Commentary: Certification cowboys drag IT's reputation through mud

Some training firms seem to be turning IT certifications into some kind of get-rich-quick scheme. This kind of uprooting of reality could be certifiably soiling the name of IT.

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Unfortunately, the irresponsible behavior of a minority of IT training firms is causing significant damage to the whole industry's reputation amongst students.

In a highly competitive market, more and more firms are hyping potential monetary rewards to encourage students to enroll in their courses. All too often, training firms make promises to students about their future earnings without bothering to properly assess experience and track records.

Almost on a daily basis, my enrollment team receives calls from members of the public expressing an interest in well-known industry qualifications like MCSE because they heard that it was a guaranteed road to riches. It is our strict policy to manage these expectations right from the outset, rather than encourage such delusional thinking.

The fact is that acquiring the skills and experience to earn $80k+ salaries in IT requires many years of study and practical experience. Anyone who believes otherwise will be sorely disappointed. Unfortunately, any attempts to reason with such people are all too often thwarted because there are always firms out there that are only too happy to pander to these fantasies.

A common tactic is to create advertisements that guarantee jobs at the end of a course and place those ads in key magazines. However, a cursory glance at the small print often shows this promise to be an empty one, as the job in question is in the training firm's own call center! Another common scam is to claim that the firm has a long list of employers on the books willing to offer their fresh-faced graduates guaranteed employment. However, delve a little deeper into the detail, and you will find out this "employment" amounts to little more than an "all expenses paid" short-term placement.

All in all, these underhand tactics to attract students amount to mis-selling of almost scandalous proportions, and it is about time someone blew the whistle on these certification cowboys.

My advice to anyone thinking about a career in the IT industry is that they should treat "get rich quick" promises with extreme caution. For good, reliable advice, the Microsoft Web site is as good a starting point as any. For example, nowhere on the site does it say that MCSE is an entry-level qualification. CompTIA's A+Net+ is probably the most appropriate foundation level certificate as it is vendor neutral and gives students good entry-level skills encompassing networks, hardware and operating systems.

The fact of the matter is that qualifications like MCSE are just a mechanism for industry professionals to prove their credentials. They are not, under any circumstances, a substitute for experience. The hurdles in the way of employment are akin to a door with multiple locks -- a certification, however good, will only ever open one of many latches.

If these unscrupulous training firms are allowed to carry on their unchecked hyping of the potential rewards of their courses, they will harm the whole industry's good name. Furthermore, the MCSE qualification will inevitably be devalued in employers' minds as its alumni are swamped with unsuitable graduates. This is clearly neither in the best interests of the student nor Microsoft.

Students should also be wary of training providers that create their own curriculum material tailored specifically to get students through the exams. The fundamental problem with this approach is that it often does not cover the full breadth of material that would be included in the official Microsoft curriculum. In other words, students are being asked to essentially pay more for less in terms of course content.

What is needed to stop this mis-selling of courses to students is for the industry's certification body, the Institute of IT Training, to take a far tougher line on this issue than it has done to date. For example, it might consider publishing a black list of firms guilty of mis-selling courses on its Web site and drafting up an industry code of conduct for both members and non-members of the Institute. This is common practice in most other industries, so why not in IT training as well?

Ed Denzler is Chairman and CEO at The Training Camp, a Philadelphia-based firm that provides training and certification testing services for companies, governments and IT professionals. He can be reached at EDenzler@trainingcamp.net.

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