Work experience vs. certifications - what do employers look for?

* Hiring experts say job candidates' ability to fit into a company's culture is key for potential employers

Hiring managers are more likely to choose job seekers who have experience in similar IT environments and who would fit in well with the company's corporate culture rather than look purely at the number of letters the candidates have after their names.

Perhaps this statement from hiring experts is nothing new to you, but it is worth remembering when you decide whether to spend a lot of energy bagging as many certifications as you can, or get down to amassing as much practical and business experience as you can at your current employer.

In response to the newsletter, "Do certifications carry as much weight as they used to?" I asked readers whether employers are less demanding of certifications. One reader responded with a question of his own:

"I have been doing work in IT for more 18 years now and have found that certs do help quite a bit when it comes to qualifications. However, experience of 5+ years may also help if you don't have or only have the 'minor' certifications. I have also found that most companies will still hire a certified professional without any experience over an individual with years of experience. I pose a scenario to you:

"Position Available for a Network Technician/Administrator

"Three people apply for this position. Applicant No.1 has 10+ years experience as an admin but has no certs. Applicant No. 2 has 5+ years experience as an admin, with CompTIA's A+, Network +, Security+ & Server+ certifications. Applicant No. 3 has 1 year of experience as network technician and holds an NT 4 MCSE + Internet certification. Who do you think the company is going to hire?"

I forwarded that question to a few recruitment consultants and this is how they responded:

James Del Monte is president of Houston staffing firm JDA Professional Services. He says:

"Having formal education or certification is always better than not having it. It shows that there is a base line of knowledge and gives comfort to those who may not have the technical skills to truly qualify a candidate's technical ability. Having relevant experience is always better than no experience. So the ideal person has the formal training required for the position as a base line and enough experience to do the job. The irony is that larger companies are less concerned about certifications and more interested in experience, however the larger companies are more willing to pay for their employees to get or maintain their certifications."

He adds that: "What we are seeing is that the person who is getting hired has at least the base skills required to do the job and is going to fit into the team best. Flight risk is a big issue today so the person with the most stability has an advantage. The technical skills are about 50% and the person [their interpersonal skills] is the other 50% of the hiring decision."

Karen Person, regional managing director of (coincidentally) Texas for Spherion identified applicants No. 1 and applicant No. 2 to be in the running for the position. She says:

"We are finding more clients are looking for people who have experience in similar [IT] environments. Additionally, the right fit from a culture perspective is important ... candidates who know how to work well within the unique environment of the company and the specific team. Team/peer interviews are playing a major role in hiring decisions today.

"Technical skills, experience and certifications are all important but having the ability to clearly communicate ideas and possessing a good understanding of business environments are also important skills for our clients today. Increasingly, hiring managers are looking for someone who is business savvy and has a solid understanding of how technology can be best utilized.

"While holding certifications is gaining momentum, it is not the end-all solution. Many people are deciding to get certified in different programs to advance their career or acquire additional job security in hopes of bringing more value to their current employer.

In some cases, we have seen clients [employers] use certifications as a selling tool to their clients. In other words, the fact that their technical employees hold specific certifications is part of a value proposition that they use in an increasingly competitive marketplace."

She adds: "Companies are looking for candidates who can express ideas, thoughts and strategies in order to influence all parties associated with a task. While certifications are good (and many times extremely important) employers place more of a premium on experience vs. certification."

All this leads me to pose yet another question to you: If the potential or the ability to fit in well with the company's culture is such as big concern of employers, how do you as a candidate show that your personality is the right one?

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