What $3-a-Gallon Gas Has To Do With Your Certification

When it comes to the laws of Economics, perhaps none is more basic than the law of supply and demand. In a nutshell, if a product or service has a high demand, its price heavily depends on the existing supply. If the supply is sufficient to meet demand, the price is usually reasonable. On the other hand, if the supply is scarce, the price can scale to extraordinary levels. Witness current gasoline prices in the United States.

Some states are bracing for $3/gallon gas. Why? Ultimately, it boils down to supply and demand. In the summer, automobile travel picks up, leading to an increase in demand for gasoline. This increase typically drives prices up, but this year seems worse than most because the supply is getting pinched.

What, you might wonder, does this situation have to do with your certification? The same supply and demand factors pushing gas prices to extremely high levels are at work in the IT industry. OPEC has nothing to do with it, of course, but other factors make a certification worth more or less, depending on industry conditions. In recent years, a few cycles have proved this.

A few years ago, the demand for people certified on Novell technology was quite high. Because of Novell's dominance in the market, jobs for Novell engineers paid lavish salaries. Consequently, many people rushed out to become CNE certified—so many, in fact, that the introduction of new CNEs with very little actual experience led to the term "paper CNE." As the years passed, supply (the number of people who were Novell certified) eventually caught up with demand. No longer were CNEs in such demand, and salaries for CNEs began to fall. IT people began looking around for the "next big thing."

They found it in the MCSE. Not long ago, being an MCSE was almost a certain path to job security and a healthy salary. Many MCSEs commanded salaries in the high five figures and some even eclipsed the six-figure mark. Training providers jumped on this fact, touting the benefits of getting the MCSE certification. What happened next? As with the CNE, the number of certified individuals increased, meeting (and probably exceeding) the demand in the marketplace. Salaries came down to earth, and merely being an MCSE no longer guaranteed a good job.

What does this mean to you? The last thing you want to do is pursue a certification whose demand has peaked, especially if the supply of certified individuals is rapidly increasing. As with the recent dot-com mania, people often get in at the top, only to see their investment (in this case, the time and money they spend becoming certified) valued at much less than they initially expected. Turning a blind eye to the supply and demand factors in our industry is a surefire way to end up underpaid and disillusioned.

I don't pretend to be some sage who can predict the industry's future, but I can list some things to look for as you choose certifications to pursue:

  • Does it seem as if everyone is pursuing a certain certification? If everyone is talking about something, you might think twice about pursuing it. The Internet stocks provide a good analogy here. Remember when Yahoo was everyone's darling stock at the end of 1999 (closing price on 12/31/99: $216)? Yahoo closed 2000 at $31, a decrease of more than 85 percent. Although not as drastic, similar changes can happen to certification because of supply and demand.

  • How many people are realistically needed to fill certain roles? Few would dispute that the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) is currently the most valuable certification to hold. But how many CCIEs does the world need? Because of what a CCIE does (network design and advanced router configuration), the answer is probably, "Not very many." And if the number of CCIEs eclipses the demand for CCIEs, the value of this vaunted certification is almost certain to fall.

  • Where is the industry headed? You've all heard the story about some person who invested in Microsoft 15 years ago and is now cozily retired on an island somewhere. His secret of course was to get in before everyone else on something that eventually proved to be really big. Although not as dramatic, you can do the same thing when you choose certifications to pursue. Take some time to analyze where the IT industry is headed. Pick up some trade magazines and read about developing technologies. Think outside of the box. Could it be Bluetooth? Juniper? Blackberry? Although these might seem to be unlikely candidates, remember that 10 years ago, getting certified on Windows seemed pretty strange too.

Just like stocks, certifications can gain and lose value. The hot certification today might be an afterthought tomorrow. It's your responsibility to do your best to stay in tune with developments that affect the value of various certifications. You're not alone, though. We'll do our best to help you.

Still Can't Get $3/Gallon Gas out of Your Head?
Want to vent a little? Some of the regulars at MCSE Live! have started an interesting thread about the subject. Check it out! If you want to post a response to the thread, register for free at the 2000Tutor site.

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