5 IT certifications for beginners or career-changers

These IT certifications may open doors for newcomers, career-changers, or IT pros looking to build a new specialty
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If you’re climbing the first few rungs in your career ladder, the right IT certification can help beef up an IT resume short on real-world experience.

Some people overlook the first real certification test, however: Figuring out what it is you really want to do.

“The first thing tech professionals should do is think about their end goal and the reasoning behind getting a certain certification,” says Jim Halpin,  lead technical recruiter at LaSalle Network. “IT is a big field, so not all certifications make sense. It depends on what you’re most interested in.”

Don’t just think about your next job: Think about your future aspirations.

So if you’re considering a certification to help you get your foot in the door – or to give yourself a boost in the early stages of your career – think about your long-term goals. Don’t just think about how a particular certification might help you land your first (or next) job, but how it might lead to the job you aspire to in the future.

[ Which certifications are on the rise? Read also: 15 IT certifications worth watching. ]

Halpin points to the CompTIA A+ as a well-regarded certification for breaking into the IT field with little prior experience, for example. But if you loathe the idea of doing tech support, well, you might be looking in the wrong place.

“CompTIA A+ is a really good entry-level certification for those who want to fix hardware on computers and troubleshoot motherboards,” Halpin says. “If someone doesn’t want to be in that type of role, it’s not going to be a good option for them.”

Halpin recommends several other certifications for early career IT pros, depending on your goals, including others from the CompTIA “+” series, which has a positive reputation as a stepping-stone into various IT functions. He also has well as an idea or two for catalyzing a move from junior to higher-level roles or ones with a hot hiring forecast.

Here are the five certifications (and then some) that Halpin and Mahesh Ramachandran, vice president of product management at OpsRamp, recommend for beginners. Keep in mind, “beginner” can be interpreted generously: Some of these certifications may make good sense for career-changers or veteran IT pros looking to build their chops in a fresh area.

1. CompTIA A+

For someone essentially starting from scratch, the A+ cert is one of the better bets – just keep in mind that it’s likely going to open the door to a help desk or other support-related position. CompTIA brands the certification as a foundation for a long-term IT career, noting on its website: “It’s about more than just PC repair.”

Indeed, Halpin points out it can lead to other opportunities later – such as in a higher-level operations role – once you’ve cut your teeth a bit.

“The A+ certification can help get someone with little to no prior experience in the door in a help desk position,” Halpin says. “From there, professionals can work their way up into systems administration.”

On that front, check out the Red Hat Certified System Administrator certification.

2. CompTIA Network+

Among the other starting points in the + series, this one leads into a network administrator role.

“This is a good option for an entry-level professional interested in network administration and pursuing that area of technology,” Halpin says.

If you’re interested in the networking side of IT, Halpin also recommends the Cisco CCNA certification, which also has multiple levels: “[It’s] good for those looking to build a career in that area,” he says.

3. CompTIA Cloud+

Ramachandran recommends the Cloud+ cert for early career IT pros who have a couple of years (or more) experience in the field – ideally in systems or network administration – and want to get into a cloud infrastructure role. He notes that the associate-level certifications from specific cloud vendors, such as the AWS Associate Solutions Architect are popular choices for people looking to break into a cloud role, and they can be a good fit if you know you’re going to be working with a particular platform. But he likes the breadth of skills this particular cert covers, none of which are focused on a specific vendor.

“Vendor-neutral certifications like Cloud+ from industry body CompTIA cover a wide range of cloud management skills for deploying, maintaining, and troubleshooting hybrid cloud services,” Ramachandran says. “Cloud+ is recommended for IT pros with at least 24-36 months of system [or] network administration experience, with an interest in acquiring the right skills in cloud computing infrastructure, systems management, security, and disaster recovery.”

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his InformationWeek.com story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.