Computer certification becoming degree of choice

Corporate-controlled training classes lure job-hungry students

August 09, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Stanley Liberman is working on an A.A. degree at the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County and hopes to get a B.S. from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

But he also wants other initials after his name -- MCSE -- and he thinks those might be the most important.

Liberman, 21, is among the growing ranks of people who are supplementing or replacing college degrees with corporate-controlled computer certifications.

Falling between higher education and vocational training, the certificates are designed and judged by the computer industry. Though UMBC sponsors Liberman's certification program, it is Microsoft that decides whether he is worthy of an MCSE -- a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.

"From what people tell me, I will not get as far just with a degree as I will with this certificate," Liberman said. "I will get a better job more easily."

This huge education industry has ballooned in less than a decade. Microsoft estimates 500,000 people have received at least one of its certifications, and tens of thousands more have certificates from other companies.

For the most part, this has happened outside the traditional education establishment.

Clifford Adelman of the U.S. Department of Education first noticed the trend while surveying classified advertisements. The ads that mentioned education credentials were more likely to ask for a computer certification than for a bachelor's or master's degree.

"All sorts of groups offer this training," Adelman said. "There are the community colleges and the proprietary schools, but it might be a church or a community group. I got my computer training at the National Institutes of Health. The Tennessee Valley Authority, of all places, is a big trainer."

Sometimes, a company will set up a school to train its employees, then offer courses to the public, he said.

Colleges debate their role

That poses a challenge to colleges and universities, which are debating their proper roles in the new training. "Because this is such a new phenomenon, people are still trying to figure out what the rules should be," said Kent Moore, who publishes Technical Education Resource Monitor, an Atlanta-based newsletter.

Douglas Kendzierski is associate vice provost in UMBC's continuing education division and is in charge of its certification programs. "There is no doubt that this makes the traditional educational culture nervous," he said. "It is skills-based training, not theory-based, that follows much more of a vocational model.

"But what we are doing is filling a need for trained workers that is really unprecedented in the history of the country."

The programs, which take from a few weeks to several months to complete, teach people to fix computers (the beginner A Plus certification) and to handle computer networks (the MCSE and a variety of more advanced certifications). Such networks, rarely seen 20 years ago, are essential elements of virtually every business in the country.

It is as if the automobile had become a fixture of the U.S. home two decades after it first appeared on the streets. The country would need a lot of auto mechanics very quickly.

The Commerce Department has estimated that the information technology field will need a million new employees over the next six years. In the Baltimore-Washington area, an estimated 20,000 such jobs are unfilled now.

According to the training industry, an A Plus certificate can land a $25,000-a-year job, while those with MCSE or equivalent certificates can expect to start at twice that.

Though many community colleges have gotten involved in certification programs, for the most part four-year schools have been hands off.

At the Johns Hopkins University, for example, the continuing education division offers plenty of computer courses, but no certification programs. "We teach people the skills they need to keep the job, not just get the job initially," said James Nowitski, chairman of information technology for Hopkins.

Like many, he noted the relatively short shelf life of the certificate programs. A few years ago, the industry wanted people trained in Unix operating systems. Then Novell certification was in demand.

Though plenty of people who can work on those systems are needed, the popularity of the Windows NT product has made Microsoft certifications the desirable degree. At the same time, the demand is rising for those trained to handle Oracle databases. Every time Microsoft releases a new or updated product, a new certification might be required.

Newsletter publisher Moore said colleges worry about offering courses designed and graded by industry. "The thinking is that it might imply some sort of endorsement," he said. "But it is a fact that in this field, the standards are going to be set by industry in the foreseeable future. This is all part of a larger debate in higher education about how closely its degrees should be tied to skills employers want."

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