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Yes, there is a need for certifications.

Q: I already have an undergraduate degree in Computer Science, and I’m thinking about going after certifications now, but first I want to find out if it’s worth it. Do employers really care?

A: The short answer is yes, they most definitely care. There does seem to be an anti-MCSE movement currently, with some professionals grumbling that they’ve become useless scraps of paper in such a tight job market. However, despite these low-level rumblings, certifications are still looked upon by employers as proof of knowledge, in much the same way that an undergraduate degree is regarded as evidence of education in every industry.

In some situations, certifications can even trump a degree, since they show that you have specialized knowledge in a particular area that an employer might need. Even better, most cert classes nowadays have training labs and internship opportunities that allow you to get your hands dirty and deepen your skills. All of this gives a potential employer more confidence that you’ll actually be able to do the work that you claim you can do.

When an IT department head needs someone with skills in .NET, for example, he doesn’t look for an employee who merely expresses an interest or is willing to learn on the job. He needs someone with experience and knowledge in that particular area, and a certification can be a handy way to separate the dabblers from the serious professionals.

Q: I’m tired of getting downsized and bounced from one place to another. What kind of certification should I go after to land a position that’s solid, and won’t get phased out in a few years?

Finding a field that’s steady, especially in technology, has become something of a challenge lately for many people. Job tracks that were once thought stable are now just as likely to land on the chopping block as those questionable dot-com jobs like “chief visionary officer.” Other areas that seem like they’ll stick around, like Linux programming or home automation, are too new to be seen as rock-solid just yet. So, you’re not alone in being frustrated by the shifting ground beneath your feet.

Perhaps instead of trying to guess which certification area will remain steady, you should look at what kinds of companies or sectors appear unwavering in their need for technology workers, and therefore less likely to hand out pink slips. This includes universities, government agencies, medical facilities, and retail operations. High-flying, high-profile firms can be zippy, but you also risk the crash and burn that you already know so well. Get some solid certifications in areas that interest you, and use them to work at more sedate, grounded organizations that ensure a smoother ride.

Q: After being out of work for a while, I want to stop watching daytime TV and get some certifications. Could I get certifications just by studying a book and taking an exam, or is it really necessary to take one of those expensive classes?

A: It’s possible to pick up a book that details what you need to learn for a certification exam, and then take the test. Some people prefer to be taught than to teach themselves, with a class schedule to keep them motivated and on target. But since you seem to have an autodidactic bent, and plenty of free time during the day, learning from one of the many cert books out there is a good way to stay away from Jerry Springer while buffing up that technical education. However, you may want to investigate classes for what they offer beyond the book learnin’.

To stay competitive, many certification courses now bolster their offerings with add-ons like in-house labs, lectures from experienced professionals, and internship opportunities. Some even assist in job placement, or have relationships with headhunters that prove useful for students.

Although the classes can be pricey, especially for someone on a tight budget, better schools also offer financial assistance, and have a counselor who can help you look at options from financial aid to local education grants to deferred payment. If you find a center in your area that offers certification areas that interest you, ask to speak to a counselor first to voice your concerns, and if you’re still wondering whether it’s worth it, ask if you can sit in on a class or talk to some former students.

This tactic takes more time than simply signing up for a class or reading through a cert book, but this kind of investigation can pay off in a better certification class experience. Let’s face it: Doesn’t it beat watching talk shows?

Send your career-related questions to Elizabeth Millard.

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