Hot network certifications: Multi-skill certs to dominate 2021

As organizations shifted to home-based work, certifying bodies saw the biggest increase in entry-level networking certifications. But in 2021, more advanced, cross-certifications that combine skills will rank among the most sought-after credentials.

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In March, IT professional association CompTIA nervously pondered what affect COVID-19 and work-from-home mandates would have on its members and its core mission of delivering training and vendor-neutral IT certifications. "When you have this kind of upheaval, what does that mean in terms of education?" says James Stanger, chief technology evangelist at CompTIA. Surely it would take a back seat to more pressing business issues. Turns out, certifications have "massively continued" their upward trend, he says.

While CompTIA will not disclose exact numbers, a survey by The Adecco Group shows a boom in upskilling as an unintended consequence of the COVID-19 lockdown. Six in 10 professionals say they've improved their tech knowhow, including seeking certifications, since working from home.

In fact, entry-level network certifications that cover fundamental standards and practices were among the hottest certifications in 2020. The perennial favorite CompTIA Network+ cert gained popularity for its non-vendor specific teachings, and the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification increased 20% in value for its broad range of skills covered, including network fundamentals, network access, IP connectivity, IP services, security fundamentals, and automation and programmability, according to research firm Foote Partners.

Organizations also pushed to reskill IT workers whose jobs suddenly became less relevant. "If I have a plethora of help desk people and not enough network people because we made a rapid move to remote work," then certifications provided needed new skills, says Jim Johnson, senior vice president at IT recruiting firm Robert Half Technology.

IT professionals may also be looking to pandemic-proof their jobs, says David Foote, founder and CEO of Foote Partners. Skills in networking and security seem like safe bets for job security, he adds. A CCNA certification earns IT professionals about 5% above base pay, on average.

But these certifications will likely wane in 2021, Foote says. "I don't see them continuing to go up. What we've been seeing in the last six months was a reaction to companies having to move quickly. They got a little juice from the pandemic, but now you'll see this return to flat or lower."

Beyond the fundamentals, "network engineers will need to continue to evolve their skills to be relevant," particularly in cloud, security, SDN and virtualization, says Zane Schweer, lead author of the Global Knowledge 2020 IT Salary and Skills Report.

While security and cloud skills might seem separate from networking, troubleshooting requires more sophisticated skills than ever before, Stanger says. With networking, the IT worker is now expected to support cloud-based connections, as well as those for the data center. "Arguably the most significant shift has been in the networking and security areas," Stanger says.

Cloud and security certifications

It's no surprise that cloud and security certifications remain hot for 2021 as COVID-19 propelled organizations to cloud solutions to accommodate remote workers and ensure that data and connections remain secure. Hot cloud certifications this year include AWS Certified Solutions Architect Professional and Microsoft Certified Azure Solutions Architect.

When it comes to security, "threat recognition, cybersecurity threat intelligence and analytics are all skills that are now all table stakes," Stanger says. Just a few years ago, these topics were the purview of advanced security experts. Today, it's everybody's wheelhouse.

Security certifications should be on every network professionals' learning lists, Schweer says. "The CompTIA Security+ certification, for example, "provides a high-level overview of security threats, helps educate them on what their co-workers who are in security are doing. You then take that into account with the work that you're doing, and it reduces those silos, so you're a much more unified workforce," Schweer says. 

Also on the hot list: Certified Information Security Manager (CISM), offered by ISACA, a nonprofit professional association focused on IT governance; and Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), offered by (ISC)², a nonprofit membership association for information security professionals.

Make it a combo

People who are earning cross-certifications that combine skills – such as the Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP) co-created by (ISC)² and Cloud Security Alliance – are seeing a big boost in pay, Schweer adds. "If you have those skills, you're in a good position to command those higher salaries."

Certs that are most credible have also shifted to more difficult tasks, CompTIA's Stanger says. "For instance, you're looking at traffic showing serious latency, how do you fix it? You have to take a more architectural approach. With cloud, there's data center traffic coming in and going to the cloud. How do you optimize that traffic? Those are huge factors that frankly have made networking less automatic and much more challenging. The more advanced, the bigger the pay bump," he adds. 

The Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification, for example, validates these difficult tasks. Cisco's expert-level certifications are offered in areas including enterprise infrastructure, enterprise wireless, data center, security, service provider and collaboration. It ranks among the most sought-after certifications for 2021, along with the CCNA and Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP).

Virtualization drives VMware certifications

The pandemic and its workplace disruptions have reinforced the importance of virtualization, including server, storage and network virtualization, to reduce IT expenses and increase IT agility.  It has also revitalized the role of networking professionals with VMware experience and certifications. VMware Certified Advanced Professional 6/7, which covers cloud management and automation design, is among the biggest certification gainers in pay, according to Foote Partners. (See related story: VMware certifications, virtualization skills get a boost from pandemic)

A jump for Juniper

Certification providers have also seen some movement in Juniper Networks Certified Internet Specialist (JNCIS) certifications, which have been gaining value over the last six months and 10% or more in market value in the third quarter of 2020 alone, according to Foote Partners. 

Looking ahead: zero trust, SDN, infrastructure-as-code skills needed

With the majority of organizations saying they want a hybrid office approach going forward that splits employees' work time between home and office, VPNs and the bulletproofing of networks are top priorities for the foreseeable future, which will bode well for network professionals, Stanger says. "You're going to have a lot more remote workers and a lot more network and security issues – employees can work with sensitive information on company servers with access through the VPN."

The mantra "trust, but verify," has been replaced with "trust no one, verify everything," so network professionals will be supporting zero trust networking.

Zero trust is a security approach, "but you have to have your network ducks in a row first before you can even begin," Stanger says. Networking professionals must understand what it means to segment a network, both logically and physically, and understand landing zones and other components. CompTIA's networking pathway and security pathway provide the knowledge to implement and maintain zero-trust networks, he says.

Software-defined networking will continue its influence on certifications as organizations further automate networks and implement infrastructure as code and infrastructure as a service.

With infrastructure as code, rather than having to physically set up a device, IT professionals can write code that automatically brings up a specific network interface or device when predefined conditions are met. "In order to do the automation properly, you have to think about network architecture but also have an understanding of programmatic thinking," Stanger says. This will require a new skill set for networking professionals, "writing down an argument, given these conditions, and determining 'this is what we're going to do.'"

(See related story: Coding, cloud skills are most in demand for network pros)

Certifications don't always mean big pay bumps

Foote Partners follows 104 certifications in the networking and communications field. In that group, certifications lost almost 2% of their value in the fourth quarter of 2020 alone. In the past 12 months, they have declined 6.5% in value. "As a group they're averaging the equivalent of about 5.25% above base pay, while all certifications average 6.7% above base pay," Foote says.

One possible reason: "There are so many people that have networking certs that companies aren't willing to pay more," Foote says.

Stanger believes the novelty factor of having a networking certification, which would result in a pay bump, has worn off. "But that's a good thing," he adds. "Certifications have worked their way into requirements" for the job, and the salary already reflects that.

There were a few bright spots in networking pay. Workers with CCNA certs were earning an average 5% above average pay in the fourth quarter of 2020, up from 4% in the previous quarter. Cisco Certified Design Experts (CCDE) raked in an average 9% above base pay in 2020, which was up from 2019.

Certifications as a differentiator

In 2021, certifications could become a differentiator for both hiring companies and IT job seekers.

With demand for top IT talent often outnumbering supply, Johnson says it's a good idea to hire professionals with experience, not certification, in a specific skill, and then offer the certification expenses and time as a recruiting or retention strategy.

For job candidates, keeping up with skills companies need in this new normal is more important than ever. After laying off some IT workers this summer, "organizations are now hiring people back, but not necessarily the same people," Johnson says.

He advises job seekers, "Look at what's happening in IT and what you need to add to your skill set to become in demand. The way of doing business in 2019 and early 2020 has forever changed. The question is, have you?"

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