Is AS/400 Certification Worth the Price?

Certification, like education, is a pursuit that everyone agrees is worthwhile. Designations such as Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Certified Novell Engineer (CNE) are synonymous with a basic understanding of network operating systems, and are now ubiquitous in recruiting ads or consulting brochures. In the AS/400 world, designation as an IBM Certified Specialist implies a level of understanding of particular aspects of the system or its applications. IT managers and workforce and skills planning experts, however, are divided as to exactly how much of a benefit certification can be to an organization.

Proponents of AS/400 certification cite the increased validation of expertise available to organizations. Certification provides insights into the effectiveness of training programs, and provides objective benchmarks for validating skills.

Detractors of certification say there's still no evidence that AS/400 certifications translate into higher salaries or performance levels. Technology is changing rapidly, so managers may be reluctant to invest in certifying a skill that's hot today but on a backbench by next year. Plus, the core of the AS/400 market -- populated by smaller shops run by multifaceted professionals or managers --tends not to support testing for narrowly focused skills.

For the most part, certification is relatively new to the AS/400 world. IBM introduced its first certification test for AS/400 operators in the early 1990s. In 1996, the company unveiled a more far-reaching program for achieving consistent standards for a range of AS/400 skills across 16 areas of AS/400 systems development and management -- from RPG programming to e-business. IBM Certified Specialist testing is available through an arrangement with Sylvan Prometric worldwide, which has centers in most major metropolitan areas. Efforts are underway to add new categories, such as an entry-level certification for RPG programming.

Currently, more than 10,000 individuals have been certified in AS/400 skills, according to Don Heller, manager of certifications and assessments for the AS/400 at IBM Rochester. "Even though the AS/400 has grown from one of the latecomers for IBM certification, we currently give more tests and have more people certifying than anybody else," he adds.

Is it worth it, then, to have employees tested and certified for their existing skills on the AS/400, or to look for such credentials as a criterion for hiring? Some IT managers say no. "We're really not willing to pay for it. We have a very small IT/MIS staff," says Chuck Mick, CIM Director, Uni Boring Co. Inc. (Howell, Michigan). "While certification may be beneficial, usually when I need certified skills, I go outside to a consultant, or somebody as I need them, rather than maintaining them on staff." He also points out that his department would "probably have great difficulty retaining somebody if they went through the trouble of a certification in a specific area."

Industry experts question the need for certification, since hard evidence does not exist that it can enhance staffing and performance. "Certification is irrelevant, and the market doesn't support it," says Nate Viall, president of Nate Viall & Associates, an AS/400 professional recruiting and placement firm based in Des Moines, Iowa. "Trying to measure the impact of certification is fuzzy at best." The same issues arise in certifying general professional occupations as well, he states.

Viall does see value, however, in some type of standardized testing of new candidates, though he hasn't seen any evidence of such an approach being used by employers to date. Rather than being evaluated on certified skills, programmers typically come in as "apprentices," says Viall. "The real learning happens after you graduate," he notes. What weeds out proficient professionals is the intensity in which they approach their work. "Attitude predicts future success, not certifications."

Certification may also offer too narrow a view of overall competencies, in an era when IT professionals are increasingly expected to offer more value to the business, says Diane Tunick-Morello, an analyst with the Gartner Group (Stamford, Conn.). "The notion of paying people exorbitant sums strictly for technical expertise wears thinly on IS organizations that need enterprise insight and ambitious performance," she says. She adds that a comprehensive effort to certify technical skills may result in "a technical ladder filled with experts, that gets neither leverage nor strength in return."

This is a view already adopted by some corporate leaders, who say they've gotten beyond looking at specific skills, and "want really smart people who are flexible and have good work habits and high aptitude, given the constant change in technology," says Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), an industry lobbying group based in Alexandria, Virginia. "Whether an individual has a particular certification doesn't really mean too much one way or the other." However, Miller adds that other top executives are "flooded with people who say they're IT workers, and the only way they can realistically pick out the true candidates from candidates who make blind assertions about their capabilities is to turn to some kind of a certification program."

A key role of certification is to serve as a selection tool during the hiring and recruiting process and aid in evaluating outside expertise, such as consultants or vendors. "The world is full of situations where someone trusted a consultant that talked a good game - the 'better brochure' consultant," says Heller. "However, sometimes the most capable prospects are not recognized. In the Microsoft and Novell environments, certifications help people identify outside skills."

While certification status is currently not a major factor in selecting AS/400 talent, some experts feel the process has reached a turning point. "The attitude of many employers towards the certification process is going through an evolution," says ITAA's Miller. The increase in IT professionals from nontraditional backgrounds almost makes certification a necessity, he notes. "The industry has grown very quickly, and more people are coming to the industry with many more varied backgrounds. Many may not have a four-year degree, and if they do, it may not be in engineering or computer science, or even anything specifically related to computers," says Miller. "Employers need a way to look for other types of credentials they can use in their selection process."

