A certifiable way for older workers to (re)enter IT

I received an email recently in response to my blog on ageism asking how one might break into the IT field at a late age, with minimal experience, and an older IT skill set. Hmm… What could I suggest?
Written by Ramon Padilla, Contributor

I received an email recently in response to my blog on ageism asking how one might break into the IT field at a late age, with minimal experience, and an older IT skill set. Hmm… What could I suggest?

I could say, "Go back to school, get/finish that 4-year degree in IT, and make sure you do plenty of work study to get some IT experience." But that’s not really a satisfactory answer. Most folks in their later years don’t have the time to get that 4-year degree part-time, and full-time is usually out of the question. Additionally, they need money now, not tomorrow.

There is a variation of the above strategy that can work though - certification. Get a certification in an IT specialty and you can often get doors opened for you, even without experience. IT certifications can be completed in anywhere from a few months to a couple of years depending on the certification you are trying to receive, how hard you study, and your aptitude for the content.

On top of that, there are many different ways to prepare for certifications: boot camps, self-study, online classes, corporate training or a combination of all of these. Depending on the route you take, you can spend very little or quite a bit, depending on your style and learning needs.

The next question would be what certification(s) to go for? Without even debating which ones are better than others, the obvious answer is – the hottest ones in the job market, if they meet your interest.

This is where some soul-searching has to come in to play. Are you willing to make the commitment to learn the material to pass the tests, and are you willing to go where the jobs are? Because you can be the hottest IT commodity in town, but if there is no need for that specialization in your town, you are out of luck.

Given that your answer is yes to both the above questions, here are my suggestions. Now, not everyone may agree with my rationale for the following, but I think that these will give you the best chances to get your foot in the door without having a ton of experience.

  1. Open Source Software Certifications. Choose a field; networking/OS, or database and then choose a vendor and get started. Why open source software certification over the more numerous and popular ones? To make you more of a rare commodity. If I have to choose from 50 MCSEs and one is freshly minted and the other 49 are experienced, where do you think I am going to look first? Exactly. You need to stand out from the crowd. Since the use of open source tools is growing, climb on board the train earlier rather than later. You might find yourself one of a handful of certified open source professionals in your town. The less competition, the better.
  2. Within the OS category, I would have to recommend Red Hat Certification. It is the top dog in corporate Linux right now, and you could get some traction with the certification. If not Red Hat, my second choice is Novell Certified Linux Engineer. I believe Novell is an up-and-comer again in the corporate and government markets and is a good bet.
  3. Within the open source database arena, my choice is MySQL certification. MySQL is a leader in the area, and there is a demand for the certified MySQL dba. My second choice would be PostgreSQL certification, now that Sun has thrown its weight behind it.

Then there are the more traditional and more popular certifications from the major vendors of hardware and software. Obviously there is nothing wrong with pursuing these certifications. But again, as an older, out-of-the-workforce individual with dated IT skills who is joining the larger pool of IT professionals (with the same certifications), you are at a disadvantage due to experience and sheer numbers. Thus, the emphasis is on open source.

Now, why is this discussion being held in a government technology context? Easy. Governments will be the prime employment targets for these folks. Governments (which includes education) were/are early adopters of open source tools, and they tend to have smaller budgets which means they tend to pay less. Therefore, they are more willing than the private sector to take a chance on a freshly-minted certification-holder.

Lastly, the above advice holds true for anyone, not just the older worker. It can be a good way to switch careers in midstream or start one in lieu of college. However, I will always recommend getting a formal four-year degree if at all possible.

So if you are that person trying to break into the field again, or tired of your current position, you might give my suggestions a try. There are no guarantees that come with it. Although, investing in new knowledge is never a waste of time in my opinion.

Good luck!

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