IT Certifications That Matter

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Choosing a professional to manage your company's network, hardware, and software is no easy task. How can you tell whether the skills listed in a person's résumé reflect the tech expertise your business needs?

To the uninformed, the hundreds of tech-related certifications that IT pros use to sell their services amount to an alphabet soup of incomprehensible acronyms. Nevertheless, 68 percent of IT hiring managers regard these labels as a medium or high priority, according to CompTIA, the largest vendor-neutral certifying group.

In this guide, we'll examine which of these certifications matter, and which technical skills a given certification implies.

Most computer certification programs don't require a college degree, and they can give help-desk professionals and network managers a competitive advantage and an earnings boost. For example, CompTIA says, businesses will typically pay a 10 percent premium for someone who has earned one of its entry-level certifications, and individuals with higher-level certifications can command a 40 percent mark-up.

But are those credentials worth the extra cost? Though pay rates vary widely, they normally range from $100 an hour to $300 an hour for consultants who possess specialized knowledge.

Here are some of the most popular IT certifications for help desk and networking professionals. (For details on others, visit

Microsoft (MCSE, MCITP, MCTS)

Few businesses get along without a hearty helping of Microsoft-powered equipment, and the company offers a raft of specialized training programs for those who service its products. Among Microsoft's most popular certifications are Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS), and the relatively entry-level Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP).

The requirements for MCSE certification are one to two years of experience in designing, installing, configuring, and troubleshooting network systems, and a passing mark on an $875 test. Median pay for an IT manager with MCSE certification is $77,000, according to

MCITP requires two years as an IT pro, and passing marks on one to five exams, priced at $125 each. There are 12 MCITP tracks, and pay for an IT specialist or consultant ranges from $47,000 to $70,000.

MCTS accreditation requires two years of background in troubleshooting specific technology.

CompTIA (A+, Network+, Security+, Linux+)

The nonprofit Computing Technology Industry Association offers popular vendor-neutral certifications--a good option if you're seeking a consultant who has a mix of experience beyond a single brand. Among the certification options, the basic A+ requires 400 hours of hands-on experience.

A step up in complexity, the $239 Network+ exam awards passing grades (and certification) to test takers who score at least 720 on a scale of 900. The 90-minute, $258 Security+ test has a 750 minimum score for passing, and the test for Linux+ certification has similar requirements. People in various IT roles who have earned these certifications generally earn annual salaries of between $40,000 and $80,000. After January, such certifications will last for three years rather than for life.

Cisco (CCNP, CCNA, CCiE)

Among the most popular certifications in the industry, the basic Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) covers installing and managing medium-size networks. It requires a passing mark on a $250 exam, and certification lasts for three years. CCNA accreditation is a prerequisite for intermediate-level Cisco system certifications such as the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP), which requires passing three 2-hour exams and costs $600. At the high end, Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification is viewed as the gold standard for Cisco-specific work. There are seven tracks, with exam costs of $1750. Qualifying involves 8 hours of lab work and a passing mark on a written test.

Apple (ACSP, ACTC)

A help-desk pro with Microsoft skills may not know how to manage Macs. For shops that rely on Apple products or use a mix of operating systems, Apple Certified Support Professional (ACSP) and Apple Certified Technical Coordinator (ACTC) cover basic support skills as evidenced by passing marks on tests that cost $200 and $400, respectively. For networking support, look for the intermediate Apple Certified System Administrator (ACSA); certification for ACSA entails four exams costing a total of $650. For Mac engineers, strong proficiency in Unix is a plus.

International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium (CISSP)

If your company deals with proprietary information and has deep security needs, Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification is known to be rigorous. People who qualify for it must have worked for at least five years in areas such as security architecture and design, and then must pass a $599 exam and pay an annual renewal fee.

Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA)

This advanced certification is reserved for IT security consultants and auditors with five years' experience. The test costs $415 or more. Tech consultants who earn this seal of approval enjoy a median annual salary of $87,000.

Project Management Professional (PMP)

This well-respected certification is for people with some college education and at least three years of project management experience. The 200-question exam costs $555 to take. The median salary for PMP-certified IT project managers is $89,000.

Next page: Which certifications do you really need?

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