Sydney's inner west is a notoriously hard place to find a taxi late at night. But the many cinemas, pubs and restaurants are not the only cause of the problem. Another important contributor is a small, unsophisticated, Pakistani restaurant not far from the entertainment precinct that sucks cabs off the street thanks to what plenty of expats swear is the most authentic home cooking this side of Karachi. Another temptation on offer on the restaurant's walls are posters that proclaim that a couple of thousand dollars spent attaining certification as a Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT) or Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) could be the ticket out of a cab and into a better job and a better life.
The restaurant in question still seems to have plenty of cab-driving diners, but there is no doubt that vendor certification is greatly desired by students and employers alike.
"Our students are given problems that they'd see at work," says Bala Subra, head teacher and Cisco program manager at Petersham TAFE in Sydney's inner west, which offers courses that build into Cisco certification. "Our course is more a balance of practice and theory, unlike university where the focus is more on theory. This makes employers happy because our graduates can do their jobs straightaway."
Jill Shapiro, Dimension Data's national human resources manager, agrees with Subra that newly-certified students can be productive as soon as they complete their studies.
"In terms of bridging the skills gap the efforts that the vendors are making are very valuable, because certification increases the pace at which new hires become billable," she says. "Traditionally when we've taken on graduates, we've had to train them before we can get them onto client work. So certification is hugely valuable to us."
That kind of argument in support of vendor certifications is doubtless one reason why they have spread beyond the private colleges that were once the dominant source of vendor-specific education. Petersham TAFE is one of many institutions that now offers the courses. Universities have clambered aboard the bandwagon too and offer vendor certification courses as part of undergraduate curricula or as options that can sometimes be used for credit towards a degree.
Even masters programs include vendor courses. Charles Sturt University eloquently describes the benefits of including vendors' training programs on its website, which says the relevance of its masters degrees is due in part because they include "achievement of the world's premium IT industry certifications from major IT vendors such as Cisco, Microsoft, Novell, Oracle and PMI".
Most businesses use equipment and software from prominent vendors, so the marketing for these courses nearly always emphasises that possessing the relevant certification enhances a candidate's job prospects - and makes an ideal stepping stone for anyone seeking a career change. Vendors fuel the argument by encouraging industry recognition and appreciation of their certifications as an imprimatur of a candidate's technical skills.
Dimension Data's Shapiro believes the vendors' assertions have some currency. "We're a technical company and we pride ourselves on the level of tech certifications we have," she says. "From the client point of view, we think they're impressed when they see the level of certification behind our engineers."
Industry, however, is cool on certified candidates when the certification is the dominant part of their education and they lack other experience.
"My personal view is that I would hire this kind of graduate because I appreciate the value of education, even if it is single-vendor focused," says Paul Tero, ITS network manager for The Salvation Army, Australia. "But I'd place them in a junior role until they proved themselves. However, depending on the business's circumstances, it may not be practical to hire someone with limited experience."
Tero prefers that vendor-specific training take place within the context of a university degree. "A university course would be broader than just vendor-centric learning," he says.
Another factor mitigating against the hiring of staff whose IT education has seen them specialise in a certain vendor's technology is that few Australian IT departments are large enough to provide specialists with enough work.
"We don't hire them because we're not at the size where we need someone just to do Oracle or just do Cisco," says Daniel Hayward, global IT manager of renewable energy company Pacific Hydro.
"If we had a requirement for someone just to operate one vendor's equipment, that would be ideal. But we'd still recognise that broader knowledge and experience is valuable."
The experience Hayward wants is not only in technology. "Corporate experience is something that can't be trained," he says, citing as valuable such soft skills as knowing how to work with other people inside a corporate environment - which he suspects is absent in a candidate whose education has been focused on a single vendor's products.
That lack of wider skills is a problem. "A larger company can afford trainees," he says. "They can hide them in the corner and see what they do." And that, he suspects, will be to reveal some immaturity in real-world situations.
"Things like the ability to diagnose a problem come through experience or nature," he says of the qualities that certification-focused candidates may lack. "For us, how someone tackles problems is more important than knowing how to make the switches work." Broader education and experience, he feels, are more likely to translate into the skills he values.
Another indication that employers prefer their new hires to have a wider range of skills comes from the Australian and New Zealand chapter of the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA ANZ). The association recently conducted research among storage users to discover how it could best relaunch its training programs, called Storage Academy, and found that generalist skills were in highest demand.
"Our market research said that employers want a form of industry accreditation for the kind of work they're doing," says Ronnie Altit, a SNIA ANZ board director.
