What Are the Top Tech Certs in a Down Market?

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If the doomsayers prove right, throngs of laid-off tech workers will soon be competing for only a handful of available jobs. Technical certifications, once thought to be the ticket to higher pay and more prestige, may be needed to simply avoid the unemployment line. The trick is to get the ones that will really help keep or land that job, since it turns out many certifications won't be all that useful.

So what are the hottest tech certifications in today's cool job market? According to Foote Partners' fall survey of more than 22,000 IT professionals, covering some 170 certifications, the most valuable certificates today settle mainly into two camps: architecture and security. Microsoft and Cisco certifications also got good grades.

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In terms of pay growth, here are the top five certifications, according to Foote Partners:

* IT Certified Architect (ITCA/OPenGroup)
* Certified Information Security Manager (CISM)
* InfoSys Security Architecture Professional (ISSAP/CISSP)
* Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator: Messaging (MCSA)
* Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP)

Good Architecture Equals Real Tech Savings

As the economic crisis has deepened, good enterprise architects have become treasured assets. In fact, over the last six months, seven of the eight fastest-growing certificates are for enterprise architecture, which barely registered a blip a year ago, says David Foote, president of Foote Partners. "One of the things you invest in during tough times is architects," he says, "because if you want to save money, you have to architect carefully."

Certification plays well in areas that are grand in scope (and thus ill-defined), business-critical, and chock-full of complexity. Experience varies from enterprise architect to enterprise architect. Job histories on résumés can be exaggerated or even contain outright lies. Enterprise architecture certifications, on the other hand, "bring industrial strength" to the résumé and can be more easily confirmed, says Carole Schlocker, who runs iSpace, a technical staffing firm.

Enterprise architects are "abstract thinkers at the design level, almost like business analysts," says Foote. They transcend technology and cross into the business realm. Indeed, many tech workers aspire to journey down this path, and a certification can show that they are making progress.

Hiring managers, too, want to see more than just technical chops from job candidates. "They're looking for people who are good thinkers, have a feel for what goes on in other parts of the business, and understand how IT can be integrated," says Jerry Luftman, vice president at the Society for Information Management. "They want people with a holistic view." (Luftman is also associate dean of graduate information systems at Stevens Institute of Technology, which offers a dozen credentialed IT-business programs, such as IT for financial services, IT for health care, and IT for outsourcing.)

Project and Process Management Certs Are Also in Demand

Certifications that command some of the highest pay have close ties to revenue, such as those that involve improved project management, process efficiency, increased productivity, and better budgeting. Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology, has seen an uptick in demand for people with ITIL certification -- most notably, the ITIL v3 Master -- which can help an organization save money.

The oft-ballyhooed PMP (Project Management Professional) certificate and its related certificates from the Project Management Institute (PMI), for instance, ride on the process-improvement wave. "When companies are hiring project managers, they like to see the PMI certification," Schlocker says. "Often, the hiring manager is PMI-certified."

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