by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
The author wishes to acknowledge the members of Career Management Alliance who contributed suggestions for this article.
Perhaps you're feeling stuck in your job. You feel as though you need a boost -- something that could help you advance, make more money, and become more marketable. Or maybe even something that would powerfully propel you into a different field. Something that could set you apart and make employers take notice. Maybe you could accomplish your goal with more education or training, but you're not in a position to go back to school at this point. The answer just might be earning a certification in your field -- or in a new field.
Certification programs have proliferated enormously in the past several years. At a minimum, there are nearly 1,600 certifications available, according to the definitive directory on the subject, the Certification and Accreditation Programs Directory, as well as an additional 227 accreditation programs. The directory notes that the growth of certification programs is largely the result of explosive population expansion. Where we once could determine the competence of professionals and purveyors of services through word of mouth, our global and technologically advanced society needed new ways of recognizing competence.
No matter what field you're in, chances are there's a certification for it. Who knew for example, that there are certifications for pet trainers, Tarot card readers, acupressurists, glassblowers, cake decorators, and biofeedback professionals?
In this article, we examine certifications that can supplement your career credentials, as opposed to certifications that are an absolute requirement for employment, such as those for teachers. Nor do we explore licensure here, although some fields may require licensure in addition to offering certification.
As explained in the Certification and Accreditation Programs Directory, certification is defined by the National Organization for Competency Assurance as "the process by which a non-governmental agency or association grants recognition of competence to an individual who has met predetermined qualifications specified by that agency or association."
The question is: Can certifications really help boost your career, or are they just a way for the issuing organizations to stuff their coffers with the cash inevitably required for the certification process?
The question is: Can certifications really help boost your career, or are they just a way for the issuing organizations to stuff their coffers with the cash inevitably required for the certification process? Even as we researched this article, we found hard statistics on the value of certifications hard to come by. Most organizations we polled couldn't provide hard figures on whether certification holders were more likely to gain employment, advance in their current jobs, or earn higher salaries than those who aren't certified.
Certainly some certifications are more valuable and career-boosting than others. If you are considering pursuing a certification, you'd be wise to pose some tough questions to the organization that issues the credential you're pondering. The Certification and Accreditation Programs Directory, an expensive volume that is likely available in your local library, offers a list of questions you should ask issuing organizations when you're thinking about obtaining certification, a few of the most probing of which include:
- What is the reputation of the issuing organization?
- Do the benefits of the certification justify the cost?
- What are the requirements and costs for recertification?
- Are there educational and experiential requirements for the certification? (Experience requirements are an important consideration for career-changers since they could prevent one from using a certification to move into a new career quickly.)
- Is the certification national in scope as well as recognized outside the U.S.?
And now our collection of hot fields where certification can boost your career:
Information Technology (IT)
Arguably, it was the IT field that really spurred the current trend in certifications. While some IT professionals express concern that IT certifications are diminishing in value, others argue that they are just as valuable as ever. In Certification Magazine, writer Martin Bean quotes John Cramer, branch manager of the Adecco Technical office, Chicago: "Certification is still the tiebreaker in a tight decision for hiring managers." Bean also notes that staffing firms are more likely to place professionals with IT certifications than those without them and quotes an IT executive who believes that certified IT workers are "more productive, better prepared, and have more credibility with employers."
A research study conducted by Brainbench in Chantilly, VA, revealed that professional certifications are bankable assets for IT professionals, with those receiving certifications significantly more likely to achieve salary increases above the industry average of up to 3 percent.
A huge variety of IT certifications is available, many of them offered by the software and hardware producers themselves.
Because of the sensitivity of handling other peoples' money, the financial-planning field is a prime example of why word of mouth may not be enough, and certification may be the best way to demonstrate competence. As aging baby boomers plan their retirements, and investors fret about a volatile stock market, the demand is great for competent financial planners. Corporations, too, need well qualified financial wizards to manage their assets.