The new Storage Academy curriculum therefore deals with general storage issues rather than vendor-specific issues.
"Vendor-based training is fine if you have that product in your environment," Altit says. "We want to give technical people the opportunity to say they've passed a course and have a good general knowledge of storage rather than be able to say that 'I can create a logical unit number in that particular storage environment'."
Altit agrees, however, that the shape of the storage industry makes this approach more relevant than it could be for other technologies.
"Cisco owns the network space so a Cisco certification has a lot of value," he says. "In storage there's no one all-out leader."
That means no single vendor certification is likely to impress a company hiring storage specialists. Altit says the industry likes SNIA ANZ's new approach.
"As an industry body we're providing to the market the non-biased view and giving people the chance to grow in the industry," he says. "That's what employers see as the attraction of Storage Academy. We're on our third iteration of the courses and feedback has been outstanding."
Leon Lau is another who interfaces with industry to understand staffing needs. The managing director of Peoplebank, Australia's largest dedicated IT recruiter, says candidates with nothing but certifications are of no interest to his company until they have two to three years' experience.
"Our clients will typically, in my experience, always take someone with the hands-on experience before they take the graduate with a certification," he says. The exception, he finds, is for internships or graduate intakes, as it is otherwise hard to find a role for recent graduates.
"It's hard to place them," he says. "We have 200,000 people on our database with at least two or three years' experience." There is also little incentive for a recruiter to get excited about newly certified workers, as their salaries are low and therefore generate smaller recruitment fees.
Even if these entry-level employees were attractive, they could not rely on certification landing them a job, as technical skills are only one of many qualities that employers consider.
"It's fabulous when a candidate does have a CCENT or another certification," says Dimension Data's Shapiro. "But it's not the definitive criteria. For us, attitude is paramount. Cultural fit and passion for IT are generally going to be the most important things for us. If we find that, then we start to look at their qualifications.
"It's probably not the last thing we look at, but if you have equal candidates the certification gives the candidate an edge."
Peoplebank's Lau agrees that certification is an asset, but is not the deciding factor in one candidate winning a job over another. "The qualification is a plus but it doesn't get them the job," he says. Instead it is experience, once again, that is the deciding factor.
"Employers want to see somebody who's had experience doing the things they need to do," he says. "They'll pick that person before someone who just has the training."
Lau also says the other factors that influence all hiring decisions do not go away just because a candidate has a certification. "There's not one point of difference that makes a difference," he says. "And overlaying every decision is a candidate's presentation."
Nonetheless, he says that certifications are an important factor, but perhaps an inflated one given the skills shortage.
"In a year's time or two years' time, are we going to be in the same skills shortage market?" he asks. He expects employers will still probably find it hard to recruit the staff they need.
Yet he warns would-be IT workers that the glorious uncertainty of IT may yet trump all of employers' other potential objections once they enter the job market.
"I don't know how a student decides which vendor-specific qualification he or she wants," he says. "At the minimum they're making a 12-month bet and when you're 19 or 20 years old it's hard to know the trends in the market. I really don't understand the process they use to decide which certification to choose at such an early age."
MORE THAN A MEMORY TEST
One of the byproducts of vendor certification being included in the curriculum at publicly funded tertiary institutions is the chance for students to be exposed to broader subject matter and a rigorous academic environment, says Bala Subra, head teacher and Cisco program manager at Sydney's Petersham TAFE.
"When they do the Cisco program, the lab sessions offer real-world problems that students would face working in industry," he says.
"It's not like doing the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) [where] you can go for a couple of weeks. Those people come back and study here because we focus on the labs. It's not just about passing the vendor's exam. You can do that at a training centre but how do they pass? Do they just memorise the answers or download them from the net?"
At TAFE, it's different. "Every week, students have to do exams," Subra says. "If they're not progressing well, they have to repeat that subject matter."
LESSONS FOR A LIFETIME
Is certification of professional development no longer the hot spot?
Another argument advanced by vendors to underline the value of their certifications is that in a fast-moving world, IT professionals can best prove the currency of their skills by attaining new or more advanced versions of the qualifications they already hold.
But employers are not buying the whole story.
"We do six-monthly personal development plans and sit down with our people and talk about where they're heading," says Dimension Data's Jill Shapiro. "Certifications are figuring less prominently in those discussions. More and more we're balancing certification with other forms of professional development like influencing, negotiating and business writing."
Pacific Hydro's Daniel Hayward has similar opinions.
"It's hard for us to lose a technician for a week," he says. "Studying part-time after hours is a possibility, but we're not going to teach them on our time."
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