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IT Certifications: 5 New Realities

Oct. 19, 2018
Ryan Day

IT professional working on a laptop in a server roomIt's no longer good enough for IT professionals to just "know computers"

By Ryan Day

Want to get a good idea of how the perceived value of certifications has changed over time? This is a line from our first IT Skills and Salary Report in 2008:

“There have been many articles and discussions regarding the value of certification, and in general, employer support for certification appears to be mixed.”

95% of IT decision-makers believe a certified team member brings added value above and beyond the cost of certification.

What a difference a decade makes. In our 2018 report, there are few mixed feelings—95% of IT decision-makers believe a certified team member brings added value above and beyond the cost of certification. Those values include increased productivity and faster troubleshooting, which are abilities that are vital in today’s tech world as skills gaps are steadily widening.

Certifications are now considered the pinnacle of achievement in the tech industry. That’s a huge change in perspective from a decade ago when many IT professionals still didn’t understand the merit of certification.


Certification Value Has Skyrocketed

When you analyze survey responses from 11 years of our report, the data overwhelmingly illustrates a rise in demand for certification training.

  • In 2008, nine percent of respondents said the main reason they train is to prepare for certification. In 2018, that number has risen to 48%.
  • In 2008, just 38% of IT professionals held at least one certification. In 2018, 89% are certified.
  • In 2008, 42% of respondents said they plan to pursue a certification in the next year. In 2018, 64% will either pursue certification or are already in the process of becoming certified.

Currently, our survey respondents hold an average of nearly three certifications each. There’s a lot of competition in the tech industry, so professionals often have their eyes set on their next certifications years in advance.


Certifications Pay Off

It’s not just the employers who are benefiting from an increase in certification training. In 2018, certified IT professionals in the U.S. and Canada have an average salary of $87,678, which is $15,913 or 22% more than non-certified professionals. As long as the training is career-relevant, it certainly pays to pursue certifications.

There has, however, been a slight shift in the top-paying certifications over the course of our reporting. In 2008, Project Management Professional (PMP®) was the top-paying certification at $101,698. PMP® is still a popular and lucrative certification, ranking third in the U.S. and seventh globally in terms of salary. But security certifications took over the top spot on our highest-paying list in 2014 and has held firm ever since.

Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) was No. 4 in 2008 and is No. 1 this year, with an average North American salary of $109,965.

ISACA’S Certified in Risk Systems and Control (CRISC) has been the top-paying certification for three of the last five years and comes in at No. 2 this year. CRISC is a certification designed for IT professionals, project managers and others whose job it is to identify and manage IT and business risks through appropriate Information Systems (IS) controls. Currently, North American IT professionals who hold a CRISC certification have an average salary of $107,968.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) certifications have also made a big splash since debuting in 2013. AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate was the second highest-paying certification in 2016, the third-highest in 2017 and the fourth-highest in North America this year. And while cloud certifications didn’t appear on our list a decade ago, AWS certifications have the highest North American average ($113,261) in 2018.

See our complete list of the 2018 top-paying certifications.


Cybersecurity, Cisco and Microsoft Are the Most Popular

One thing that hasn’t changed in 10 years is the popularity of certain certifications. In 2008, Microsoft certifications were dominant. Nearly 35% of respondents held a Microsoft certification. The next highest was Project Management at 16.3%.

Ten years and 11 reports later, Microsoft is still popular—21% of respondents hold at least one Microsoft certification. This makes it the third most popular certification category, behind cybersecurity and Cisco.

Twenty-three percent of respondents hold a cybersecurity certification and the average global salary of those respondents is $82,652. That’s well above the average for all certification professionals ($64,820).

Twenty-three percent of respondents hold a Cisco certification, the most popular of which is CCNA Routing and Switching, which is held by 16% of all respondents.


How Employers View IT

Management’s perspective on IT training has certainly shifted over the course of our reporting. In 2011, only 35% of decision-makers believed certifications led to a more effective staff. Today, managers are nearly unanimous in their support.

The additional skills that certified employees bring to the table are also a welcomed benefit in an industry that’s currently facing ever-widening skills gaps. When asked to estimate the economic benefit of a certified staff member versus a non-certified peer, 27% of IT decision-makers said it exceeds $20,000 annually. The same percentage project the benefit to fall between $10,000 and $19,999, which far exceeds the cost of the certification exam and prep fees.

The advantages of certification seem obvious now, but skepticism of its value and IT in general was rampant a few years ago. According to Daniel Cummins, Global Knowledge Technical Instructor of Networking and Security, organizations used to consider IT a necessary evil.

“Business owners didn’t understand it, but since they needed technology to do their jobs, they hired guys who ‘knew computers’ to handle support,” Cummins said.

Cummins says the increased frequency of major security breaches forced employers to take IT departments more seriously. The search for qualified and certified IT professionals became a driving force of many organizations.

“It was no longer good enough to ‘know computers,’” Cummins said. “Now, we are looking for experts.”

Holding a certification may not be enough anymore. Cummins says that a certification was once proof of expertise without the need for a full degree, but he’s seen a shift in recent years.

“I’m seeing a trend toward degrees and certifications now,” he said. “Employers want a four-year bachelor’s degree in a related discipline and expert-level certifications.”


More Experts Are Needed

Year after year, building new skills is the No. 1 reason why IT professionals train. Traditionally, preparing for a certification exam is second.

The two go hand in hand. Certification value remains high as experts with diverse skill sets are needed in every IT department. This trend is likely to continue as rapid innovation continues to impact the industry.

Certifications, especially in cybersecurity and cloud computing, are growing in popularity for a multitude of reasons. Security breaches are increasing in size and scope, and it’s no longer a matter of if companies will be using the cloud but when. Decision-makers are also struggling to hire qualified candidates for these two specific functional areas.

“Clearly there’s a shortage of true cybersecurity people in the industry,” said Dave Buster, Global Knowledge’s Global Senior Portfolio Director for Cybersecurity.

Buster attributes the scarcity of cybersecurity professionals to a number of reasons, including a lack of clear career paths and a perception that cybersecurity is “too difficult.”

“The technology is not as hard as they think,” he said.

As for cloud computing, the rapid market advancement is creating new roles that force traditional IT pros to re-train and those looking to be hired learn new skills. Like cybersecurity, supply has yet to catch up with the demand for talent.

As the pressure on IT departments continues to rise, there’s an increased need for new ways of thinking about and performing tasks. The expertise gained from certification is the best way for professionals and decision-makers to ensure team and organizational success.

The benefits of certification are just too great for the value to dip. Certified IT professionals exhibit increased productivity and faster troubleshooting skills—two extremely important attributes needed to combat skills gaps.

Certifications remain the pinnacle of achievement in the tech industry, and that sentiment is unlikely to change.


Plan Your IT Certification Roadmap

Clearly the value of becoming certified has positive impacts on both the organization and one’s career. We have a collection of resources to help you navigate your own certification journey.

For those of you looking to start your certification journey, read “How to Select the Right Certification for You.”

If you’ve decided to get certified but want to ensure you select a proven certification with staying power, check out “18 Certifications Worth Having.”

We also offer an assortment of certification prep guides for specific credentials. These guides provide a deep and detailed look at the certification, while also offering helpful exam tips and tricks you won’t find anywhere else.


Certification tracks

Certification tracks provide easy-to-follow roadmaps of the steps and courses you need to take as you pursue a certification.

The certification training tracks below were designed to be clear and easy to follow. Certifications take a lot of your time and energy, so before you embark on your journey, make sure you’re fully aware of the courses and exam prep available, and what’s required or optional.