The debate on the merits and benefits of certifications has been long and varied. It's true that certifications differentiate IT professionals and make them more attractive to employers.
But why? And what exactly do they entail?
First, at a high level, professional IT certifications are awards that signify a level of expertise or achievement of qualifications as stipulated by a certifying authority. Among other things, the certification indicates things like completion of coursework, professional achievement or specific knowledge acquired in a particular area of IT.
Although often not recognized in exchange for credit by many accredited university programs, one advantage is that certifications are almost exclusively skills oriented. Unlike university courses, no extraneous materials are typically added on, allowing the participant to keenly focus on a desired niche in a given field. Students can take lessons with certifying organizations, which are usually less expensive than university courses, and sometimes more flexible. And some certifications can be achieved via self-study, although others require personal instruction.
That said, the certification process can also be costly and time consuming.
So what are the benefits? Among other things, certifications can open up a lot of doors. For one, they give IT administrators or solution providers a big leg up against competition. According to a January 2011 CompTIA report, 86 percent of hiring managers indicate IT certifications as a high or medium priority when considering candidates for employment positions. Meanwhile, nearly 91 percent of hiring managers regard certifications as an inherent part of the hiring procedure, according to an April 2012 Microsoft Certification Program Satisfaction study.
The upshot is that certifications can undoubtedly pave the way for a greater entrance into competitive markets. And with them often come industry recognition, increased career opportunities and higher pay.
In addition, certifications can also be used to establish credibility as a professional, elevate value and build-out business once you're already in the market. To that end, certifications compel IT professionals to stretch out of their comfort zone and broaden their area of expertise - brushing up on Linux and other open source skills to pass a test, for example -- which in turn can be used to make inroads in new arenas.
Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the hottest ones these days are security and cloud, but systems planning and maintenance are still in high demand.
Here are a few of the most popular and widely recognized certifications:
Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP):
This certification requires five years of experience in at least two of 10 areas, which include security consultant, security manager, IT director, security auditor, security architect, security analyst, security systems engineer, chief information security officer, director of security and network architect. As its name might suggest, the certification builds acumen in risk management, cloud and mobile device security and secure application development.
A standard certification that provides training for technical support, field service technicians and service technicians for major manufacturers. Among other things, the certification covers PC maintenance, networking laptop and mobile platforms, operating systems and printers.
Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert, (MCSE) and Microsoft Certified Information Technology Professional, (MCITP):
The MCSE certification offers guidance in a plethora of high demand areas, including server infrastructure, private cloud, desktop infrastructure, data platform, business intelligence and Share Point, among other things.
Meanwhile, the MCITP certification encompasses specializations such as Windows Client, Windows Server, Share Point, SQL Server, Exchange Server and Lync.
Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL):
This certification, which entails Foundation, Intermediate, Expert and Master levels, offers training in how to efficiently manage, plan and support an IT department.
Individuals that receive this training focus on improving business services, including streamlining operations, reducing overhead, bolstering customer satisfaction and accelerating productivity.