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Does getting technical certificate pay off?

(ran TP, NP, HT, CI editions)

Figuring out whether to get a technical certification can be a tough decision.

On the one hand, certifications are a good way to document and prove your technical expertise to potential employers.

On the other hand, certifications can cost thousands of dollars and can't guarantee a job or higher pay.

A new survey says employers are paying less of a premium for some certifications than they did a year ago, though they're beginning to place more value on certifications in general.

Companies are much more cautious about hiring, and when they go looking for someone with a technical skill, they want the certification to prove it, said David Foote, president of Foote Partners LLC, a Connecticut research firm that specializes in tracking pay trends in the information technology industry.

"What's interesting is that, going back to, say, early in the year 2000, skills pay was a lot higher than certification pay, by as much as 2 to 3 percent of base salary," Foote said.

"That has changed completely. Gradually, skills pay has been declining and certification pay has been increasing. In the fourth quarter of 2001, that was the point at which those lines crossed."

Foote Partners (www.footepartners.com) doesn't offer certification training courses or do job placement itself.

Foote said that during the tech heyday, companies were willing to hire and pay anyone who said he knew how to build a Web site, maintain a database or run a network.

According to Foote Partners' 2002 report on fourth-quarter and annual trends in tech skills and certification pay, the bonuses that companies pay to tech workers who say they have specific skills have shrunk 24.8 percent over the past two years.

By comparison, bonuses for certifications have inched up 0.4 percent over the past two years, including a 3.3 percent drop in 2002.

Security certifications showed the biggest bonus increases in 2002, the report found, noting that bonuses for techies with such certifications were 11.3 percent higher than the year before. By contrast, Web master certification bonuses were down 13.9 percent.

Dale Weller, president of the Texas School of Business and Technology (www.tmctechnology.com), which offers several technical certification courses, said it's no surprise that tech workers are finding some certifications aren't as valuable as they used to be.

"Because of the general economy, I think there isn't much of anything that hasn't dropped in value," he said. "If you've been to a car lot lately, you'll find that almost anything you want is available at much less cost than a couple years ago. This is certainly true of labor as well."

The sheer number of people who rushed into the IT field a few years ago also reduced the value of some certifications, particularly for entry-level skills.

While certain certifications are in demand, those holding them can't expect to be paid more than their noncertified counterparts, said Lesley Pool, a spokeswoman for Affiliated Computer Services Inc. in Dallas.

"It's not the only determining factor when it comes to their compensation," she said. "It adds to their value, but you're also looking at the total package of experience, business skills, communications skills and other attributes."

Pool said ACS (www.acs-inc.com) employs about 40,000 people worldwide. ACS hired 16,000 people last year and is still looking for workers, she said.

She said ACS and many other employers now expect tech applicants to be trained before they're hired _ a reversal of when companies hired first and then paid for training.

If nothing else, having a valuable certification means that an employee is less likely to be cut if layoffs occur, Weller said.

"You might be the world's greatest mechanic on Model Ts, but there aren't very many of them around anymore," Weller said.

"So if you didn't continue to keep your skills upgraded, you're not going to be in as much demand as the person who did."

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