e-skills: standards might help SMEs navigate the jungle of certifications

By Fabio Massimo, SBS expert. As much as ICT competences have become nowadays a key factor for the success (or survival!) of many companies in a growing number of fast changing sectors, it is ever more difficult for recruiters to assess ICT skills of candidates.

For other (more traditional) professional sectors, HR departments can safely rely on formal education paths of candidates and on relevant experience gained on the job. If a company wants to higher a lawyer or a civil engineer, the reputation of university and previous employers will probably say enough on the skills level of candidates.

For ICT competences, education and professional experience are often per se not sufficient. With the fast pace of technological evolution and the ever more specific needs of companies, practitioners heavily rely on industry trainings and certifications to acquire the right skills for specific domains and for being able to demonstrate them to potential recruiters.

In a given company, there are up to 23 different specific ICT job roles, at least those standardized at EU level by the e-Competence Framework, ranging from the Chief Information Officer (CIO) to system administrators, security specialists, developers, etc. All of this is often to be combined with a set of specific technologies, eg it is not the same to be able to develop code in java code or in another programming language; similarly, someone who is capable of administering a Microsoft server is not necessarily skilled for a server operating on Linux, and so on.

This is where industry certifications come in. Many ICT vendors as well as private trainings and certification providers make available their own schemes, which train and certify specific ICT skills. Examples are the Microsoft certificates for Windows Servers administrators (e.g. MS 70-411 and MS 70-412) and Solution Developer (MS MCSD), of CISCO schemes for Certified Architect (CCA) and Certified Design Expert (CDE).

And here comes the problem too. The ICT certification world is a jungle, where one can find thousands of different certificates, ranging from technical ones (almost every global provider of hardware or software has some) to high end ones for management and leadership roles. Moreover, each of these industry certificates seems to live in its own universe, parallel to that of vocational and higher education.

The lack of transparency and comparability is a nightmare for recruiters especially for small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) that are searching for talent to support their IT operations.

The European standards setting organizations, in particular CEN, as well as the European Commission and several European stakeholders organizations, like PIN-SME, are trying to address the problem. Back in 2013, the European Commission financed an initiative called Quality label for ICT industry based certifications that aimed to help solve this issue. Based on the e-competence framework e-CF and a set of quality indicators, e-competence related training and certification programs and the courses for these programs can distinguish themselves by two kinds of Quality Labels: a Quality Label for the program and a Quality Label for the delivery of the program.

The initiative was able to develop a methodology and to map around 50 certifications against the eCF. That was a start, but much remains to be done.

Now, CEN has the chance to step in with the development of new European standards that allow the assessment of industry certifications’ compliance against the eCF and with other quality requirements. This would eventually make possible for recruiters and for practitioners to compare different schemes and assess which combination of them leads to which job roles.

This is a possible initiative for the European standards organization that, if supported by industry and stakeholders, may decide to develop new standards projects in this direction.