"I think it is important that anybody who is serious about their level of advice and service commit to lifelong learning in this field," says Daniel Davis, who holds the certification Accredited Asset Management Specialist (AAMS) and serves as financial advisor at Raymond James & Associates in Orlando, FL. "I am ashamed to say that I would not give my money to 90 percent of the people in this field. I certainly feel that I am in the top 10 percent, and I would credit that not only to the letters behind my name (AAMS), but to the knowledge that I have obtained through studying, reading, and listening to become more and more of an expert in my field and a resource for my clients," Davis says.
One of the questions the contributors to the Certification and Accreditation Programs Directory suggest asking when considering a certification is: Why was this particular certification program developed? In the case of the National Association of Safety Professionals (NASP) Board of Certification, the impetus for the certification was polling data that showed that 93 percent of those responsible for workplace safety in the U.S. do not have college degrees in safety and are therefore not eligible for some of the more generalized certifications offered by other organizations. NASP therefore created its certifications to provide a different type of credential than any previously available.
NASP literature states that "while employers do value the more general credentials, those credentials often do not serve to indicate specific knowledge, skills, and abilities sought by the employer... Therefore, NASP's certifications were designed to serve as evidence of specific knowledge, skills, and abilities."
Comments from students who've taken the NASP certification courses have been positive and indicative that certified safety professionals can garner some resume-building accomplishments. "Utilizing the information received in these courses," states Lynn Hyatt of Comfortex in New York, "I have gained management's approval and commitment toward safety, health and environmental issues and concerns. As a result of this increased awareness and actions taken towards a safer workplace, our company realized a $214,000 refund from our Worker's Compensation insurance carrier as a direct result of decreased injuries and safety awareness across all of our four facilities."
Health-support certifications are hot because health-related jobs are a significant growth field. "In the next four years, recruiters predict an explosion of at least three million more new health-related jobs," according to the newsletter of the National Healthcare Association. "Trained, caring people will be needed to work in and outside hospitals -- at home, in doctors' offices and nursing homes -- using high-tech diagnostic and treatment procedures to care for an aging baby-boom population... Medical aides constitute one of the fastest growing occupations in the country."
Health-support certifications are hot because health-related jobs are a significant growth field.
The association cites US Bureau of Labor statistics that indicate that healthcare accounts for more than 50 percent of new job placements. The organization further asserts that increasing numbers of employers are requiring healthcare certifications.
More than 60,000 HR professionals have obtained and maintained the PHR (Professional in Human Resources) and SPHR (Senior Professional in Human Resources) designations, says Sharon Leonard, program manager for Human Resources Certification Institute (HRCI).
Leonard suggests that HR professionals consider her organization's certifications as a way of "enhancing your resume to strengthen your position." She notes that certification may be an economical and effective alternative to a graduate-school program. "For HR professionals who want to increase their perceived value in their existing jobs and for those who seek new opportunities, obtaining the PHR or SPHR designation demonstrates to existing and prospective employers that you 'know your stuff,'" Leonard says.
HRCI's Website notes that certification shows that the holder has demonstrated mastery of such HR areas as strategic planning, international business issues, compensation and benefits, HR development, employee rights, and emerging HR issues.
HRCI's Marketing Manager Alisa Goldschmidt cites an extensive market survey that the organization conducted with Shugoll Research, an independent market-research firm, which found that three out of five of the survey respondents (HRCI-certified professionals, non-HRCI-certified professionals, senior HR executives, and non-HR senior executives) agreed they would choose an individual with PHR or SPHR over one without if all factors are equal, and after initial screening, they would be more likely to interview candidates with the PHR and SPHR certification.
Hospitality professionals who've earned certification cite such benefits as updating their knowledge on current trends in the industry, providing a benchmark with which to measure their knowledge against industry standards, preparing newly promoted managers with an improved ability to make decisions and learn to deal with customers and employees.
