Getting certified--who foots the bill?

Tuesday Jun 20th 2000 by Esther Shein
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For IT staff members, paying for IT certification can be a challenge. But with the resulting employer, employee, and even vendor benefits, can you afford not to test yourself?

Ron Anthony is a career test taker. And he's made a career of training people to take tests. For IT certification, that is. So Anthony--who has spent almost $3,000 out of pocket for some 30 exams--is a firm believer in doing what it takes to get certified. As he sees it, it's a solid means to an end. "I wanted to move up to bring about a different range of financial security," says Anthony, who used to work as an auto body repair technician prior to moving into IT. Now, he has his own company, The ANC Group in Arlington, Texas, which provides boot camp IT training.

But the price tag for certification doesn't end there. In preparation for the various tests, Anthony has also spent about $40,000 on equipment, including routers and switches, to teach himself the ins and outs of networking. "Some people are happy when they make $80,000, but if I wanted to break the $100,000 range, I figured I had to have my own decent lab or have access to one, so I built my own [at home]," he says.

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How did Anthony pay for it? "I just kept saving money. Other people bought TVs; I bought routers,'' he says.

You may not have to do without the TV, though. Anthony's situation is unusual. Industry observers say it's becoming more prevalent for employers to pay either the whole cost of certification or contribute something.

Martin Bean, president of Baltimore, Md.-based Prometric Inc., a major provider of IT certification exams, says his firm often sees employers funding 85% of training for certification. The employee pays the remainder: 13% is out-of-pocket, and 2% is from an outside source such as a vendor or a bank loan. And don't rule out mom and dad.

Covering the cost

More often than not, observers say companies will foot the bill for IT certification because it's good for their business. It also makes employees more valuable and productive. "Many companies are doing that these days, especially given the fact that good people are hard to find, and it's in their best interest to keep their people happy,'' says Ian Ide, the Boston-based manager of the technology division at Winter, Wyman & Co., a recruitment firm specializing in technology-related positions in Waltham, Mass.

On the flip side, vendor-funded certification has arisen from the push to get specialized technologies brought into companies. As such, the vendor is willing to assume the cost of training people who will then be able to go back and troubleshoot issues internally, Bean says. "It's absolutely in my best interest [as a vendor] for you to have the best people on board so you can solve your own problems and maximize your return on investment rather than call me, the vendor,'' says Bean.

There are also a number of loan programs available from vendors and training companies (see "IT Education Loan Information"). For instance, Prometric, which offers courses on behalf of over 60 vendors at 2,900 testing centers worldwide, also offers its own finance program to pay for certification.

All of these options are viable since the fees for IT certification can be steep. It can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars up to $6,000 for a course, says Bean, depending on the type of training a person chooses. Classroom training is the most expensive. Some certifications require up to seven tests for one program, he adds.

Since Stacy Brown, a former instructor at CompUSA, took the Microsoft Office User Specialist (MOUS) exams in 1999, the cost has increased almost twofold, from $35 per test to $60. But Brown says she would have paid for them on her own even if CompUSA hadn't, because of the impression it makes on employers.

"Some companies' motives for getting IT staff certified have nothing to do with retaining staff in a red-hot job market. Companies aren't saying, "I want to keep you, so I'll certify you." They do it because they want their equipment to stay up. "
Brown, now a help-desk analyst for a Cleveland, Ohio-based international law firm, received a Microsoft Office 97 MOUS master's certificate, which makes her an expert in the technology. She is currently studying to become Office 2000 certified and says she'll pay for the test herself, although her current employer is considering reimbursing her for the cost of the exam.

If Brown decides to go further and get certifications in e-business, her company would pay "if it [were] directly related to my position or would benefit the company. They are pretty good about that,'' she says.

Motivations galore

Indeed, some companies have their own motives for getting IT staff certified, which have nothing to do with retaining staff in a red-hot job market. "Companies aren't saying 'I want to keep you, so I'll certify you,'" says Cushing Anderson, program manager, learning services research, at International Data Corp. (IDC), in Framingham, Mass. "More often--80% of the time--they do it because they want their equipment to stay up. They'll never train someone simply to keep them. If it's not an area that's beneficial to them, they don't care."

IDC studies on certification found that employers that pay to have their staff certified experience shorter server downtimes and greater productivity in help-desk functions, according to Anderson. "So essentially there are financial reasons why companies want people to have this."

At CompUSA, the impetus for paying for employee certifications was better customer service. "They wanted us to get as much certification as possible [since we were instructors]," explains Brown. "CompUSA was really up on getting the instructors trained to better serve [its] customers. They paid for every test we passed."

