Experience trumps certification

Unemployed, underemployed, or just looking to turn your IT career around? Starting late last year, management consultancy Foote Partners LLC says, premium pay for non-certified IT skills skyrocketed, growing 300 percent faster than pay for certified IT skills. Furthermore, over the last 12 months, Foote researchers say, growth in pay for non-certified skills outstripped pay for certified skills by nearly 70 percent.

“This is the first time skills have trumped certifications since our firm began surveying tech skills pay in 2000,” said David Foote, the research firm’s president and chief research officer, in a statement. “Eighteen months ago it was all about certifications for IT workers as employers stumbled out of the wreckage of an economic recession, looking to start hiring again,” he comments.

Foote says employers again seem to be prioritizing qualities other than certification. “This is a clear indication that employers are not placing the same premium on certification that they once did. Perhaps more to the point, they are finding other qualities of IT professional more critical to their businesses going forward and they are willing to pay more for those.”

Overall, Foote says, premium pay for 103 non-certified skills rose by just over 4 percent in the first quarter of 2006, averaging 7.1 percent of base salary for a single skill. That’s up from the year ago period (6.8 percent), and outpaces year-over-year growth from 2004 (6.6 percent), too. Foote’s research is based on surveys of 52,000 IT professionals in 1,820 North American companies.

In the midst of economic downturn, certifications were a safe harbor of sorts for many IT pros. Those without certifications “were hammered during the recession, losing about a third of their value as a whole while pay for IT certifications held remarkably steady in our survey, with no worse than a 10 to 11 percent dip from 2001 to 2004,” Foote said. “Employers demanded certification of skills from workers during those turbulent years as a way of cutting through the constant pressure from CFOs to cut budgets and reduce overhead. Certifications helped managers argue for training budgets and new-hire salaries, and especially for salary adjustments to retain key workers at market pay rates or better. But that resistance has virtually evaporated.”

In the past, Foote has singled out application development-related skills as among the strongest performing segments, among certified and non-certified IT pros alike. This trend was again in evidence in Q1 of 2006, the researcher says, with a 16 percent year-over-year increase in pay for application development certifications. This was one segment in which certified IT pros fared better than their non-certified colleagues: the latter realized 6.1 percent premium pay growth from April of 2005 to April of 2006, Foote found.

On the whole, the researcher concludes, it’s a good time to be an IT worker. “Now employers are on the hunt for IT professionals with demonstrated expertise in specific technical skills, and whether or not a certification has been earned may be inconsequential when that person also has experience in their industry or with their type of customer,” Foote concludes.

“The irony of this new development is that so many exceptionally talented but certification-less workers caught in workforce reductions during the recession couldn't even get job interviews because of resume-scanning software that filtered out resumes without specific certification identifiers. I think a lot of employers are kicking themselves for not having hired this type of worker when their prices were lower, or for firing them in the first place.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a contributing editor. He can be reached at [email protected].