5 hot IT certification picks for 2010

IT certification and training can help IT pros increase their high-tech knowledge and their paychecks

Industry organizations and vendors are broadening their IT certification training catalogs to address emerging technologies and market needs. Vendor-specific (Cisco, Microsoft) and technology-specific (network, security and open source) certifications can help advance IT careers.

Certifications have always been beneficial to IT job seekers, but lately there's increased emphasis on vendor- and technology-specific training as the economy begins to recover and companies look to plug talent holes in their IT organizations.

"There are great opportunities in technology, but there is increased competition for jobs," says Ray Kelly, CEO of certification provider Certiport. "I have never seen a time like today where there is such a focus on certifications."

Cisco, Microsoft certifications increase high-tech salaries

When the economy tanked, certifications became more important for IT pros who wanted to make themselves more employable.

"For the past couple of years, the economy has been challenging, but from a technical education standpoint it has been a positive market," says Fred Weiller, director of marketing for Learning@Cisco. "In pure volume, the foundation technologies such as routing and switching -- without which no network exists -- represent a huge amount of our certification portfolio."

These days, Cisco Certified Internetwork Experts see virtualization as the top networking investment area (cited by 67% of 970 CCIEs polled by Illuminas on behalf of Cisco). Another 64% say security and risk management will continue to be the networking skills in greatest demand -- an expectation echoed by Weiller.

Chart showing reasons for gaining certification

Already, "professionals with 'cyber' on their resume can command a 20% salary premium as both the public and private sectors are becoming more aggressive in building their security talent pipeline," notes Thomas Silver, senior vice president at Dice. The high-tech job board listed more than 62,000 tech jobs available as of early April, about half of which are contract or part-time positions.

Determining the best IT certification to pursue depends on an individual's existing skill level, career goals and accessibility to training. Here we detail five of the hottest IT certifications for 2010.

1. VMware Certified Professional

The VMware Certified Professional (VCP) program, now available on vSphere 4 (VCP4), seems like a no-brainer. With virtualization technology growing within the majority of organizations, it is critical that the talent pool keep up with the technology. Yet recent research shows that enterprises are worried about a lack of expertise specific to virtualization. New skills need to be acquired for virtual systems, and new management and automation technologies must be introduced into the environment to truly reap the rewards of virtualization. According to Forrester Consulting, which interviewed 257 IT professionals on behalf of CA, "the proper skills for the future are difficult to attain and retain."

2. Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist

Microsoft continues to dominate most desktops in U.S. business. Its Windows operating system boasts more than 91% market share, according to March figures from Net Market Share, and Microsoft has seen accelerated interest in the latest revision, Windows 7.  

"Microsoft continues to leave its computing fingerprints on most desktops," says Forrester Research analyst Sheri McLeish.

IT professionals who become a Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) can prove their abilities around implementing, building, troubleshooting and debugging specific Microsoft technologies, such as a Windows operating system, Microsoft Exchange Server, Microsoft SQL Server and Microsoft Visual Studio. (Check out this 9 year-old, who's working on his fifth Microsoft certification.) 

"In terms of training and certification, we have seen the fastest ramp up on Windows 7 than any technology in the past five years," says Chris Pirie, general manager of sales and marketing for Microsoft Learning. "We are anticipating a big wave of desktop refreshes and we will be having a new wave of Office software this summer. Certification is very hot for us right now."

3. Cisco Certified Architect

IT professionals with a few certifications under their belts could consider upgrading to what has been dubbed the Ph.D. in Cisco

The network giant last year added to its educational roster with a new level of certification, the Cisco Certified Architect (CCAr). While Cisco boasts more than 20,000 CCIEs worldwide, the vendor decided to build another layer of expertise on top of its proven certification program. The CCAr requires applicants to already be certified as Cisco Certified Design Experts (CCDE) and have 10 years of experience. The training for CCAr would equip IT professionals with the C-level know-how and skills to prevent wasteful investments on technology and better align network projects with business goals, according to Cisco.

"One of the key things we are testing or investigating is the ability for a candidate to understand the business side and translate that into technology demands," Cisco's Weiller says. "The CCAr builds upon the CCDE program, which in itself is very much in demand. Networks have become very sophisticated and to be able to design and build a network that can adapt to changing needs and stand the test of time is critically important in making an individual successful in a networking career."

4. CompTIA Strata Green IT

While vendor-specific knowledge and foundational certifications seem a prerequisite for most jobs, IT professionals in 2010 should also consider amping up their vendor-neutral skills around technologies that continue to gain attention from high-tech as well as business leaders.

"From CompTIA's perspective, entry-level certifications such as the A+ and Network+ are going through the roof, and we are seeing double-digit growth in Security+ certifications," says Terry Erdle, senior vice president of skills certification at CompTIA (Computer Technology Industry Association).

Building on the basics, CompTIA just announced a new training track, green IT. CompTIA's Strata Green IT certificate is recommended for IT professionals with 18 months of technical experience and IT credentials such as CompTIA A+ or Server+, and the program is designed to show that a candidate is schooled in power management as well as virtualization techniques. The certification also includes training on developing and calculating ROI for green IT initiatives and knowledge of environmentally sound waste disposal techniques.

"We just launched the Strata Green IT certification to help build the funnel from the lower end to the higher end for people with advanced skills. The best thing we as a nonprofit in the IT industry can do is help fix the unemployment problem in the country, and we do that by adding such advanced skills training to address emerging employment needs," Erdle says.

5. ITIL v3 Foundations

For many, the goal this year is to streamline IT operations, adding automation where possible, while at the same time increasing services to users. The premise of overhauling the way IT works is outlined in the IT Infrastructure Library, or ITIL (Version 3 is currently being adopted).

With four levels of ITIL certification, IT professionals can prove they understand the principals around service life-cycle management and apply them to real-world environments. Companies seeking such expertise would likely desire a candidate who couples ITIL skills with security or other technical expertise. Considered more of a process-oriented area, ITIL can still deliver benefits such as improved availability, faster problem resolution and reduced costs due to streamlined processes.

"Whether you want to call them soft skills or business skills, IT professionals need communications skills, they need to be able to manage a project, and they need ITIL skills to show they understand the service lifecycle," Cisco's Weiller says. "Individuals need all these skills, not just technical skills."

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