at your resume for a Web developer job if it doesn't at least contain phrases like "fluent in HTML and PHP." A couple of certifications like CIW's are more impressive still, but take a commitment of time and money that's not always possible.


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