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On the cheap

As anyone who needs a certification has discovered, education isn’t cheap. But there are ways to stretch a tech training dollar.

Q: I would like to take the CBCP exam, but lack the budget to travel and take the preparation course. Is there a single book or other low-budget source of information that would best prepare me for the exam? I have the necessary experience, but I am self-taught, so I’m sure I’ll have trouble with terminology and the technically correct answers to multiple-choice questions.

A: It seems that wherever you turn, someone is touting the benefits of training, and for good reason. Any IT person who is content to use only what they know and not continue their education at least somewhat is an IT person who’ll soon be behind the curve. Continual learning, through university courses, local training centers, and certification exams, are crucial in today’s rocky employment climate.

But that doesn’t mean it’s cheap. Gone are the days when a techie could be assured that training will all be on the company’s dime, with time being the only investment from the student side. Despite study after study that shows how important it is to continue tuition reimbursement, many companies are cutting back on their training dollars, and IT people are getting booted out into the cold.

That means it’s time to get creative with a dollar. In the case of the CBCP, classes can run around $800, with an exam fee of $150. For those yearning for the MCSE or other high-level certifications, the cost can be in the thousands. Being adept at (or at least willing to investigate) self-teaching is a big benefit here. As you’ve guessed, having a book is the usually the best way to conquer the mountain, as long as you can be dedicated enough to study on a regular schedule and find the answers to questions you might have.

Books can come from a variety of places, of course. Online retailers and area bookshops are just two sources for new books. To find a book that you think doesn’t exist, like one on CBCP, call an organization that does the test (for CBCP, that would be DRII) and ask what they’d recommend, or what they use for their students. They could be hesitant to give you any information that keeps you from taking their pricey classes, but you could get lucky and find an actual, generous human being.

For other certifications and education tracks, books usually abound. Although they’re cheaper than a class, however, they’re not exactly easy on the wallet. But there are strategies for dealing with this as well. The best tactic, if your library doesn’t have the title handy, is to explore the used book market. Sites like Alibris specialize in rooting through small booksellers and coming up with affordable titles. Another handy place is eBay, which is awash in certification titles, all from other techies who have used the books and passed their exams. An eBay search on MCSE yielded over 200 results. Sometimes, however, a book really doesn’t exist (a CBCP search yielded exactly zero), and that’s when it’s time to scrape some savings together for training.

If you really need a class–and sometimes it’s necessary–don’t be afraid to shop around. Be honest with the schools you call, and tell them that even though you’d like to get several certifications, you need to know about their payment options or financial aid. Mention that another school might be offering the course for less money, if indeed that’s true. If you’re unemployed, check with your state unemployment office to find out about reimbursement options, or whether they have arrangements with any area schools.

Another good source is a local technology organization or association. Technology councils come in very handy for knowing who is offering training on the cheap, and how to find resources. Actually, if several members want to take the same course, the council may be able to arrange a group discount, or you could take the initiative and arrange that yourself. Similar to the airlines, training schools would rather fill seats for a reduced rate than leave them empty or, worse, cancel a class because of low enrollment.

Then, there’s always good old online training, or training via CD-ROM. More and more, schools are offering this as a way to skip those expensive weekend seminar cram sessions. When investigating schools that have the training you want, there’s no need to stick close to home. If you see a perfect program in another state, ask if they have distance training as an option.

I’m not going to pretend that training is cheap, or that it isn’t painful to fork out hundreds of dollars for classes just to pass a certain exam. But as some comfort, just remember that education is vital enough to be one of those little necessities that’s worth the money.

Send your career-related questions to Elizabeth Millard.

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