IT Certifications vs. Experience vs. Degree

Scott Skinger, CEO and Founder of TrainSignal, answers the age-old question of aspiring IT professionals; “Which is most important to landing the job: IT certifications, real-world experience or a college degree?”

it certifications vs experience

It’s that inevitable fork in the road for an IT professional. Determining the path that will lead you to the most success when sprucing up your resume to land that next job. What are employers looking for? Certifications? Experience? Degrees? Some combination of the three? It’s a dilemma faced by many looking to launch or advance their careers.

Ten years ago, I founded my company TrainSignal to develop training courses that help IT professionals learn new skills to grow their careers. Over the years, I've spoken to a lot of hiring managers to understand what grabs their attention when evaluating resumes. As it turns out, most are zoning in on those three factors: IT certifications, hands-on experience and education. So how do you determine the right blend to wow your future employer?

Here are some considerations when weighing the value of certifications, experience and degrees:

Certifications

Certifications are a crucial stepping stone for almost any IT career. According to a CompTIA survey of IT hiring managers, 64 percent indicated that they value certifications and regard certified professionals as candidates with a high or very-high degree of expertise. In a recent report from Network World, 60 percent of the IT networking pros surveyed said "certifications led directly to a new job." Clearly, certifications are resume worthy, but are they the end-all be-all?

While screening resumes, many hiring managers place a great weight on having relevant certifications to move ahead in the interview process. At TrainSignal, we look at certifications to see how up-to-date your skills are. Current certificates are a clear indication that you have put in the time and effort to master the technical skills needed for a particular position.

Beyond giving employers a way to rate your base knowledge, certifications show a personal commitment to learning, a key quality for any IT professional. In an industry that is constantly advancing, the most valuable employee is one who shows a willingness to continue growing and adapting to a quickly-evolving workplace.

Degrees

Certificates may show expertise in highly targeted technical areas, but a degree at the undergraduate or graduate level is a sign of accomplishment and dedication that is universally accepted. A college degree also exposes students to a variety of disciplines and perspectives, helping to develop business acumen and analytical skills. Many already have these degrees before even entering the IT field. But if you don’t, don’t feel trapped! Lacking a degree is not a deal breaker, as long as you have certifications and work experience in your back pocket.

In today’s IT job market, the fear of not having a degree is becoming less warranted. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, only 56% of employers expressed satisfaction with colleges’ abilities to prepare students for success in the workplace. In fact, many of the people who have turned to TrainSignal to boost their IT skills have come to us after finding that a traditional liberal arts degree wasn't sufficient to get them where they wanted. Chances are if you have relevant, up-to-date experience and technical skills, you’re going to be in high-demand with employers, whether you learned these skills from a degree program or in training courses for certifications.

Ultimately, it helps to consider where you’d like to end up in your career. Many colleges and universities are embracing the fast-paced technology domain with the launch of specialized IT courses & degrees based on popular career paths. If you are interested in a managerial position, MBA programs will help you build the leadership skills and personal networks important for those types of roles.

Then again, I founded my company with just a college degree and have found that leadership is best learned through experience.

Experience

At the end of the day, degrees and credentials only make up 50% of the decision to hire. A survey conducted by Foote Partners shows that non-certified, but experienced IT professionals receive more bonuses than their less experienced but more certified peers. As for most industries, experience is the most important indicator of your ability to execute and be successful on the job.

While certifications and degrees are an important factor, hiring managers look to your actual experience to grasp how well you are able to execute in a work setting. It’s easy to list the number of certifications and degrees you’ve earned, but what is more important is how you have put those skills into practice. Did you help your previous employer transition to the cloud or implement a new system? Highlight these real-world scenarios to demonstrate how you’ve applied your technical knowledge.

Managers are often looking for people who have worked in a similar IT environment, indicating that they’ll work well on a team. That’s why peer interviews are now playing a much bigger role in hiring decisions. Companies are looking for people who can come up with solutions to problems on the job, not just answer questions on a certification exam. That’s why we try to incorporate scenario-based training and real world skills into every TrainSignal course.

Conclusion

The relative importance of experience, certifications and degrees will vary according to the position you are applying for and the person doing the hiring. IT certifications and degrees are valuable assets in your job search, and can help you land a better - and possibly higher paying - freshman position. Owning current certificates also proves your skills are relevant and speaks to your dedication. However, real-world experience remains the best indicator of how well you will perform on a new job.

Building a well-rounded resume showing significant accomplishments in all three areas is a goal everyone should aim for. But at the end of the day, you need to make sure your resume highlights your strengths and emphasizes your actual hands-on experience.

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