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Those willing to spend the time and money to earn a certification must feel that it will boost their careers. But experience often trumps certification, according to IT career experts.

With the IT unemployment rate at just 3 percent, many companies aren’t putting many limitations on the candidate pool, according to John Reed, senior executive director for staffing firm Robert Half Technology: “A lot of things that might have been ‘must haves’ are becoming ‘nice-to-haves’ now.”

While hiring managers usually value experience over certification alone, many companies want both, and some see no value at all in certifications. Having all its IT staff certified does offer a company some advantages, not the least of which is the ability to charge clients more, suggested Randy Russell, director of certification for Red Hat.

Fortunately, a little bit of research can quickly show how much importance particular employers place on certification.

Setting Yourself Apart

Having a certification on your resume can be a way to differentiate yourself from the crowd. Linux advocate Shawn Powers recalls being hired to run the database department at a college, even though it was 100 percent a Microsoft shop. “I asked my boss about that later. He told me that they thought, ‘If this guy knows Linux, he can do anything we need,’” he said. “As a Linux system administrator or a Linux professional, you’re forced to think outside the box. … If you’re an outside-the-box thinker, you’re going to be a better employee in any situation.”

Certification is actually most helpful, he believes, to those on the active hunt for a job. “A lot of the interviewing team is not necessarily going to have a way to measure your expertise,” he said. “Having the certification gives you some evidence that you’ve gone that extra step and you really do know what you’re talking about.”

Companies often look at certification in making hiring decisions, but it’s not the sole factor, Russell added: “If I’m a hiring manager looking at my pile of resumes, I’m not going to be able to interview everybody. I may not even be able to do a phone screen with everybody. So I’ve got to sort that pile.” Certification is a useful way to sort the pile—provided the recruiter believes in the certification.

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In Context of Experience

Yes, employers can be wary when they see a certification on your resume, according to Stephen Van Vreede, a Rochester, N.Y.-based resume writer and career strategist at ITTechExec.com. There are many certifications out there and employers aren’t familiar with all of them.

“You have all these people who have the certification, but they don’t have the real-life experience,” he said. “So go into an interview and show, ‘Hey, this wasn’t just a theoretical training and certification program I went through. I have some skills that have been applied and here’s an example of how I put them into action.’”

It’s best to put the certification in the context of your experience: either what you learned while gaining that cert, or how you’ve put it to work since.

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