The Wall Street Journal. November 8, 2013. Even after racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, many graduates find their college degree isn’t enough to get a job. So more are opening their wallets again to attain pricey credentials to help prove to employers that they really do know what they’re doing.
Career counselors and job experts say more job hunters are being sold assessments and certifications they are told will give them a leg up in their job search. Though many of these certifications—such as those earned by radiologists after learning to use certain machines, and safety certifications for people who work in manufacturing—prove worth the expense, other workers may be better off holding onto the cash. Some of the certifications being targeted to business school grads and tech workers, for instance, may not say more about their expertise than their M.B.A.s or the software programs they’ve coded, career pros say. “Some of them are credentials to nowhere,” says Roy Swift, senior director of personnel credentialing accreditation programs for the American National Standards Institute, a non-profit organization that reviews and accredits professional certifications.
The main problem, according to critics and even some supporters of the credentials, is that the majority of the certifications being sold to job seekers are unregulated, making it hard for individuals and employers to measure their worth. They are also popping up across various industries, requiring leaders in those fields to step up and standardize the requirements. For instance, there are more than 50 senior designations used by financial professionals, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is calling for more rigorous training standards in order to make things clearer for consumers confused by overlapping credentials.
There are no hard numbers on the size of the certification industry but Swift estimates that less than 10% of the more than 4,000 personnel certifications that exist have been accredited by a third party. That stamp of approval generally means the certification meets the standards set by experts in that industry, be it finance, manufacturing, health care or technology. “That leaves the other 90% for buyer beware,” says Swift.
Job seekers have good reason to think the credentials are important. For one, they’re often mentioned in job ads. Job hunters may also get email pitches for these certifications as a way to make them more appealing to hiring managers, career coaches say. Normally, the certification involves taking a standardized exam and paying a fee, sometimes up to several hundred dollars. Often the organizations will award the certification to anyone who earns a score above a certain threshold. These certifications are different from certificates, which are typically awarded by universities and community colleges to students who take required courses in one subject matter.
And workers who decide to pursue the credentials usually don’t stop after earning just one. “If you’ve got one you’ve probably got three,” says Anthony Carnevale, professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce who says some certifications can help people land better jobs. “They’re like badges.”
But telling a valuable credential from a worthless one isn’t as simple as finding one that’s accredited. Some employers may prioritize candidates with a certification that confirms their competency with a certain program, while others prefer to see specific examples of instances when that person applied those skills on the job. And some credentials that may seem general, such as a project management certification, may be well respected in various industries as a sign that the worker was trained to be efficient. A job seeker’s best bet is to talk to employers about how important it is that the employee have a certain credential, says Steven Rothberg, president of CollegeRecruiter.com, a job board for students and recent graduates. “If it’s not being valued by the employer, it becomes a tree falling in the forest,” says Rothberg. Workers can also talk to people in the industry who already have that certification about how much it helped them advance their careers, says J.T. O’Donnell, chief executive of Careerealism.com, a career-advice and job-search site.
Kisha Browning, who has 10 years of experience in manufacturing, has paid about $1,500 on preparation courses and test fees to earn three certifications—in management, auditing and pharmaceutical sales—since being laid off as a manager at a manufacturing plant three years ago. To boost her chances at landing a management job, Browning decided to earn the certifications after seeing them mentioned repeatedly in job postings. She has learned more about auditing and managing resources efficiently, but she is still looking for the right job where she can put those new skills to work. “I’d like to make myself stand out above somebody else,” says Browning, who recently moved to Houston when her husband changed jobs. Plus, she says, each certification gives her a sense of achievement. “It makes me feel good that I’ve accomplished something else,” she says.
To be sure, certifications can often help employers sift through job applicants to find the most qualified workers. Industry leaders are working with educational groups to standardize the requirements and processes for attaining certain certifications. For instance, the Manufacturing Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to improving manufacturing, in 2009 created the Skills Certification System, a set of industry standards for the competencies workers need to meet to land certain positions in the field. The group says the standards are helping the industry address a shortage of skilled workers.
It’s a good sign when the current or potential employer is willing to cover the costs of the assessment. Most companies that require new hires to pass a certain test will pay for the exam, says O’Donnell. Some people who are working may find that their employers are willing to cover the costs of the training and assessment for a certification that’s respected in their industry. Gary Werner, who works for the construction management arm of an engineering firm based in New York City, is currently working toward earning a project management certification from the Project Management Institute, a nonprofit that provides resources to project management professionals. Werner’s employer agreed to pay up to $1,000 to help him prep and take the exam for the certification, which he says some potential clients had asked about. “It helps the company but it also helps me,” says Werner. As an employee, “you want to show that you’re looking to improve yourself,” he says.