Do Professional Credentials Still Matter?

I recently attended a conference in which the keynote speaker mentioned that he never considers the candidate’s credentials when making hiring decisions.  Instead, he favors job candidates that appear to demonstrate self-initiative, an interest in learning, and perseverance or “grit”.

As someone who has spent her career helping organizations create credentialing programs, I was taken back by the comment. Have professional credentials lost their value?

While I agree that an interest in learning and perseverance are important, I would argue that credentials are more valuable than ever these days both to employers and the individual. Why?

Provides evidence of competence – regardless of how you got there

Recently, IBM, Apple and Google – along with 11 other large employers – announced they no longer require a four-year degree to get hired. This move wasn’t overly surprising given that employers have long complained that too many graduates from traditional academic institutions don’t have the “real world” skills needed to do the job. In fact, more and more companies – such as Salesforce, IBM, and Google – are taking it upon themselves to educate the workforce based on the specific competencies that matter to them.

Meanwhile, students – especially those of younger generations – are seeking out non-traditional educational paths. They are demanding a solution that doesn’t cost a lot, allows them to take courses when and how they want to, and can be tailored to fit their specific interests and professional goals. These “new-collar” workers do not have or need a degree from a four-year college in order to obtain a well-paying job. Instead, they gain the needed job competencies through on-the-job apprenticeships and internships, software boot camps, two-year degrees, technical certificates, as well as online coursework.

With so many more educational avenues available, employers are beginning to care less and less about how you acquired your knowledge and skills, and more about whether you can prove that you have the that ones that they need. In fact, many employers are moving toward skill-based hiring and are relying on credentials – such as badges, certificates, certifications, and micro-credentials – to provide evidence of competence. In fact, some experts argue that we are becoming a “credential society.”

Drives life-long learning within an organization

The nature of work is also drastically changing. We are on the brink of a Fourth Industrial Revolution – a technological revolution that will profoundly alter the way we work and disrupt virtually every industry. The demand for highly skilled workers will increase whereas many lower-skilled jobs will become obsolete.

Automation and other technological advances will quickly render our current skills obsolete. Many jobs will also become more specialized. As a result, we will all need to become life-long learners in order to future proof our careers.

Companies are struggling with how best to upskill or reskill their workforce so as to remain competitive in the global economy. In fact, Linkedin Learning indicated the biggest challenge companies often face isn’t providing the needed training, but rather “making people make time for learning”. While most everyone agrees that ongoing learning is important, there are often more urgent issues that take precedence at work.

Credentials can help with this problem.  For instance, some companies are requiring credentials, such as professional certifications, for promotions and pay increases.  Requiring ongoing credentialing communicates the importance of making time for ongoing learning and gives companies a means to measure that learning is happening and that employees are gaining additional competencies.

An added advantage is that professional certifications also have recertification or continuing education requirements that help ensure that Certificants maintain their level of competence over time. One of the most important, yet overlooked benefits of these types of credentials, is that these employees also gain access to an ecosystem of peers who are also actively engaged in improving their knowledge and skills – the social influence of which should not be underestimated.

Helps companies recruit and retain better employees

I recently visited a large technology company and a manager mentioned that offering credentialing opportunities has allowed them to recruit and retain better employees. These days job candidates want to work for companies that are willing to invest in their professional development.

For the individual, these credentials become a valuable currency. In a knowledge economy, the more credentials individuals accumulate, the more they increase their value and ability to get better jobs with higher pay.

Helps individuals differentiate themselves in the gig economy

The gig economy is here to stay. According to a recent Forbes’ article, 40% of companies are planning on using gig workers as part of their workforce in the future. As more people decide to eschew full-time employment in favor of doing freelance work, credentials help them establish their professional identities, differentiate themselves in the marketplace, add to their credibility, and earn business.

Shows continued interest in professional development

Lastly, if I had had the chance, I would have explained to the keynote speaker at that conference that accurately assessing behavioral traits like self-initiative, an interest in learning, and perseverance or “grit” can be tricky.  However, a job candidate who has obtained professional credentials is demonstrating that she or he has taken the initiative to learn new skills and has the perseverance to earn the credential.  In essence, the credentials signal that the candidate possesses the behavioral traits the speaker was seeking.

Although I am obviously a proponent of the value of credentialing, not all credentials are created equal.  For instance, having a certificate versus a certification does not mean the same thing although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably which leads to confusion.  Now more than ever, it’s important that issuers of credentials clearly communicate what the credential means – it’s intended use and how it was earned – and adhere to certain standards of quality so that employers can continue to use them to make informed decisions and so that individuals can use them to build their careers and better lives for themselves.

Written by Dr Leslie Thomas

To learn more about what goes into creating a quality credentialing program, make plans to attend Dr Leslie Thomas’s presentation on The Four Immutable Laws of Certification Success: A Psychometrician Speaks at OEB 2019.

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