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IT Staff Selection – Qualification vs Certification – the Quandary?

Certification is more important than Qualification when it comes to IT Staff Selection!  A bold statement, or a true statement?  Let us try to examine this.

The definitions for “qualification”, in the educational context, from various dictionaries are:

  • a quality, accomplishment, etc., that fits a person for some function, office, or the like.
  • official requirement – a condition or requirement, e.g. passing an examination, that must be met by somebody who is to be eligible for a position or privilege
  • a condition or standard that must be complied with (as for the attainment of a privilege)
  • the planned combination of learning outcomes which has a defined purpose or purposes, and which is intended to provide qualifying learners with applied competence and a basis for further learning
  • value added to the qualifying learner in terms of enrichment of the person through the provision of status, recognition, credentials and licensing; enhancement of marketability and employability; and opening up access routes to additional education and training

As applied by SAQA (South African Qualification Authority), “qualifications” are issued by education and training institutions that need to be formally accredited.  “Qualifications” also have to have a set number of “learning hours” with a minimum being 1200 hours – being one academic year.  So any learning program with less than 1200 learning hours is not considered a “qualification”, but rather a “short course”.  Specifically excluded from being recognised as a “qualification” are:

  • Qualifications issued by education and training institutions that are not officially recognised as a part of a national education system, or accredited according to the relevant provisions of a particular country. This includes the qualifications of professional (membership) bodies.
  • Short courses , in-service training, workshops / seminars and experiential learning (unless these form an integral part of a recognised national qualification in the country of origin).
  • Prior learning acquired outside of a national system of education and training.

Definitions for “Certification” are a bit more vague, with the most relevant for this purpose being:

  • Certification refers to the confirmation of certain characteristics of an object, person, or organisation.  This confirmation is often, but not always, provided by some form of external review, education, or assessment.
  • Professional certification is a process in which a person proves that he or she has the knowledge, experience, and skills to perform a specific job.  The proof comes in the form of a certificate earned by passing an exam that is accredited by an organization or association that monitors and upholds prescribed standards for the particular industry/subject involved.
  • Certification does not, however, refer to the state of legally being able to practice or work in a profession.

In the IT Industry there are different certifications available for different jobs and technology environments.  Many have been built on the back of a Body of Knowledge in the specific area of learning.  Such as Project Management (PMBoK), Software Engineering (SWEBoK), Data Management (DMBoK), Business Analysis, (BABoK), Architecture (Togaf), and many more.

There are also a number of “supplier certifications” that “certify” the ability of a person to work with a specific technology.  For example, Certifications from Microsoft (MCSE, MCSD, etc.), from Cisco (CCNA, CCNP, etc.) and many more.

Now the BIG question – which is more important for working in IT, a “qualification” or “certifications”?

Academics will argue that having a “qualification” means that the person is able to learn better, has better potential, has better cognition, and has a broader understanding of the world.  This is probably true, but a formal “qualification” is not the only method of achieving these qualities.  Workplace-based experiential learning can develop these qualities just as assuredly.

A fact in IT is, having a formal “qualification” gets you a job at entry level in an organisation.  The same starting place as a learner without a formal “qualification”.  Another “fact” in IT is, the formal “qualification” has absolutely no bearing on the job that one is doing four to five years later.  You find people with a vast variety of formal “qualifications” working in IT today – from BA to BSc Engineering.  And jobs in IT change, such that one seldom is doing the same job five years after appointment to that position.  In IT one can start as a Programmer and end up as a Product Manager, or start out as a Network Administrator and end up as a Technology Architect.  The knowledge and ability necessary for the first job are completely different to the knowledge and ability necessary for the final job – and the various jobs in-between.

So, having a formal “qualification” is probably good for getting your first job in IT – many organisations seem to favour a formal “qualification” for the reasons given above.  Thereafter, however, it is “certification” that provides better information on the growing knowledge and ability of IT Professionals.

“Certifications” tend to keep up better with the fast-changing, dynamic nature of the industry in which skills reportedly change on an eight to fourteen month basis.  Bodies of Knowledge are maintained through the organisation dedicated to the specific field of learning/work, and tend to be “thought leaders” in the subject area.  Supplier “certifications” keep up with the technology changes and are easier to achieve through “short courses”.

“Qualifications” tend to be “snapshots” of knowledge and ability at a point in time, whereas “certifications” tend to be a “continuum” of development and bring accreditation of knowledge and ability up to date more frequently.

So, back to the beginning, “Certification is more important than Qualification in IT”.  In getting an initial placement in the IT industry, probably Qualification is more important.  Thereafter, however, Certification is much more important in relating the actual knowledge and ability of the person at THAT point in time and tell a more up-to-date story of capability and applicability for appointment.

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