Are Certifications Useful? October 17, 2011Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Process engineering, Quality.
Tags: factory quality, job search, project management, training
My current responsibilities include program management, and that’s somewhat ironic because the question of whether or not to become certified in program/project management was very much on my mind in 2009 when I was “between jobs.” Many of the jobs descriptions that interested me back then included a “requirement” for a professional certification, for example a PMP credential from the Process Management Institute (PMI), or a Six Sigma Green Belt or Black Belt certificate from the American Society for Quality (ASQ). In my career I’ve managed, trained, and coached people with these certificates, but I never took the time to become certified myself. I started to wonder whether my job prospects would improve if I spent the money, signed up for the classes, passed the exams, and generally jumped through the hoops to get formal recognition for the skills I had already demonstrated on-the-job many times over.
At the time I stubbornly decided not to pursue formal certification, for two reasons. First, I had to be pretty selective about what I where I was willing to spend money to improve my prospects for employment, and I wasn’t convinced that there would be a significant “return on investment” in these certifications. That’s because of the second reason: I wasn’t convinced that people who are certified are inherently better qualified for a position than someone who isn’t, all other qualifications being equal.
I certainly have no objection to continuing education, and I’m sure the preparation classes offered by organizations such as PMI and ASQ are thorough and well-constructed. What I object to is the idea that a job candidate (or an employee) who holds one of these certifications is patently more capable. Is work experience equal to — or even superior to — certification? I think in many cases the answer is “Yes,” but the problem is that it’s hard to assess “work experience,” and it’s far easier for recruiters, HR departments, and hiring managers to accept a certification as a proxy for competence and proficiency.
I received a Ph.D. from the University of California in 1982, and at that time there was an option for students to apply for a Master’s degree based primarily on the classroom work completed along the way to a Ph.D. It didn’t require a lot of additional work, and several of my colleagues opted for the “en route” Master’s, but it wasn’t for me. I felt that the Ph.D. I ultimately earned trumped the Master’s degree, and it seemed kind of pretentious to add more letters after my name. In my early career I was active in an organization now known as the National Association of Surface Finishing, and at one point I convinced myself that it was worth the time to take an exam and become a Certified Electroplater-Finisher. I suppose that might have been more prestigious and valuable if I had chosen a career in electroplating, but I moved in a different direction a few years later.
Since then I’ve worked with a lot of contract manufacturers and engineering service providers who proudly advertise their company’s certifications, typically framed and displayed in the reception area for would-be customers. I used to be impressed by these displays, but I became cynical when I realized that whatever the company did to achieve the certification had no connection to their day-to-day activities and performance. In the early days of the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award there were several celebrated examples of companies that went bankrupt shortly after winning the award, and it was widely suggested that they lost sight of what was really important to their businesses.
I think the key question is whether the certification is important to the individual (or company) in order to formally acknowledge experience already gained, or if the certification is meant to be a substitute for that experience. When evaluating a job candidate (or a company) I’m looking for demonstrated competence in a real-world setting. I’m still trying to decide whether to add more letters after my name, or if there isn’t some better way to show people that I know what I’m doing.