Network certs 2021: Significant raises for the right ones

As employees split their time between the office and working at home, IT skills requirements have shifted to cloud, security, and automation.

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COVID-19 kicked off one of the most disruptive economic periods since World War II, and companies scrambled to shift business processes to the cloud to meet escalating digital demands. In fact, companies digitized many activities at a rate 20% to 25% faster than previously thought possible, according to research from McKinsey & Company.

That acceleration has impacted the IT workforce: 85% of IT hiring managers say their hiring needs have changed, according to a survey by colocation provider INAP. This creates an opportunity for IT professionals who want to move ahead in their careers. Getting trained in key technologies can be a steppingstone not only to better pay but also to leadership jobs with more responsibilities.

IT professionals who gained new skills or certifications last year received an average raise in excess of $12,000—more than double the average IT annual salary increase of $5,000, according to the most recent Global Knowledge IT Skills and Salary Report, released this past December.

Beyond the pay gains and possibility of promotion, getting advanced training may now be a necessity, particularly for networking pros. In addition to mastering the fundamentals, “network engineers will need to continue to evolve their skills to be relevant,” particularly in cloud, security, software-defined networking (SDN) and virtualization, says Zane Schweer, lead author of the Global Knowledge report.

Network certification trends

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IDG

Networking certifications, on average, increase base pay by about 5% annually, according to David Foote, chief analyst at Foote Partners, which just released research for the first six months of the year, based on data on more than 82,000 tech workers at more than 3,800 employers. Since the start of the year, that increase has slipped by 2.4%. (What that means, for example, is if the average networking certification added $5,000 to a $100,000 base salary, then it’s now worth $120 dollars less.)

Foot also noted that:

  • Networking certifications reap a smaller percentage pay increase than the average overall tech certification gain, which is 6.4%.
  • The networking certification with the highest return rate is the Cisco Certified Design Expert, which adds a median of 10% to base salary.
  • Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) adds 7% to base salaries, as does Cisco DevNet Professional, Google Professional Cloud Engineer, and VMware Certified Design Expert in Network Virtualization.

Networking professionals should be adding certifications in fields like cloud, security, and data science, Foote says. Management certifications and experience are also very important. “Companies are looking for are multi-dimensional professionals,” he says. “It’s not just being a network professional, it’s also about having some demonstrable cloud experience, demonstrable security expertise.”

Cloud skills are hot

It’s no surprise that cloud-related credentials top the most-wanted list for many networking hiring managers, and that's reflected in compensation. According to Foote Partners, the average cloud-related certification adds 7% to base salaries. Job experience in cloud is worth even more: 10.4% increase to base pay.

Holders of the AWS Certified Developer certification, in particular, saw average salaries grow from more than $114,000 in 2019 to more than $127,000 in 2020, according to the latest report by career site Dice.

“Understanding routing in public cloud and how to route among hybrid and multi-cloud environments is incredibly relevant in the current enterprise networking landscape,” says Ron Winward, vice president of network services at INAP.

Certifications is just one of the criteria Winward looks at when hiring. “It tells me you’ve seen it before, but it doesn’t necessarily tell me you can do the job.” There are plenty of great engineers who don’t have certifications, he says.

According to Adam Gordon, author of several (ISC)2 certification guides and an instructor at ITProTV, the hottest cloud certifications at the moment include Microsoft Certified Azure Network Engineer Associate, AWS Certified Solutions Architect Associate, and Google Certified Professional Cloud Architect.

Better yet is when a job candidate has experience in more than one of the major cloud platforms, says George Moore, CTO at Cengage, an online learning platform. The company has several hundred people working on the product side with a focus on networking, plus a handful of networking staffers working for the internal IT organization.

“The ideal candidate will marry credentials with real-life experience,” Moore says. “We prefer someone who has a broad range and is not focused on one specific technology stack. An AWS architect is great, but we also want to see experience with Google and Azure to ensure that we don’t get vendor lock-in.”

Sometimes, a technology is so new that there are few candidates that have work experience in it. “Two years ago, for example, Google didn’t have a competing product in this market, and now they do,” Moore says. “So because the market is moving so quickly, badges and certificates show that you’re learning.”

