Of the people: Technical certification'its time has come

Ira Hobbs

Over the past decade, vendor-specific technical certification has become an accepted industry way of demonstrating proficiency in managing specific types of products. Today, role-based certification programs offer government managers an additional tool, but it's one we seldom use. Role-based certification says a person is expert at a critical business function.

Managers need to get over their historical hang-ups about getting certified and explore the use of this tool to benefit their organizations and themselves.

Within my work force improvement agenda, I am passionate about role-based certification. For example, if you are managing a critical project for me, I'll sleep a little better at night knowing that you've been trained and certified in an accepted project management methodology. If you are administering my systems, I'll breathe easier knowing that you are certified in the roles of information security specialist and systems administrator.

We all recognize and accept that current or prospective employees who have successfully completed certification for products of, say, Microsoft Corp. or Cisco Systems Inc. bring to the job a clearly defined understanding of those companies' products. We often reward employees certified in specific products.

An August 2000 report by Gartner Inc. of Stamford. Conn., supports this notion. It states, 'The research shows that, on average, managers are willing to pay a 10 percent premium for employees certified in IT areas in demand by the enterprise.'

My own experience, though limited to government, suggests that some federal managers are also paying recruitment and retention bonuses as high as 25 percent annually to attract people with certifications.

Yet the federal government remains less than enthusiastic about rewarding certification. Why? Perhaps because certification focuses on an individual instead of the group. It requires peers to take a test and then be ranked. That runs counter to the government workplace culture. It scares some people.

However, if we are to deliver on the promise of secure e-government, we in management need to exhaust all avenues toward the training and development of our work force. Setting certification requirements, I believe, is a factor whose time has come.

Our world is changing and we must get beyond this notion of not establishing relative values among individuals. Increasingly, the sacred cows of our federal world are moving closer to market-based systems, including the notion that a worker has to be in the government or private sector his or her entire career. Having portable 401(k) funds that move from job to job with the individual will afford many the opportunity to cross the line between government and industry repeatedly. Certification that is valuable in the private sector ought to count for something in the public sector.

We can only provide high-quality service with a high-quality IT work force. Requiring certification signals an organization's commitment'to improving on its tasks and on its individuals' development. It creates a standard for measuring the competency of an individual. And it gives employees a way to demonstrate their proficiency, helping them move up and out, and back again.

We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Let's try certification and see.

Ira Hobbs is deputy CIO at the Agriculture Department and a member of the CIO Council.


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