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No need to be MOUS-y

Viable alternatives to Microsoft Office User Specialist certifications.

While Microsoft Windows got the company in hot water over its monopoly status, Microsoft’s Office suite actually holds a greater percentage of the market (partly because the product also works on Macs). Given Office’s monopoly status, anyone looking for a job would do well to demonstrate skills in one or all of the Office products. This is true not only for the front-line office workers, but also for management staff and even help-desk personnel.

The last time I wrote about this topic I spent the majority of the column talking about Microsoft’s own Office certification program–the Microsoft Office User Specialist (MOUS). I have since found that there are number of more inexpensive ways to learn how to use Office and to certify that knowledge. I have also found that employers aren’t particularly picky about whose Office certification you have, just as long as you have one.

If you want to go with the top-of-the-line name-brand certification program, you can’t go wrong with the MOUS. It is a multi-tier program (Core, Proficient, Expert, and Master) with exams and certifications for Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint, and Outlook on multiple platforms. You can even become certified in Microsoft Project on the Microsoft 2000 platform. To earn the MOUS certification, you only need to pass the certification exam for one program, not the whole line-up.

Which certification test you should take depends, not surprisingly, on the kind of work you do. Managers might want to have multiple certifications, as might an office manager. However, if all you do is type all day long, then a Word certification is probably all you’ll need unless you want to branch out and take on different responsibilities.

You can take MOUS exams at IT testing centers around the country, and they are comprehensive. That is, these are not open-book exams, and you will need to know the program very well. They also can be expensive. To earn multiple certifications, you could spend $500 to $1,000 in exam fees.

If your career plan doesn’t require the name recognition of a MOUS certification, you can get the training you need to round out your skill base and obtain a certification without spending more than a few hundred dollars. You can probably find an open-book exam here and there too.

For example, if you visit the Brainbench Web site, you can take an online Microsoft Word exam preparation course for $25. The certification test is $19.95 the first time and half that price for any subsequent retests. Brainbench also offers several affordable subscription programs that allow you to participate in preparation programs and take exams over a month, several months, or a one-year period.

If all you want is more training and certification is not a necessity, MindLeaders offers a wide variety of training programs online. You can take courses on motivating your employees, developing leadership skills, even improving your grammar. You can also take IT-related courses, making it a comprehensive one-stop training source for corporations.

You may already be working for a company that has purchased a block of training from an online training provider like MindLeaders. Make sure to check out that option before you put your own money down for training. If not, you can buy unlimited access to the Office 2000 series from MindLeaders for less than $30 a year. Other Office-related courses cost more, but none cost more than $60 a year.

Instead of the more rigorous MOUS training courses, you can take general Microsoft Office user classes. The Office 2000 series is divided into eight four-hour segments. The Getting Started unit covers skills such as opening, creating, and storing. The next unit, Editing Text and Printing, covers editing text in various Office programs such as Word and Excel. It also covers advanced text features and printing. There are six more modules in the series; each involves increasingly sophisticated skills.

There are many other online training providers that offer some kind of Office training courses. A quick search of the Web will bring up dozens. Some charge hundreds of dollars per course and some are more reasonable. There are even free courses. For example, the Intelinfo Web site lists quite a few free Office training classes and tutorials.

Not all online training vendors offer the same level of quality, and there is no independent rating system for these educational resources. Before you pay any money for a course, look for and take one or more demos or free classes. There is no guarantee these samples will be the same quality as your class, but it’s worth checking them out. If you don’t like the demo class, you won’t like the Office classes, either. Read the class descriptions carefully to see that you will be learning skills you need and not just reviewing what you already know.

Take any pretests to help gauge your existing skill level, but bear in mind that most pre-tests include arcane material. Remember that the training vendor wants to sell you a training class. Thus, a low overall score on a pretest doesn’t mean your skills are poor. Taking the test, though, can help you estimate your skill level if you ignore the esoteric questions.

So far I have talked about online learning resources, but you can also purchase CD-ROM-based training modules and video-based classes. You can even teach yourself with a good book by your side. Classroom learning is the best solution for most people, but you need to have the time and the money to invest.

I’m often asked which training vehicle works the best–classroom, online, or something else. There is no one training vehicle that works best for everybody for every learning need. It’s easier for most people to learn in a classroom setting with a live instructor and hands-on access to the software.

Any time you plan to use a training method on your own–a book, a CD, an online course–you’ve got to make sure that you have enough motivation to get the job done. Either clear your schedule and sit down at work or at your home office during a quiet time of day to use the tool or else you’ll fall behind or not finish. It takes real motivation to say no to distractions when you’re working on your own.

You can improve your chances of working through the entire training program by breaking the project into small, easy-to-accomplish chunks. Select a course that is a few hours long, not months long. Select courses that directly relate to work you do today and that have an emphasis on making you more productive.

CompTIA announces new IT Apprenticeship Program

In an effort to find a way for people entering the IT field to acquire work experience, CompTIA is working with the Department of Labor to design and implement a comprehensive, vendor-neutral IT apprenticeship program. In pilot stage now, the full program should be available to companies nationwide by the end of the year.

There will be six career tracks: network services and operations, programming and software development, information support, interactive media, Internet and e-business, database development and administration. These are the same six tracks that CompTIA uses for its new TechCareer Compass, a Web site designed to help people learn more about IT careers.

When completed, the program will give companies a solid starting point in designing their own apprenticeships based upon the detailed guidelines developed by CompTIA. Companies will be able to tailor a track to suit their particular needs but must adhere to the major components of the program. Each track will be registered in the Department of Labor’s formal apprenticeship program.

The length of the apprenticeship varies from track to track, but each will last 12 to 24 months and will include on-the-job training, classroom instruction, and relevant certifications. Participants are full-fledged employees and are paid to work and learn. Successful participants will receive a certification of completion.

CompTIA is in the process of creating a Web site for the program that it expects to complete before the end of the year. The site will be connected to the organization’s main Web site. Companies that wish to learn more about the program will be able to get information from the site. Individuals who want to find out which companies are participating will be able to search the site for that information.

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