Although her job as a CompUSA instructor required her to take two MOUS exams, Brown decided to go for all six that were offered for master's certification, which cost CompUSA about $2,100, she says. CompUSA didn't require a commitment from Brown after paying for her certification, but she notes that instructors who failed a test had to pay out of pocket to retake it.

While some companies may require a time commitment once they have paid for their people to get certified, even when they don't, employees generally tend to stick around. "There's a misperception that once you train people, they're more likely to move on and find a better job," IDC's Anderson says. "We're not finding that."

Others agree. "If an employer is prepared to invest in IT training, it's rewarded in greater productivity and loyalty," notes Bean, of Prometric. Paying for certification is being used as a perk to attract people to take jobs and as an incentive to keep them, he adds. "Because of how hot the marketplace is...instead of putting a handcuff on, employers roll in learning as part of an overall benefits package to IT professionals,'' he says.

Personal benefits

Stacy Brown believes certifications indicate a person is staying current with technology, since it changes so rapidly. "My company is thinking of upgrading to the [Windows] 2000 package, and I'm the one people turn to with questions, so I think it's valuable."

In fact, she's downright bullish on IT certification and believes it has given her job security. "If I ever decided to leave this position, having that tangible certification immediately voids all the questions in the interview. It is known that I have the skills," she says.

For Wendy Neubert, a freelance consultant in Framingham, Mass., Windows NT 4-Administering certification training gave her a much better understanding of technical support, maintenance and managerial control of systems issues, and how best to support users, she says. Not to mention a broader knowledge of Windows NT.

Lessons learned about paying for IT certification
  • Determine what your motivation is for getting certified.
  • Do your research and have documentation to bring to your boss on how your becoming certified will help the organization.
  • If your employer balks at paying for certification, consider making a commitment to stay with the company for a length of time afterwards. This might make it an easier sell.
  • If you are applying for an IT position, ask if the company will consider paying for certification as a nonmonetary perk.
  • Research the best certification for both you and your company. It will only strengthen your case.
  • Don't forget to factor in the cost of materials; they can be just as expensive as the actual course.
  • If you can't get hired without certification, get it as soon as you can because it's the fastest way to get into the IT industry. The upfront test costs are minimal compared with long-term employment possibilities.
  • If you're committed to the IT industry and you need help paying for certification, take out a loan.
  • Certification is a great way to multiply your daily rate as a contractor--as long as it applies to the daily work you're doing.
  • Don't simply cram for an exam. During job interviews, recruiters may ask pointed questions, so know your stuff.
  • When she worked at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Neubert wasn't looking to receive technical certification. But the demands of her job led to it. Neubert, now a freelance technology consultant in Framingham, Mass., received her NT certification in 1998. At the time, she was part of a technical team that supported a finance group at MIT, in Cambridge, Mass., and the university paid for the week-long training and the exam. "I probably would not have gone for the course otherwise because I didn't have the interest," Neubert says. Since the department's technical manager traveled extensively, Neubert says she was called upon quite a bit to take a larger managerial role. "At my previous job I'd had a year or two of exposure to Novell [NetWare] administration, so it made the most sense to send me to the course," she says.

    Neubert left MIT a few months after getting NT certified and isn't certain network management is an area she wants to concentrate on. But, she says, "I think [the certification] will help me going forward in my career.''

    It's easier than ever before

    As with Ron Anthony, the experience has also sparked in Neubert an interest in other types of certification. Someday, Neubert says she may pursue Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification, but funding it herself will be an issue, since there are seven courses required for the MCSE Windows 2000 certification. Neubert says she was unaware there are loan programs available to assist with the cost.

    Cost aside, the fact remains that there is strong motivation to get certified even when your employer isn't willing to pay for it. "It's a quick way to demonstrate competence,'' says IDC's Anderson. "For people who have existed in the industry, it's a way to continue demonstrating their proficiency in a subject area and assuring their marketability and their importance within their own company."

    For people not already employed in IT jobs, certification offers a chance to get a foot in the door and substitutes for a lack of experience, Anderson notes. As such, many will either take out a loan or pay on their own for an exam or two.

    As a strong proponent of saving up to pay for the exams if an employer won't, Anthony points out that "Loans are good if you're careful.'' For people who don't have the money, he recommends trying to get an entry-level IT job with a company willing to train and then pay for certification down the road.

    Prometric's Bean says the availability of financing for certification has never been better, because of the employability of people interested in IT jobs. But that's not the only criteria--as with anything, qualifying for a loan also depends on an individual's credit worthiness, he says. And if you're loath to take out a loan, getting the training can easily be done at a lower price tag.

    "More than ever, the emergence of high-quality, online learning has led to lower-cost learning, which addresses the financial question,'' says Bean. "But just because there are so many jobs, it doesn't mean you can walk into a job," he warns. "It still takes a lot of studying, hard work, and determination. But when you get there it's a great career to have." //

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