Certifications appear to have lost some of their luster recently, and many who hold them wonder whether they should bother to keep their certifications current. Nevertheless, employers are demonstrating that they still want prospective employees to have both college degrees and certifications. (In my opinion, a 4-year computer science or computer information systems—CIS—degree is preferable to certifications alone, and having a degree and certifications is optimal.) Why do employers value IT training and certification so highly when those of us that hold the certifications have become critical of them?
Hired for What You Know?
A fallacy that we can toss out immediately is that employers hire you for what you know. Employers would be crazy to hire you strictly for what's in your head on your first day. The body of knowledge you possess when you graduate from a certification program will likely be obsolete after a year, and it'll be old technology after 2 years. If employers were hiring for knowledge alone, they'd bring you on as a contractor for 6 months and then let you go.
Certification is similar to a college degree in that it implies teachability and commitment more than knowledge. Some employers look for a college diploma to indicate that you have valuable knowledge that you can bring to their business. More often, however, employers don't even care what your major was. They realize that the degree itself reveals important qualities about you.
The knowledge you absorbed in college while pursuing your degree was dated the day you acquired it, and the same holds true for certifications. Those Windows 3.1 and Networking Basics certifications you earned in 1996 are certainly obsolete now. Yes, some principles are timeless, but most of the specific knowledge was dated the day you took your seat in class. In IT, new rules apply every day.
Teachability, Self Discipline, Commitment
To the wise employer, it's not what you learned from your education or training, but rather that you can learn and relearn quickly. Degrees and certifications can indicate that you're teachable and have proven knowledge-acquisition skills. Employers want you to learn about their environments quickly and to become oriented effortlessly. They might want to provide additional training or let you learn on your own.
Few things are as frustrating for IT managers as sending employees out for expensive training only to find that they didn't learn or retain anything—that it was just a paid vacation. Selling upper management on training employees is one thing; convincing them to hire contractors to perform the work that expensively trained employees were supposed to learn to do is something else entirely. You're a much stronger candidate for employment if you use your commitment to ongoing training to demonstrate your teachability.
Earning a degree or completing a certification path requires self-discipline. You might feel many different forces pulling at you to drop out of school and get a job or to quit a program because of a bad instructor or poor performance on a test. You're investing time and money to pursue a distant goal for unspecified benefits, and you must discipline yourself to study, despite the many distractions in your daily life. This self-discipline is among the traits that employers look for in potential employees.
The other positive quality that a degree or certification can indicate is follow-through. Sadly, it's becoming common to see people fail to follow through on their personal and professional commitments. Businesses are looking people who can make promises and keep them. The time you took to earn a degree or a certification is sound evidence of your commitment and follow-through.