Given the tight skills market of the past few years, selecting on the basis of certification is a luxury many employers can not afford, says Phil Levinson, professor of computer information systems at Jefferson College (Hillsboro, Mo.), who's been working closely with IBM on developing RPG certification programs. "With the Year 2000 issue, there was such a demand for AS/400 resources that individuals didn't need certification," he says. "Companies didn't need to put any more restrictions in hiring anybody, because they're happy to have any warm bodies. But now we're past that point."

Some AS/400 managers now welcome such skill validation. "If I hire someone, I want them to have experience already. I'm not going to bring people in and train them," relates Harold Dorsey, director, information systems, for OI Analytical (College Station, Texas). "The AS/400 market needs certification of skill sets."

The process has already proven itself with Microsoft and Novell certification efforts, which "let a manager know they're getting a person that meets certain minimal standards," Levinson points out.

The fear of certified employees jumping to other organizations looms large in managers' minds, but may be unfounded, says Heller. He points to a study conducted in the spring of 1999 and co-sponsored by IBM that found that certified employees tend to actually stick around longer. He cautions, however, that offering market rates for skills is still required to keep professionals from jumping ship.

"Once someone gets additional credentials, he or she may be lured away or tempted to look for more lucrative pastures," agrees ITAA's Miller. "Employers have to offer that kind of additional training or ongoing educational opportunities. Once a current employee gets an additional credential, then he or she becomes a hot commodity. But in a labor market where there are so many more jobs than there are employees, employers don't have much choice. Other than basic compensation, employees are looking for ongoing training and education."

The expense involved with certification may be far lower than many managers think, says Heller. Many professionals may need coursework to pass the test, which could run into the thousands of dollars per individual. However, "There will be a certain population that can walk in and take this test and pass without any preparation," says Heller. For many professionals, a certification test simply validates the knowledge and understanding already gleaned on the job and through trade journals and conferences. Therefore, the costs may not exceed the $170 test fee.

Heller also stresses that the exams are designed by panels of experts and are "as straightforward and realistic" as possible. "We don't try to come up with a bunch of tricky questions. What would that prove? We're not interested in people paying money to fail our test." IBM's certification Web site also offers sample tests and other resources to help professionals prepare and pass the exam, he adds.

IBM also offers certification in areas that extend beyond the AS/400 platform. For example, certification for Domino/Lotus Notes skills is offered separately through IBM's Lotus unit. Certification is also being standardized for Java, another technology looming large in the AS/400's future. Recently, IBM teamed up with Novell, Oracle, Sun Microsystems and the Sun-Netscape Alliance to collaborate to establish standards for knowledge and skill levels for Java enterprise developers.

"When you have a workforce that is growing fast, with demands that are so high, then the credentials the certification brings to the table can be very helpful in differentiating people more likely to be successful as employees," says Miller.

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What IBM Will Certify

IBM Certified Specialist - AS/400 Associate System Administrator
IBM Certified Specialist - AS/400 Professional System Administrator
IBM Certified Specialist - AS/400 Associate Systems Operator
IBM Certified Specialist - AS/400 Professional System Operator
IBM Certified Specialist - AS/400 Client Access
IBM Certified Specialist - AS/400 Integrator for NetWare
IBM Certified Specialist - AS/400 Professional Network Administrator, Network/Multiple Systems Environment
IBM Certified Specialist - AS/400 RPG Programmer
IBM Certified Specialist - AS/400 Solution Sales V4R3
IBM Certified Specialist - AS/400 Solution Sales Associate
IBM Certified Specialist - AS/400 Technical Solutions V4R3
IBM Certified Specialist - Business Intelligence for AS/400 Technical Solutions V4R4
IBM Certified Specialist - Domino for AS/400 Technical Solutions
IBM Certified Specialist - E-business for AS/400 Technical Solutions Application development
IBM Certified Specialist - E-business for AS/400 Technical Solutions Infrastructure
Source: IBM

Which Certification Training Methodology Has the Best ROI?

Classroom Training: Highly interactive; enables one-to-one mentoring support and real-time course content updates. It's a costly approach, however, $6,000-$10,000 plus travel costs for a complete certification program and a substantial time investment of 21+ days.

Computer-based Training (CBT): Self-paced and highly flexible. Inexpensive, since it only requires delivering a CD and related materials to the training site. However, it may be impractical for certification programs requiring 150-200 hours of training. Plus, the dropout rate is higher, since students have to go it alone without support from an instructor or fellow students, and may be forced to read thousands of pages from a computer monitor.

Online Training: Now delivered over the Web, this is typically a CBT program that can be updated online, and provides electronic interaction between the instructor and fellow students. However, as with CBT, this method requires reading thousands of pages from a computer screen, and does not offer hands-on experience with equipment.

Self-Study Programs: Like CBT, these programs are highly flexible, but may involve multiple mediums, such as software, books, and videos. This also has the same disadvantages of CBT, however, in that there is no interaction with an instructor or fellow students.

Source: CyberState University