Vendor-certification: What does it get you?

As the Australian IT industry, traditional educational institutions, and governments develop methods to overcome the IT skills shortage, vendor training programs are playing an increasing role in the education of the IT workforce, reports David Smedley.

While you might think a pair of glasses and a Linux badge would be all you'd need to get a job in the IT industry in light of the current skills shortage, you'd be mistaken. People employed on the local IT front have a range of qualifications -- everything from "years of experience" to PhDs.

Besides the variety of courses available from traditional educational institutions such as universities and TAFE colleges, vendor-certified training courses are also playing an increasing role in the education of IT professionals.

For those interested in launching a new career in IT, or expanding their resume, companies such as Microsoft, Novell, Nortel, SAS, SAP, Sun, Cisco, Oracle, Intel and IBM offer internationally recognised training courses in the use of their own products and services.

According to the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), vendor-certified training courses are becoming a fundamental part of educating the IT workforce.

In fact, an ongoing survey, undertaken by the 54 member companies of the AIIA's education training forum's vendor training group, shows that one in two people working in the IT industry have, at one stage in their career, undertaken vendor training.

According to the vendor group's own research, there were approximately one million vendor training student days in 1998, a figure the AIIA's corporate relations manager, Michael Hedley, claims is "very conservative".

Hedley says the results of the survey -- 1999 figures are currently being calculated -- show that providers are making a significant contribution to training in the industry.

"While we know that a lot of that training is being done by companies internally, we also know that there are a lot of people coming from other industries who want to start a new career in IT," Hedley says. As a result, vendor training is becoming increasingly significant as the industry attempts to reduce the local IT skills shortage.

Another survey by the AIIA, released in August last year, predicted that employers would be looking for more than 30,000 people in the current financial year, and that most businesses were already having difficulty finding the skilled people they required. The survey also found the industry demand for skilled employees would increase by about 9 per cent this year, and by at least that amount for the next five years.

Hedley says vendor training offers a number of benefits to those interested in an IT education. "Vendor-certified training is more likely to be the most current, because vendors have access to their own technology first. Vendors also have a good knowledge of the IT space, which provides an advantage for graduates who want to move into that space.

"The high level of investment that companies are willing to make on training for their products and services, also means students benefit from the best technology and training space."

Drake Recruitment's general manager for training in Australia and Asia, Nick Antonopoulos, says vendor certification is "crucial" in today's evolving technological environment. "With the rate of technological change being introduced, companies are looking at vendor certification as the confirmation of a person's skills in specific technologies, and even [new product] releases. Quite often companies don't have the time or resources to train their new staff, and hence rely on such certification," he says.

"Premium salaries are paid for such staff, and non-certified IT professionals are now turning to certification to maintain their competitiveness."

Employers also benefit from vendor-certified training, according to the managing director of recruitment company DMA Australia, Ian Woollett. Companies looking for staff can differentiate the skills they are buying by using certification as a benchmark, he says. "With many new candidates entering the market, certification is another objective assessment that is being used [by employers]."

As a barrier to entry, certification enables specific skills to be more easily recognised and measured, allowing a higher degree of specialisation, which "is essential with the IT industry expanding at its current rate", Woollett says. "No more can a jack of all trades be as valuable as a genuine specialist. By establishing technical benchmarks, both individuals with skill, and the industry in general, benefits."

Employers can also see the benefits of vendor certification on their balance sheet, Antonopoulos points out. A recent IDC report, based on Australian research, found that certified professionals provide over $27,000 more value than non-certified staff, in terms of reduced server down times, reduced help desk call, faster resolution of technical issues, and lower usage of external contractors.

While, no doubt, there is a significant role for vendor-certified training in IT education, are such courses really enough to kick-start a career into the high-tech world of IT?

Ann Moffatt, director of the TAFE Commission Board and managing director of private training firm EXoCaT, says prospective IT employees need a "rounded and broad-based" education. People interested in working in IT need to have a general understanding of the industry, as well as an understanding of the particular environment that they are working in, she says.

Moffatt sees the burgeoning collection of vendor training programs aimed at school students as one way to speed up the process of providing a well-rounded IT education.

A number of vendors, including Novell, 3Com, and Compuware, recently launched training programs aimed at school students in an effort to increase the number of IT graduates. (Significantly, this year's NSW University Admissions Centre recorded record levels of applications from students interested in enrolling in IT-related courses).

"People have to be discerning. They have to know about the whole IT area, and not just how a particular technology works," she says.

This is not to say that Moffatt believes the value of vendor-certified courses to be over-stated, in fact, she believes they should play a greater role in IT education.

In her position as director of the TAFE Commission board she has assisted in the implementation of the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) for IT training -- part of a training package established by the Federal Government's National Industry Training Advisory Body (ITAB) that defines industry qualifications and competences. The commercial name for the National Telecommunications, Postal Services, Information Technology and Printing ITAB is InfoComP Training.

Moffatt says vendor programs are currently being "mapped" onto the AQF, so that they can play a more significant role in the training process as a whole.

In effect, industry sectors are being added to InfoComP's Information Technology Client Support Training Package to create the Information Technology Training Package. The project involves working with enterprises to map and align major vendor training programs against the Package's qualifications, and is expected to provide industry practitioners with a vehicle for education and training.

Moffatt says the next step is to more closely align vendor programs with traditional educational institutions, so that vendor courses can be considered as a part of, or recognised as credit towards, a university degree or TAFE diploma.

For now, Moffatt offers sensible advice to anyone interested in establishing or promoting their career in IT: take advantage of the variety of educational resources provided by vendors and educational bodies alike, to best increase your chances of working in a position that you enjoy most.

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