Certification is one of the hottest trends in adult learning and employment space. Over the next 20-30 years, I believe we will see a shift away from getting advanced college degrees to getting certifications.
Note: This post was originally published in February of 2014. It was updated in January of 2020.
The question I am often asked is:
Should I get “XYZ” certification?
My response is almost always – Maybe!
Before we jump into whether you should get a certain certification, let’s define what it means.
My definition for certification is: Some person or organization has deemed that you have attained a certain level of expertise and granted you a certificate.
There are three general classifications of certifications:
Federal or State-Issued
These are certifications like teaching, legal, social work, and medical. You must attain certification to be able to perform this work. In the field of social work, the person or organization who pays your bill will determine whether or not you can work.
For example, the Medicaid program requires practitioners to have attained a certain level of certification in order to be paid by Medicaid. Practitioners with a lower level of certification can see patients that self-pay. If you want to be hired by an agency that handles Medicaid patients, you must get the certification required by Medicaid.
Another example is becoming a nurse. Whether you are a Registered Nurse (RN), Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), or Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) you will need to acquire its associated certification before you get hired. These certification programs are run by agencies of state government in the U.S.
Industry-sanctioned groups issue these certifications. A good example of this is the PMP certification issued by the Project Management Institute (PMI). You can take training directly from the PMI or from a third-party provider.
Another example, HR Certification Institute issues a variety of certifications like PHR or SPHR. You will likely go to a third-party provider like a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) chapter to help you prepare for the exam.
The big difference between industry certifications and government certifications is that industry certifications are not necessarily required to have to get hired. I have known many HR professionals whose employers paid for their training and certification costs after they were employed.
The PMP certification requires you to have significant experience as a project manager before you can even sit for the exam.
Corporations issue these certifications. In the old days, this meant certifications like CCNA from Cisco or MCP from Microsoft. As everything has moved to the cloud, there are new certifications for Google Cloud, Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft Azure.
This is a huge industry!
I even designed, developed, and implemented one of these programs for my last employer. They can be time-consuming and expensive to attain and maintain.
Are they required in order to gain employment? This depends on the employer, but usually no. They do demonstrate that you have attained a certain level of technical skill. When breaking into a new area where you have no experience, having these certifications can be invaluable.
How do I determine if I should get a certification?
The first question you need to ask yourself is, Do I have to have this certification to get hired?
I made a mid-career decision to go teach high school math. In order to get hired, I had to acquire a Texas Educator Certificate for Standard Classroom Teacher Mathematics (Grades 8-12). Initially, I attained a Probationary Certificate, which allowed me to be hired. With some exceptions, I had to have the certification.
One exception would be if I went to a private school. Another would be if a public school had a great need with no available certified candidates. They could hire you contingent while are you pursuing the certification.
If you are looking at an industry or corporate certification, the next question you need to ask yourself is: What benefit will I get from having this certification?
Here is where this gets murky. The value of each certification is dependent on the demand in the local market.
Some certifications are hot in certain markets and not needed in others.
You need to do your research!
The process I have had clients pursue is the following:
- Go to LinkedIn Search
- Enter the certification letters (PMI or SPHR or CCNA, etc.) in the last name field
- Enter your zip code into the Postal Code field
- Click on Search
The results will be everyone in your network who has placed the certification letters after their last name. Start connecting to some of these people and ask them if the certification is worthwhile. You will need to talk to enough people to make a good judgment for yourself!
For example, I had a family member who had just graduated from college. He wondered whether attaining a specific certification would be useful. He was applying for an out of state position. I told him to contact the officers of the local industry association, which he obtained from their website, and ask for AIR: Advice, Insights, and Recommendations.
What several of the officers told him was that having the certification made them stand out during the dot-com bust and, therefore, keep their jobs when others were laid off. Valuable insight!
Cost of Certification
The last question you need to ask is: What is the cost to get and stay certified? Will your employer fully or partially fund your certification costs?
Getting and maintaining these certifications can be quite costly and time-consuming. This especially true of some of the corporate certification programs. Some employers will assist you in maintaining your certifications but you will need to do your homework to see if this is true at any specific company.
You will want to ask these questions of everyone you contact.
The point is, you have to ask if it is going to be valuable where you want to work.
The people who can tell you that are people with the certification where you want to work.
Are you going to get certified?