On an average day, Dave Atherton, recruitment specialist at Peckham in Lansing, Michigan, has numerous people with years of experience in the IT field coming into his office looking for employment. But sometimes he ends up having to be the bearer of bad news, and not because the candidates are incapable of thriving in a prospective IT role. On the Department of Defense contract for which Atherton provides staffing – a contract with 110 helpdesk openings for IT professionals – proper certification is a must-have. Even if a tech who comes into his office has worked for more than a decade as an IT professional, without a certification, Atherton can’t put the tech on the job. The stipulations are clear and non-negotiable: For Atherton to even begin the clearance process for the position, an applicant must hold any current CompTIA certification. On top of that, an IT professional must hold a CompTIA Security+ certification within six months of hire to stay on the job.
“On my contract, I can’t even start a security clearance until they have a qualifying continuing education CompTIA certification,” Atherton said. “The Department of Defense is dead serious about it. You either do or you don’t. And I’ve had people ask, ‘Well can I be grandfathered in or something?’ I’m not going to lie. There is nothing like that.”
Having worked as a teacher for 32 years, beginning with a focus in bilingual education, Atherton has a career’s worth of experience helping people from diverse backgrounds with disparate needs grow into successes. After his retirement from teaching in 2010, Atherton realized he would rather continue helping people to pursue success than spend time on his couch and found a space where he could do so at Peckham. The organization has for 35 years provided vocational rehabilitation services for individuals with a wide range of disabilities and capabilities. Refugees from war-torn countries suffering from PTSD and others that Atherton works with at Peckham often possess the technical skills and work experience to thrive in IT, but require career guidance to navigate the job landscape.
So as he works to make candidates hirable, Atherton is doing his level best to drive the point home about certification, both face-to-face with job seekers and behind the scenes. He has addressed the boards of local vocational and technical schools that offer IT programs. The schools, like Atherton, want to get as many people comfortably employed as possible. Their programs, according to Atherton, often teach the information required for CompTIA certifications but don’t go far enough in promoting the certifications themselves. Atherton hopes to communicate to them that while skills and diplomas are certainly important, they are increasingly not enough.
“The message comes to them on those boards, but then it really hits home when you start saying, ‘I can hire your people but they’ve gotta have certs’,” Atherton said.
Because of the various needs of those seeking employment placement through Peckham, Atherton has run into other difficulties in trying to get potential staff up to speed with certifications. The nearest facility that provides the exam, he indicated, is around forty miles away, and many of the people that come through his door do not drive.
But Atherton and Peckham have been dynamic in their approach to employee certification. They have brought in a full-time instructor to teach CompTIA A+, which has been a hit with those looking to get hired on the higher-paying IT contract. Peckham has implemented some online training resources with TestOut and worked on bootcamp training with New Horizons Learning Centers. In 2012, when the Department of Defense standards were rolled out that required continued education certifications, Peckham sent between 35 and 40 of those staffing the helpdesk contract to a certification bootcamp in Florida with a proven success rate to make sure all the boxes were checked and nobody got unexpectedly taken off the job.
As he continues to explore ways and seek new technologies to make sure qualified techs have their shot at employment, he hopes for a world in which more candidates walk through his door with what he calls the sisters – CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network+ and CompTIA Security+ – under their belts.
After all, Atherton pointed out, the IT industry actually permits and promotes certification logos to be physically displayed on a resume, a testament to the weight a certification carries. Atherton strongly advocates placing that medal of honor front and center.
“I tell people, once you’re certified, put that on your resume,” Atherton said. “Because if you’re going to find a job, even if it’s outside of Peckham, if an employer just looks at your resume, and they see that Security+ stamp on there they know a whole lot about you in one little picture.”
Matthew Stern is a freelance writer based in Chicago who covers information technology, retail and various other topics and industries.