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Technology certifications explained

Certification can help you prove your skills to employers - but they’re not always the best choice. What are certifications? There are two main types...Certification can help you prove your skills to employers - but they’re not always the best choice. Find out whether they'll work for you.

What are certifications?

A technology certification is a kind of qualification specific to a certain technology, such as network administration or computer repair. Unlike an A-level, degree or diploma, they are not standardised across the country: any organisation can offer a certification.

There are two main types of technology certification. Vendor certifications are run by companies that make software or hardware. They show that you are skilled in using their particular products. For example, the Microsoft Certified Professional programme shows that you are able to use Microsoft products (like Windows) to run a network or develop software.

Some companies offer certifications in more general areas, such as HTML. However, because anybody could set up a certification program in these areas, it can be hard to tell if employers would be impressed by it before you take the course.

How do they work?

Different certifications work in different ways. Some will include a course of study similar to more conventional qualifications. Others might provide learning materials but leave you to work through them on your own. Alternatively, you might simply register for an exam after studying in your own time. You could also pay for an unofficial course separately from the fee for the exam.

You will almost always have to pay for certification courses and exams (unless an employer offers to pay for you.) Some courses, such as NVQs, might include a certification as well as the main qualification.

A Microsoft exam costs just under £100, and some schemes require up to seven exams. This means it’s important to think about whether it will boost your earnings enough to make the cost worthwhile - bearing in mind that the money is wasted if you fail.

Is it worth it?

Certifications are only as valuable as employers think they are: if the employer doesn’t trust the company who awarded yours, then it won’t help you to get a job. This is less of a problem for vendor certifications: because these are created by the people responsible for the software, they are more often considered trustworthy. By contrast, anyone could set up a company offering HTML certification.

Certification can also go out of date quickly as technology changes, making it less of a valuable investment in the future. Even if your certificate doesn’t officially expire, employers will not be as impressed by an old certification.

What are the alternatives?

Because certification is just a way to demonstrate your skills, it isn’t the only option. You could also try:

  • Picking out specific experience on your CV. If you’ve got work experience, don’t just give your job title: mention specific problems you’ve solved and how you did it.
  • Building a portfolio. This means having a set of examples of your work to show off - it could be websites you have designed, programs you have written or contributions to an open source project.

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