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There seems to be two schools of thought on the value of IT certifications. Some technology professionals say they can absolutely turbo-charge your salary and earning potential. Others claim that certifications may not be worth the paper on which they're printed.

Obviously, the companies that sell that type of training are the biggest proponents. For example, IT training company Global Knowledge, last year published its list of the 15 Top-Paying Certifications for 2016. Thirteen boasted average salaries of $100,000. Similarly, the SANS Institute reported that "proven certifications can provide up to a 5 percent increase in compensation for certified staff over non-certified staff."

IT certifications and continuing education, like university degrees, go a long way toward proving professionals have the skills they claim. This validation often gives job candidates, with the right certifications and experience, an edge over comparable candidates with only experience.

"As an IT service provider, you need to know what's going on. Certification is a way to learn higher levels and get in depth into a topic," wrote Jerry Irvine, CIO of Chicago-based Prescient Solutions and a member of the National Cyber Security Task Force in a blog post. Irvine holds multiple certifications (CISM, CISA, CISSP, MCSE, CCNA, CCNP, CCDA, CCDP, CNE, CBCP, CASP, CIPP/IT, IAPP/IT, ITIL and CGEIT) as well as at least six others. "IT is changing on a daily basis; you'll be left behind if you don't keep up."

As technology changes, some certifications (like Irvine's 1991 Netware Engineer certification) become irrelevant. Others, like the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification, have multiple versions - like software updates - to reflect changes in the technology and business environment. Some certifications fulfill the continuing education requirements for new certifications, he added. That enables professionals to concentrate on the more advanced certifications.

Today, multiple certifications are required that span competing and complementary technologies and vendors. Other certifications also are adding specializations. For example, facilities management certifications include special modules or completely separate certifications focused around sustainability. This is increasingly important as data centers incorporate new, more sustainable technologies.

'Must-Have' Certifications

Today's "must-have" certifications vary according to the job and the individual.  Microsoft certifications are king for technicians, and virtualization certifications from Citrix, Microsoft and VMware are extremely important as computing continues to turn to the cloud, according to Irvine.

For management, Irvine recommends earning CISA (Certified Information Systems Auditor), CISM (Certified Information Security Manager) and CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional) standing.

VMware has developed expert level certification around network virtualization.

Entry-level certifications like CompTIA's Security+ are based upon testing and require little to no experience, but senior-level certifications generally require a combination of experience and testing. For example, the Professional level CISA certification requires three to five years' experience and a minimum of three references from organizations for which you've performed those functions. These tests also require several different domains of expertise.

Facilities management is one of the fastest-growing industries globally, according to a recent Global Industries Analytics report. In the past decade, it has evolved from maintenance and repair to document handling and IT management, as well as other functions.

Educational Opportunities

Certification classes help ensure professionals are familiar with all the areas covered by the certification exams. Many of the exams include both written and hands-on testing. As professionals advance in their careers, experience and hands-on capabilities become increasingly important - even to pass the certification testing. "Classes help ensure you can answer the questions appropriately, but the professional designation tests are grounded in the real world," Irvine points out.

There are many options for training. In addition to face-to-face classroom training that, like boot camps, takes professionals out of the day-to-day work environment to concentrate on specific material, video and online training is available. These options help students learn on their own time. Many call them invaluable for augmenting or replacing classroom training.

Professionals also need to look for educational opportunities outside traditional IT training to learn about business processes, regulatory compliance and such soft skills as leadership.

While certification can be invaluable in imparting and validating knowledge, additional educational opportunities also have merit. For example, conferences sponsored by organizations like AFCOM and Black Hat have a wealth of information to keep attendees current with the industry, technologies and emerging threats. Vendor classes and conferences can also provide additional educational options. Writing articles and training others can also help advance one's own education. Other options include joining online communities and spending time to read articles and posts.

Hiring

Certification alone doesn't necessarily make someone a better candidate. Value in IT comes down to experience, but certification can validate that expertise. For a junior-level person trying to get in the door, certification helps on the resume. For people with eight to 10 years' experience, certifications are often the cherries on top because they help in identifying qualified people who are deeply knowledgeable about specific technologies.

Certification may be most important in demonstrating expertise with new technologies. With the current U.S. IT unemployment rate at about 3 percent, according to Dice, a career hub for technology and engineering professionals, employers say finding the right person for any job openings remains difficult. The problem, they say, is in finding individuals with all the skills needed in modern, virtualized data centers.

Sometimes there's a reluctance among professionals to gain certifications, but as the IDC Research report, "IT Staffing Strategies: Demand and Change in the Era of the 3rd Platform," pointed out, "In the long run, training an under-skilled employee with potential is far less expensive than hiring a fully skilled/experienced worker."

Training budgets, however, aren't always available, so you can't always rely on company funds. Instead, IT professionals should expect to invest financially in education that enhances their careers. A look at costs shows a range from about $200 to $2,000 for certification classes and testing. Some of the classes and certifying organizations include, or offer at low cost, physical or virtual computer laboratories equipped with the relevant technology and applications.

Certifications, like a college degree, show that individuals are capable of learning and proactively taking  the steps necessary to advance their own careers. Certified individuals not only say they have certain skills, they validate those claims through standard, industry-recognized certifications.

For hiring organizations, certifications reduce risk in the hiring process. Certifications, particularly when paired with job experience, create a winning combination for experts eager to expand their opportunities and increase their value.