NT Certification Benefits Employees More Than Enterprises

People with Microsoft certification are commanding premium salaries in today’s market. Certification, however, does more to enhance the value of experienced individuals on the open market than to benefit their current employers.

The number of Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers (MCSEs) worldwide has risen dramatically, from 13,000 in July 1997 to more than 77,000 in October 1998, a sixfold increase in 15 months. In addition, there are 340,000 Microsoft Certified Professionals worldwide. This is good news as enterprises continue to struggle with a severe shortage of Windows NT skills.

But being an expert in Microsoft products and being certified on them are two completely different things, and enterprises should separate the concept of training from that of certification. Microsoft certification (see the sidebar, "Microsoft Certification Options") is not a substitute for experience and does not necessarily mean an individual has the real-world experience to design and implement a complex NT-centric system. Conversely, enterprises should not avoid hiring skilled, qualified -- but not certified -- individuals.

Certification Preparation
The cost of certifying an individual can be considerable. Enterprises should expect to spend about $14,500 per student for NT education and an additional $6,000 for further instruction and materials to prepare each student for MCSE certification. Enterprises should negotiate discounts for training when they commit to the complete curriculum or when they register multiple students.

In addition, the complete classroom curriculum will take each employee away from his or her job for up to three weeks. Individuals should plan on spending about 15 hours studying for each exam. Microsoft certification exams generally cannot be passed solely on the basis of past experience. While the education is valuable, many of the items on the certification tests are things most people would not come across during day-to-day operations.

As an alternative to classroom training, self-study courses can be purchased for $150 to $1,000 for the core MCSE syllabus, but the time commitment will be similar. Successful MCSE candidates will attend classes, purchase self-study materials, or take Web-based classes in addition to performing hands-on laboratory work.

Training Vendor Selection
Some instructors focus certification classes on material solely so their students can pass the tests. Others inject more of their "real world" experiences into the classes, and these classes are more valuable to both the student and the enterprise. Enterprises should understand the qualifications of a training vendor’s instructors and should select the vendor of a specific course based on the instructor’s experience and qualifications. An instructor with mostly "book knowledge" will not provide much added value above a self-study course. Self-study courses may be used by people with NT skills who are planning to take certification tests, but novices will not be exposed to "best practices," which an instructor-led course may provide.

Retaining MCSEs
Certification is a double-edged sword. Some enterprises are reluctant to pay for MCSE certification because an employee who gets Microsoft certification is more valuable on the open job market. If an enterprise refuses to pay for certification, however, it risks higher turnover among skilled NT technicians who paid for certification themselves and leave the company out of spite. Education should be provided as needed, but certification should be positioned as a benefit the enterprise is providing to increase the overall value of the employee and should be part of a coordinated incentive plan directed toward employee retention.

A bonus can be promised for 12 months after certification to encourage retention, but it must not be an amount that would be considered trivial. The larger portion of the cost of certification is study time, and enterprises should be prepared to allow some study during business hours.

Compensation issues must be addressed for all experienced NT technicians -- NT Server experts will command $65,000 to $100,000 or more, depending on skill level, geography and industry -- although MCSEs will find it easier to attract job offers. A retention plan might also include improved recognition, improvements in working conditions, and fostering an environment that encourages teamwork and camaraderie.

Bottom Line
NT training is paramount, while certification is not. Certification can be used as a benefit to gain the loyalty of valuable NT-skilled employees as part of a formal employee retention program. Without a comprehensive retention program, enterprises should expect turnover among NT-skilled employees to be at least 10 percent to 20 percent higher than the IS department average. Enterprises should consider experience to be more important than certification when hiring people with NT skills.

Microsoft Certification Options

After passing a single operating system test, an individual becomes a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP). MCPs can further specialize in Internet technologies to attain an MCP with Internet or Site Building specialization, or can continue taking the exams necessary to become a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE).

MCSEs are MCPs who passed two NT Server exams, one Microsoft client exam, two elective exams in topics such as TCP/IP, SMS, SNA Server, SQL Server or Exchange, and, unless the individual is a Novell Certified NetWare Engineer, a networking technologies exam. One benefit to the enterprise of having at least one MCP in house is access to the MCP Web site.