IT Salary Survey

IT Salary Survey: Do tech certifications pay off?

In our recent survey, we asked IT professionals if certifications helped them land a job, earn a promotion or get a pay raise, and which certifications they’re planning to pursue. Here’s what we learned.

certification college degree education graduation by cole keister via unsplash
Cole Keister / Modified by IDG Comm. (CC0)

Technology certifications can help you achieve career goals. They show employers you’re committed to learning, you take professional development seriously, and you have special skills and knowledge.

At least, that’s the traditional thinking. But when asked about the return on investment (ROI) of IT-related certifications, respondents to IDG’s 2020 IT Salary Survey were positive — but not overwhelmingly so.

The following is a look at how IT professionals regard the value of certifications, along with the certifications that have helped them the most — and least — and which certifications they’re planning to pursue in the next 24 months. The findings are from the 2020 IDG Insider Pro and Computerworld IT Salary Survey of 2,269 IT professionals, the majority of which (1,889) were full- and part-time employees.

The online survey was conducted Sept. 24 through Dec. 2, 2019. Of the employees who responded, the majority — 44 percent — hold a bachelor percents degree while 27 percent have a master’s degree, 17 percent hold a technical or community college degree, 8% have a high school or equivalent degree and 2 percent have a Ph.D.

IT professionals are divided on the value of certifications

Among the employees responding to the survey, 59 percent said they have at least one IT-related certification and 41  percent said they don’t. Of those with certifications, nearly half, 48 percent, agreed that certifications helped them land a job, promotion or pay raise while 39 percent said certifications had not made a difference. In other words, based on the survey results, IT-related certifications may, or may not, offer any meaningful reward.

IDG Insider Pro  >  Salary Survey 2020  >  [Chart#05] Training: The Value of Certifications IDG

A look at how many IT pros have certifications and whether they have helped advance their careers. 

Taking a longer view, 40  percent of respondents in IDG’s 2017 IT Salary Survey said that certifications had helped them get a job, pay raise or promotion, compared to the 48  percent in this year’s survey. At the same time, 46 percent in 2017 said certifications hadn’t benefited them, which dropped to 39 percent this year. The differences suggest that IT professionals may now be experiencing slightly more ROI from certifications than they did three years ago. In both surveys, 13 percent said they didn’t know if certifications had given them a leg up.

The results reflect the conflicting opinions about whether IT certifications are worth it.

“If you have two job candidates with identical skills and backgrounds, the person with certifications might have a slight edge,” said J.M. Auron, an IT professional and executive resume writer. “But ultimately, it’s more important to demonstrate the business value you can give an employer. That is what really sets you apart.”

[ Related: Tech Resume Library: 13 downloadable templates for IT pros ]

Auron concedes that in some situations, such as when someone is looking for advancement in cybersecurity, certifications might make a difference. But in general, certifications show you have a technical skill, he said, but they don’t demonstrate that you know how to use that skill to solve difficult problems and create business value.

Given the conflicting advice about IT certifications, “it’s been very difficult for me to determine which, if any, certifications will make a difference for me,” said Nathan Meador, a Florida help desk technician in his 30s. “But I feel that certifications will ultimately help validate me to employers and provide me with better opportunities,” he added.

Meador said he’s considering going for CompTIA certifications to “increase my fundamental IT knowledge, verify my skills and knowledge, and add to my credentials,” as well as Microsoft Technical Certifications, “because many businesses run on Microsoft software.” Because he wants to be more involved in IT projects, Meador also hopes to earn the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) certification. “I feel like these certifications will add to my basic knowledge and credentials and show that I’m willing to continue to learn and validate myself.”

Certifications can help you earn more money, too — which may be reason enough to add strategic ones to your resume.

Christopher Mandragos, a BI developer and systems engineer for application development and consulting firm Innova Systems International, said that a database fundamentals certification helped him earn a 2.5  percent pay increase. He also expects that earning two IBM certifications — IBM Certified Designer - IBM Cognos Analytics Author V11 and IBM Certified Administrator - IBM Cognos Analytics Administrator V11 — will increase his pay by 13 percent  each once he completes them.

IT certifications may be more helpful to younger professionals looking to move up. Among respondents who have IT certifications, the largest age group who said they’d benefited from them were aged 18 to 34, at 56 percent. Professionals in that age demographic are often just starting their careers or are trying to kick them into high gear, and certifications may help them gain traction.

On the other hand, 46 percent of those aged 55 and up said certifications had not helped them. That could be because they’re likely to have more experience and knowledge than younger colleagues, and therefore they have less incentive to earn certifications — unless they’re planning to switch their area of focus. 

