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The degree-vs.-certification debate

Q: I am currently in the military and will get out in 2004. Beginning this year, the military is going to pay 100 percent tuition for active duty members going to college or technical training. I am trying to decide if I should try to get a college degree first, or if I should let the government pay for me to get various Cisco, UNIX admin, and network security certifications.

Some people I have talked to in the IT workforce tell me that I should go with the certifications first to get a job making a comfortable living, and that a lot of companies will pay for their employees to finish their degrees while working for the company. Should I do this?

A: Getting certifications before a degree can sometimes be like building a house and then trying to put in a basement. Also, trying to pursue a degree while employed full-time is far more taxing than taking certification courses, which often require less time and energy.

Although it seems to make sense to get the certifications first to get a job, many employers require a college degree for entry-level positions, so you’ll be gambling on whether you can find an employer who doesn’t mind that you chose certifications over college. It’s also true that many firms offer tuition reimbursement, but often in IT departments they prefer to pay for certifications that hone job skills, rather than pay for a bachelor’s degree.

But perhaps you don’t even have to choose. At some universities, there are programs that include IT fields like network security, so you can emerge on graduation day with both a diploma and a few certifications. Talk to the advisors of the colleges you’re interested in and ask if you can tailor a degree program to include certifications as part of your academic credits.

Q: I live in Florida and soon will begin taking courses to become a Quality Assurance professional. The people I know in IT seem to think there aren’t any job opportunities in that field right now and that I should consider something else. From what I’ve researched, it seems like a good starting point for an IT career. Who is right?

A: In a way, you are all right. Quality Assurance is a good launch pad into IT, but only if you find a company willing to begin the countdown. Perhaps instead of talking to people working in IT, you should be talking to those who are hiring for the field. Find out what companies employ Quality Assurance professionals, and ask the IT managers there whether they think the field will be growing or not.

Since “Quality Assurance” is generally used as an umbrella term, and can be applied to areas like software development, laboratory operations, or even management liaison efforts, be sure to first define for yourself what type of QA work you want to do, and contact only companies that fit your vision.

If the managers reply that the opportunities in your area are scant, you may want to think about expanding the breadth of your courses. There might be some skills these managers find appealing, but that their current employees don’t possess, such as negotiation tactics, marketing and sales acumen, or database management.

Q: A friend of mine used to work as a UNIX operator for a financial investment company in New York, and got laid off when the company folded. He’s having a hard time finding a job in the area. I suggested that he either move to another state, or look into a different area in IT. He’s in the process of getting certified as a UNIX administrator. Is there another branch in IT where his skills can skill be useful?

A: Your friend seems to have already chosen a very solid branch for his IT career. As more companies explore the use of UNIX, and its kin, Linux, being an administrator should work well for him. Also, according to some analysts, financial companies are poised to grow in the next five years, so his experience at the investment company could set him apart from other candidates.

If, however, he’s having trouble finding a job in the New York area, moving to a city with fewer similar jobseekers might be of benefit. Being willing to spend a few years in a company that’s in a city like Atlanta or St. Louis will not only increase his chances of getting a job, but could allow him to sharpen his newly acquired administrator skills as well.

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