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It’s hard to believe it wasn’t so long ago that IT was considered a competitive advantage for individuals and businesses. Like the wizards of the medieval era, IT was its own separate entity that mostly sat apart from the rest of world; as did the people in charge of it.

Today IT is integrated into the fabric of everything we do. IT flies our planes, broadcasts our football games, delivers water and electricity to our homes and records and edits our music. There’s no telling what IT will do in 10, 100 or 1,000 years. The only thing that’s certain is that, barring a total catastrophe that returns us to the Stone Age, all of these innovations will require hundreds of thousands of people who understand how technology works to keep them operating smoothly and at peak efficiency.

Because of this total reliance on technology, the career opportunity in IT is staggering. According to job search site, more than 450,000 technology jobs were available in August 2011. Of course, as with anything else, some IT jobs are better than others in terms of salary, security, the work itself and the potential for career advancement. And, those are the jobs for which you will face the toughest competition. How do you give yourself the best chance of landing one of those top-level IT positions? There are a number of factors, but one that you can influence most easily is being certified in the technology related to that position.

It’s a known fact that employers depend on certifications to make hiring decisions. According to a 2011 CompTIA research report, 64 percent of IT hiring managers rate certifications as having extremely high or high value in validating the skills and expertise of job candidates. In addition, eight in ten HR professionals surveyed believe IT certifications will grow in usefulness and importance over the next two years. 

Why are employers relying on certifications when hiring IT pros? According to the CompTIA study, certified IT workers have a greater ability to understand new or complex technologies; are more productive and bring more insightful problem solving to the workplace.

A certification makes an individual more marketable. Unless the prospective employer is familiar with the school the job candidate attended or the organizations the candidate worked for previously, he or she has no independent means of knowing how rigorous the program or experience is. When a job candidate comes to an employer with recognized and accepted professional certifications, it gives the employer more to go on. For workers new to the employment market without a great deal of past experience, the combination of an academic degree and an industry-recognized certification puts the worker in a stronger position when looking for a job.

Certification also has an impact on salary once you have the job. That same CompTIA study found that IT professionals gain an average nine percent salary increase immediately after receiving certification, and 29 percent over the long term versus peers who are not certified.

While to this point we have discussed certification as if it was a single entity, in fact there are a great many certification options IT workers can pursue. There are general IT certifications that range from basic to advanced; certifications for specific technology areas such as security, cloud computing, and networking; and certifications for technologies from individual vendors. Which you choose depends on your career goals, your experience level, the needs of your organization and other factors.

Within the technology- or vendor-specific certifications there are often multiple levels as well. As you advance in your career you’ll likely find it more advantageous to acquire increasingly advanced certifications in one area rather than accumulating them across multiple areas.

Yet the wide variety of certifications available also makes it easier to change your career focus if you choose. For example, if you have been working with IP telephony for the past few years but determine you have a better future in the organization if you learn healthcare IT, you can easily obtain the training and certification to reboot your career path.

If you’ve never pursued certification before, a good place to start is with a foundation-level program such as CompTIA A+ that covers the fundamentals of PCs, networks, peripherals, operating sets, security and environmental issues. Developed in collaboration with major IT organizations, CompTIA A assesses the foundation-level skills for which the IT industry is looking.

From there you can pursue a technology-specific certification in your area of interest. Most major technology and software producers offer certifications to ensure different levels of expertise in their products. Training for these certifications is available from a variety of sources –from the vendors themselves; academic institutions, commercial training providers or through self study.

Certification is not limited to individuals; entire organizations can get certified. Many organizations (including CompTIA) as well as vendors offer channel training and credentials that allow solution providers to learn best practices and prove that they follow these techniques. Having these certifications provides a distinctive advantage in the selling process, demonstrating to prospects and customers that your company is dedicated to providing the highest levels of service and expertise.

Whether you’re looking to advance an individual career or an entire organization, certification provides a proven path to success. It may not always be easy, but setting aside time and budget for certification will definitely pay off in the long run.

Terry Erdle is Executive Vice President, Skills Certification, at the Computing Technology Industry Association, leading the organization’s global certification programs, including product development and delivery, partnership relationships and cooperation with education and training communities.