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Are Certifications Useful? October 17, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Process engineering, Quality.
Tags: , , ,

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.



1. Jeff - October 17, 2011

As for certification – in my opinion it says 2 things; you were passionate about the subject at one time, and you finished a task that probably wasn’t particularly easy. As time rolls on, that certification becomes less valuable, unless you keep getting better than the certificate originally required. If so, great! Have fun proving it …literally! In an interview… have fun proving it!

Now company certifications? The one company I worked for that was ISO-9001 certified… was a joke. Upper management, execution and follow through, marketing, engineering, much less following their highly touted ISO-9001 procedure – all worthless.

As for people, hire 1.) smart people that, 2.) get stuff done. If a person only has one of these qualities, you’re wasting your time and your company’s money.

I never confuse any level of education or certification, with smarts. I’ve seen PhDs from the best universities in India, China, and oh yeah – America, make some of the most bone-headed, comical-if-it-weren’t-so-sad moves. (I’ve also learned some of the coolest stuff from a PhD or two.)

I think the best learning is when you try something totally outta left field that may actually kinda scare ya, cuz ya might embarrass yourself with how constrained your thinking is.

Certificates satisfy HR resume filtering programs. You still have to show ME that you can do this stuff blindfolded.

Licenses might be a better way to go.
A certificate means you passed a class with a subjective teacher and several standards of “passing”, one per school.

A license involves proving you can actually _do_ something, implies know-how, the standards are broadly applied, and it requires a certain level of trust, not just the knowledge. That trust is usually issued from a government entity.

Professional engineers, plumbers, electricians, pilots, drivers, doctors, lawyers, professional accountants, possessors of guns(!), all require licenses that imply more trust than a certificate can grant. (The one exception that proves the fact: An SEC Mortgage or Stock Brokers license : -) … and I bet those guys got a lotta initialisms to the right of their names, too. Buncha putzes.)

So, go get your embalming license, or your welding or pipe-fitter’s license! Betcha it opens more doors as well as your eyes to some aspect of your job you never thought it would affect!

I apologize for the bouncing around on the subject matter a little bit.

Enjoy the World Series. Go Cards!!


Tim Rodgers - October 18, 2011

Jeff, thanks for the comment. I share your skepticism about ISO-9001.

A certification or license or degree certainly represents a non-trivial accomplishment, and at the least it indicates the ability to set a goal and achieve that goal. If I were evaluating three candidates for a job, one with both experience and a certification, one with only a certification, and one with only experience, I would certainly favor the person with both experience and a certification (all other things being equal). However, a person with a certification but without experience would have a tough time convincing me that they have the skills to “get stuff done.”

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