Like college degrees, certifications in information technology (IT) are helpful for determining a baseline level of skill, but their value is ultimately a matter of opinion.

Certifications, especially multiple certifications, may tell you something about the IT person you are hiring, but not enough to be decisive. "There should be an element of caution around vendor-sponsored certifications," says Samuel Bright, an analyst with Forrester Research, of Cambridge, Mass. "Certification may help in terms of screening candidates, but it shouldn't be exclusive."

Bright said, however, that beyond weeding out potential candidates, certifications have a value if you are seeking something particular, like knowledge of IT security, and looking for proof of that knowledge.

Certifications vary

As Bright notes, most certifications are vendor-sponsored. Since there's no standard for accreditation, one certification may be much easier to come by than another. Some certifications are based on tests that an entrant can take without any instruction if she feels she already knows the material cold. Others require a panel of the entrant's peers to review their work.

Given such a variance in certification standards, it's not surprising that they are quite common in the field. According to Certification magazine's 2005 survey of 35,167 IT professionals, 95.4 percent of such workers have some sort of certification and the average IT worker has about three certifications.

Who pays? It's roughly split -- 45.4 percent of respondents said they paid for their own certification while 48 percent of employers footed the bill, according to the survey. Prices for certifications can range from $100 to $3,500 or so, Bright says. Many IT workers are willing to pay for the programs out of their own pocket because they believe that such certifications will make them more employable and will eventually increase their salaries.

Gregg Davis, CIO and senior vice president of Webcor Builders, a San Mateo, Calif., construction firm with about 400 salaried employees, says you really have to look closely at the certifications to determine their value. "There are some people who are giving certifications after one-hour classes," he says. "It's gotten out of control." Davis says also beware of potential employees who have a large number -- like 20 or more --certifications in a wide range of IT areas. Such people may be too unfocused and have merely "racked up a lot of pieces of paper," Davis says.

Backing of hardware and software makers

Despite the lack of standards for certifications, there's one reason to value them -- most are sponsored by major hardware and software companies, which put their reputations on the line with every graduate they turn out.

Kathy Coe, director of education services at Symantec, the security software maker, says part of the reason for certifications is to give business owners some assurance that the person their hiring has a level of competence. "From a small business owner's perspective it's even more important," Coe says. "Frequently, there's only one individual at those firms that provide IT support so there's no combined knowledge skills. This gives [that person] some level of confidence." Symantec has been offering certification programs for more than 20 years and every program is different, Coe says. Nevertheless, since the overall quality of the programs is high, Coe is a big believer in the value of the programs.

"An organization needs to have some ability to manage their risks," Coe says.

Bright, however, says that certifications are basically "nice to have" and that they are really no indication of competence. "A certification may help in terms of screening candidates, but it shouldn't be exclusive," said Bright. "What we're seeing is that, going forward, certifications don't really matter as much after you've been hired."