Job Search: Four Ways to Stand Out and Differentiate Yourself In Today’s Market

The first of a four-part series on ways to differentiate yourself as THE candidate employers are seeking. 1) Certifications.

With the economy still sending out mixed signals and layoffs still being announced at major companies including IBM, Microsoft and American Airlines, standing out in today’s job market remains critical for job seekers.

One way to stand out in this tough, crowded job market is with accredited certifications. Industry certifications tell potential employers what kinds of technologies and methodologies you are trained and experienced in. Employers are increasingly seeking candidates who are already certified in the specific technologies, methodologies and processes they use to ensure that a candidate can quickly get up to speed in their environment.

Although some critics argue that certifications are becoming more critical for a job seeker's resume than their experience, the reality is that this job market is unforgiving. I’ve noticed that of the very few opportunities for CIO jobs that are available, most require certifications in specific technologies and/or methodologies. Even CIOs have to prove themselves to get past the recruiter and HR gate-keepers.

Another reason to continue your education through certification is that it demonstrates your self-motivation to prospective employers. They like to see candidates who care about keeping their skills sharp and staying current in their profession.

I know of one independent consultant who was recently offered a job overseas leading a new IT operations center for a NATO-allied government because his list of technical and managerial certifications demonstrated his commitment and dedication.

Deciding on what certification(s) to attain is just as critical as actually accomplishing the goal. Numerous studies identify which certifications are “hot” for each industry – based on job ads; hiring managers, HR and recruiters; highest salary, etc. [Here are some for 2009: Foote Partners, Certifications Blog, Channel Insider, Tech Republic.]

However, the best way to determine which certification to attain is to research what the positions, firms and industries you're targeting are looking for. For example, I'm focusing my job search in the financial, defense and management consulting industries. In these industries, my research shows a significant increase in the positions requiring ITIL ("Understanding the ITIL Framework"), Lean ("Applying Lean Techniques to IT"), Six Sigma (How IT Benefits From Six Sigma"; "Six Sigma, ITIL, BPM Cut IT Costs In Lean Times"), PMP and security certifications. So while I’ve been trained in and have significant experience in these and numerous other quality improvement, project management and security protocols and methodologies, I am now re-training and/or updating my skills for these certifications. I completed my Lean Six Sigma certification back in March 2009, and I just completed my re-certification to ITIL V3 last week. I am currently in training for the PMI PMP certification, and I am considering if I should get re-certified in security (such as the CISP or CISM).

There are several ways to attain your certification, so I recommend selecting accredited organizations based on your preferred learning style - self-study or instructor-led. You can self-study with books or online, including VOD (video-on-demand) and webinars. Firms like Career Academy are also starting to offer free introductory webinars to their certification tracks.

I personally prefer instructor-led courses, which give me the opportunity to interact with and ask questions of the instructor. For my ITIL v3 certification training, after researching New Horizons, Global Knowledge and others, I selected Five9 Technologies based on their affiliation with TLA (Technology Leaders Associations) and recommendations from various IT executives I am networked with on Twitter. Further, Five9’s discount for TLA members in Chicago was very helpful, as well (note that this discount is being offered again for their ITIL v3 class in Chicago September 28-30 2009, for $995).

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