Meanwhile, more associate-level certifications such as Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) are less relevant for Moore's current hiring needs. “If someone is coming right out of school, you’re typically going to see that. But if you’ve been in the industry for a few years, we’re really looking for levels above that. We look more for the cloud-based technologies and new emerging technologies rather than the more traditional hardware-based networking technologies.” (Read more: Cisco CCNA certification explained)

Security certifications boost pay

Cengage also has a strong focus on security, Moore says, and relevant certifications, badges, and experience are important. For example, the company has a strong interest in zero trust network architecture.

“It’s an exploding field,” Moore says, “though more of a philosophy than a technology.” Vendors such as Palo Alto and Cisco are gearing certifications around their respective zero-trust implementations, “but you also need to understand how these systems work,” he says. “Now there are badges coming out of Pluralsight and other online learning platforms that help you understand the philosophy of zero trust rather than specific technologies—though both are important.”

According to Foote, Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certifications from (ISC)2 have gained significant value over the past six months. After high-profile ransomware attacks and the SolarWinds hack, companies are increasingly moving security in-house and adding more cybersecurity talent, he says. “It’s too important to entrust it to a third party,” Foote says.

The salary increase associated with the CISSP Information Systems Security Engineering Professional (CISSP-ISSEP), for example, grew by 33%, to 12% of base pay.

Another security certification with above-average gains is GIAC’s Web Application Penetration Tester certification, which increased 29%, to 9% of base salary, Foote says.

The Information Systems Security Association released a survey in July, in cooperation with the Enterprise Strategy Group that ranks the most important cybersecurity certifications.

The one most cited by respondents was CISSP certifications from (ISC)2, followed by ISACA's Certified Information Security Manager (CISM), CompTIA's Security+ certification, and ISACA’s Certified Information Security Auditor (CISA) and Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC) certifications.

At data-center provider Flexential, one of the specific networking security certifications the company looks for is security vendor Fortinet's NSE 5 series, according to Michael Fitzgerald, the company’s senior director of engineering. Other key certifications for employees include Cisco’s CCIE and CCNP, and Palo Alto Engineer Level (PCNSE).

Diversity of skills helps, Fitzgerald says. “When helping customers, having someone who has multiple certifications and experience across multiple platforms is beneficial, since they can help meet various customer needs.” To that end, Flexential encourages all staff to receive at least one certificate a year at the professional or expert level, and the company provides education and certification assistance.

AI and automation

AI is being built into many of the tools network professionals use, so a general understanding of the technology is valuable across the board.

For example, at cybersecurity vendor StrikeForce Technologies, security skills and certifications are obviously critical for employees, but AI is a fast-growing requirement. 

“It’s being molded into everything we do today,” says George Waller, the company's executive vice president. “Everyone is looking to utilize AI for automation and intelligence and workflow and decision process development. Everyone is saying, ‘Where can we use AI?’”

According to the INAP survey, 82% of IT hiring managers say that automation has impacted the types of skills they look for in candidates.

Specific to networking, automation is becoming increasingly important as the scale and complexity of networks grow. Hiring managers are looking for network pros skilled in programming languages such as Ansible and Python.

“One thing I do look for today is automation experience,” says INAP’s Winward. “So much networking is now driven by automation, so understanding how this works is critical. Ansible is a great technology to understand in modern networking, and if you have Ansible experience, you’ll get my attention. Similarly, experience with Python is incredibly important for networkers today.” 

As networks rely more on software, it's changing the skills requirements for network pros.

“In order to do the automation properly, you have to think about network architecture but also have an understanding of programmatic thinking,” says James Stanger, chief technology evangelist at CompTIA. 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.’”

Make it a combo

In general, certs that are most credible have shifted to more difficult tasks, 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,” Stanger adds.

Cisco's 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).

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IDG

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 says. “If you have those skills, you’re in a good position to command those higher salaries.”

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 in a specific skill, and then offer to pay the certification expenses and provide the time for classes as a recruiting or retention strategy.

Cengage's Moore says he isn’t worried about employees getting certifications in order to move on to better jobs because there’s still an upside for the company.

“We celebrate people who get great jobs outside our company,” he says. “One of our enterprise architects just became one of the rookies of the year at Amazon after leaving us, and that story helps bring in more people at Cengage.”

“It’s inevitable that people will stick around for just a few years and move on,” Moore says. “To embrace that, you need to have a very robust continual training program. Creating more valuable employees will help you and help you attract more employees.”

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