Technical certifications: the "no-brainer" employee benefit

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A CEO and her CFO are discussing the company budget. And, as any good CFO does, he was questioning some expenses.

“What if we spend money on training our people and they leave?” he asks.

“What if we don’t train our people and they stay?” she responds.

This story isn’t new, but it illustrates an important point. Skills—technical skills in particular—don’t last forever. In fact, many will be out of date within 2-3 years or less depending on the technology. Which is part of why many certifications need to be renewed every couple of years. If employees don’t keep up, the costs to your organization can be disastrous.

According to a 2015 survey by research group EY, one of the reasons employees cite most often for leaving a job is they didn’t get enough training or have opportunities to grow. So they go elsewhere to find them.

Businesses don’t intend things to work out this way, but they do. It happens like this. Let’s say someone on your staff is really good at BGP on your Cisco routers. Initially, the organization values that skill. Over time, however, the employee finds himself stuck troubleshooting, always fixing that one thing, and not developing new skills. As that technology becomes less important to the organization, he’s suddenly on the outside looking in at new technologies. Even if supporting your networks and configuring/troubleshooting BGP is his primary job, by providing training and new certifications, the organization can still help him grow and move forward in his professional life. And he’ll be ready to expand and help the business innovate as it adopts new technologies.

Additionally, by helping employees move forward, you get more long-term loyalty. It benefits the employee, but it also benefits the organization when employees have a powerful reason to stay.

 

The certifications your employees need. And the ones they don’t.

Not all certifications are worth the time and effort required to get them. Obviously, if you have server administrators that maintain Windows and Linux servers, having employees with Microsoft or Linux Professional Institute certification is a no brainer. Conversely, if you run a shop with Cisco network security appliances, it doesn’t make sense to pay for or encourage employees to earn a certification for an obscure vendor’s firewall devices unless you’re actively pursuing an investment in them.

Remember, there may be edge-case certifications that also make sense for your organization. Take Microsoft Azure, for example. Even if you’re not using Azure today, cloud computing is a knowledge and skill-set worth acquiring. The knowledge learned during the certification preparation may be backwards compatible with your environment and more importantly, employees who have these new skills will think about solving problems in new ways. Imagine a discussion where a newly trained employee says something like, “You know what, here’s a really good business case for moving our back-office apps up into Azure. It can help us scale as we send the reps out into the field. It will save us on the up-front costs and I’m already trained and certified to deploy it.” Organizations need that kind of thinking from their front line employees.

Identifying the right certifications for your organization isn’t difficult. Start by looking at your organization’s technology needs. Then identify the industry and vendor standards. When it comes to certifications in the networking space, look at what hardware you have or are planning for. And inventory the software you use and have deployed and start with certifications there.

Cisco and Juniper have excellent vendor certs to help verify the knowledge of your team. They’ve been the leaders there for a long time. If you’re working with your helpdesk and endpoint support team, look at CompTIA certifications. CompTIA is great because they’re the leader in the vendor-neutral space and the knowledge can be foundational to many other skills. Microsoft and VMware both have big certification paths for their different environments.

For things that aren’t vendor specific like security, IT Operations and project management, look to the industry standards like (ISC)2, ITIL and PMI’s PMP—stay with the industry’s well-known certs unless there is something very specific that leads you to an up-and-comer. This will make it easy to find and hire similarly skilled professionals as you grow your teams.

Covering the cost of employee certification

Like the CFO in the story above, a lot of well-meaning managers question the costs of training and certification and wonder if employees should take on some of the cost. I strongly believe that given the return on investment for the business, the employer should cover the entire cost of both as well as provide time to employees to pursue the certifications. The goal should be to remove barriers that would prevent an employee from learning and growing.

Employees place a high value on training and certification. Fortunately for businesses, new ways of training have substantially reduced the costs of providing these benefits. Highly effective training can run as little as $30 a month per employee. Most certifications are $500 or less. In return for covering the investment in learning, the organization gets increased productivity, loyalty and employees who can think about problems in new ways to improve operations.

This doesn’t mean the employee is off the hook. If you want them committed to learning, they need to have skin in the game. Their contribution is the time they spend learning. You may provide time at work to learn, but the reality is most employees will need to spend personal time to learn a new skill and attain a certification. It’s also key to make the experience about personal growth combined with professional growth and opportunities. 

The real expense is letting certifications lapse

Although training is much more cost effective now than in the past, it’s still an investment. But when you consider the cost of the systems that these individuals are managing, it’s not an investment you should ignore.

What’s the cost to your organization if employees don’t know how to fix an overloaded server running your web-applications? How do you measure the expense when business-critical systems go down for an hour or two? What’s the cost of the lost productivity when hundreds of employees or customers who depend on an application can’t access it?

And there are other costs when employees don’t have the necessary skills and certifications your business requires. Employees with out-of-date skills can’t migrate applications to new environments. They can’t recommend improvements that streamline business operations. Perhaps worst of all, when systems (and employees) lose their cost-effectiveness, it’s an opportunity for startups using more efficient and less expensive technology to replace slow-moving incumbents.

It’s not a matter of whether people want skill development and certifications or not. They do. Rather, it’s where will they get them from — you or another employer? Certification is one of the most affordable benefits a company can provide for employees. Considering the benefits your organization will reap, especially in retaining quality people, any investment you make far outweighs the cost.

Learn more about how you can keep your IT team productive, happy and skilled with our guide.

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Contributor

Gary Eimerman

Gary Eimerman heads up the IT pro curriculum at Pluralsight. He brought his expertise over from TrainSignal, where he spent eight years helping to grow the company into the leader in online IT training. Gary has a B.B.A. in Management Information Systems from University of Iowa and brings hands-on experience with computer hardware, networking and administration, as well as a passion for education, to the Pluralsight team. You can follow him on Twitter: @garyeimerman. (VP of IT Pro Content)