The IT certifications that have helped the most — and least

Some certifications may be more valuable to an IT professional’s career than others. Consider the field of cybersecurity, for instance. Among those who said they have IT-related certifications, the largest percentage who believed those certifications had helped them land a job, promotion or pay raise — 69  percent — were in security jobs. At the same time, the smallest percentage of respondents who said certifications hadn’t helped them — 22  percent — also held security jobs.

After cybersecurity, the next largest percentage of respondents who said certifications had helped them were in networking jobs, 59 percent, followed by those with roles in cloud computing (53 percent), help desks (51 percent) and business intelligence (BI)/analytics and enterprise app integration, which were tied at 43 percent.

Conversely, IT professionals in the field of database analysis and development were most likely (at 58 percent) to say that certifications had not helped them land a job, a promotion, or a pay raise, followed by those with jobs in data center management (46 percent), application development (44 percent), BI/analytics (43 percent) and general IT (41 percent).

The certifications IT professionals are most likely to pursue — and eschew

Respondents were evenly split on their plans to earn IT certifications in the next 24 months. Half said they were going for new certifications; the other half said they weren’t. That’s not much different from what respondents said in the 2017 survey, in which 47 percent said they planned to pursue IT-related certifications and 52% said they weren’t interested.

Of those planning to pursue IT certifications in 2020, the largest percentage, 28 percent, said they were going for security certifications first. With 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs expected globally by 2021, many IT professionals are likely looking to bolster their security credentials or switch to cybersecurity from other fields.

For example, of those planning to pursue security certifications first, 75  percent — by far the largest percentage — are already in security roles. The next largest percentage, 30 percent, of those pursuing security certifications are currently in general IT roles, followed by 24 percent in data center management, 23 percent in help desk jobs, and 18 percent in enterprise app integration roles.

Of note: Security is tied with project/process management (both at 23 percent) as the type of certifications women are most likely to pursue first. In 2017, women slightly preferred security (27 percent) over project/process management (23 percent), which were their top two choices by far.

IDG Insider Pro  >  Salary Survey 2020  >  [Chart#06] Training: Name Your Certification IDG

Younger, male IT professionals are more likely to pursue certifications -- and security is drawing the most interest. 

After security, the most desired certifications in 2020 among all respondents were cloud computing (with 15 percent planning to pursue cloud-focused certifications); networking and project/process management, both at 11 percent; and systems administration (9 percent). Cloud computing wasn’t listed as an option in the 2017 survey. Otherwise, the top five certifications respondents planned to pursue were similar to those in the current survey.

On the flip side, the least desired certifications in the 2020 survey in terms of the percentage of respondents who planned to pursue them first were programming languages (1.8 percent), web development (1.0 percent), marketing technology (0.9 percent), communications (0.5 percent) and mobile app development (0.2 percent). These were the bottom five certifications in the 2017 survey as well, though their percentages differed slightly.

Data science certifications aren’t a priority — at least for now

Data science is another hotly competitive market in which employers are competing for available talent. PwC estimates data science jobs can take twice as long to fill compared to the national average of 45 days for jobs requiring a bachelor’s or higher degree.

Even so, only 4.1 percent of respondents said they planned to pursue data science certifications, up slightly from 2.4 percent in 2017. One possible explanation is that, at a time when employers have such strong competition for talent, they may not care if candidates have earned certifications. 

It’s also possible that, in the years to come, we may see a steady rise in IT professionals going for data science certifications.

“As IT professionals move into more senior roles, they need to understand the businesses they serve,” said Donna Svei, an executive resume writer who works with IT professionals at the director level and above. The classic route for career progression has been earning an MBA to better understand the contributions each functional area of a company makes in executing strategy, she said. 

“Increasingly, strategy means digital,” Svei added. “Thus, understanding how to govern, secure, collect, manipulate, analyze, and monetize data has become very valuable. For these reasons, I often see my clients enrolling in university data science certificate programs to advance their skills.”

Dave Ferreira, CTO for BroadPoint Group, which provides clients with custom app development, managed services and other offerings, said he is planning to go for data science certifications. Since BroadPoint Group is primarily an Azure-focused Microsoft partner, Ferreira’s plan is to go for the Azure Data Scientist Associate certification, followed by the Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert in Data Management and Analytics certification.

“A lot of our customers either have or are starting to accumulate a lot of data, so understanding what they have and how to leverage it for a competitive advantage is becoming a higher priority by the day,” Ferreira said.