"The hottest certification that we have at the present time is the CHT Certified Hospitality Trainer," says Barbara Blankenship, director of professional certification at the AHLA Educational Institute, Orlando, FL. "The interest in the training certification has exploded because the market place has become so competitive. The key to outperforming the competition is through training. Customer service is the competitive edge and training is the key to great customer service. Interest in the CHT has expanded from the hotels to the restaurant and entertainment complex segments of the hospitality industry."
"Not only are certifications hot now, but the field of internal auditing is sizzling!" says Trish Harris, assistant vice president, corporate marketing, media relations, and public relations for the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA), Orlando, FL. "With the many corporate failures that have occurred over the past two years, more and more organizations are concerned about risk management, ethics, corporate governance, and internal controls that mitigate risks and help deter and prevent fraud."
Harris notes that because IIA certifications require extensive knowledge, experience, and study, they clearly demonstrate the competency of those who have earned them. "Our premier designation, Certified Internal Auditor (CIA), is the only global certification for the internal audit profession," she says.
Because IIA certifications require extensive knowledge, experience, and study, they clearly demonstrate the competency of those who have earned them.
Harris attests to promising career potential for certified internal auditors. "During the past year, we've seen a marked increase in the number of internal audit jobs available on the market," she observes. "We've also received numerous calls from audit-committee members and co pany heads looking for guidance on starting up an internal-audit department. CEOs who did not hav internal auditing in the past are now understanding just how important the internal-audit function is in regard to assurance and effective risk management." Harris says that many of these companies are requiring the person they hire as chief audit executive to hold the Certified Internal Auditor designation."They want to be sure they are getting the skills and expertise they want in a competent leader of their internal audit function, and the CIA designation clearly provides that assurance," Harris says.
Further, Harris notes that her organization is seeing students and seasoned professionals moving into the internal-auditing field from many other areas, including information technology, operations, business management, and finance.
Roger W. Roley, certification manager for the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), Dearborn, MI, cites his organization's newest certification, the Certified Engineering Manager (CEM), which, he says, documents skills and knowledge in an important area of industry. "There has been a significant increase in graduate degree programs in engineering management," Roley notes, "and that curriculum is becoming recognized as a distinct discipline. The growth of these degree programs is partly because many MBA programs focus on finance or marketing and do not address other issues that a technical manager faces. Previously, no certification existed for this discipline."
Certainly SME certifications seem to provide an edge in the job market. "When hiring, I look for SME credentials because they validate an individual's set of knowledge and application abilities," notes Robert Carringer, partner at Four Corners Capital Partners, LLC. Certification holders also appear confident that the organization's credential will bolster their careers. "To enhance my standing with my present employer and to ease concerns over my skills with potential future employers, I chose to pursue the Certified Manufacturing Technologist (CMfgT) credentials," relates Sandy Alvin Carter of The Systems Group. "The CMfgT certification will pay dividends down the road in my professional career."
It's obvious why an entirely new professional field has developed that was not particularly part of anyone's consciousness before Sept. 11, 2001. Since that tragic day, according to the Web site of the National Academy of Higher Education (NAHE), which issues Homeland Security Certifications in Public Safety, homeland security has become the No. 1 concern of public-safety professionals from every level who now have to pre-plan and organize potential homeland security issues, such as the incident command system and various levels of domestic threat.
The homeland security and public safety certification, according to the NAHE site, "is designed for those employed in the homeland security and public-safety arena, such as police, fire, hazardous materials (HazMat), emergency medical service, government law enforcement, county sheriff, state police, and private security officers and security managers who have the homeland security and public safety responsibility at their place of employment."
Training and Instructional Design
With the growth of the Internet has come greater demand for education and training delivered online, and thus a need for tech-savvy trainers and instructional designers.
Cindy Webster, business development coordinator for Langevin Learning Services, which touts itself as "the largest train-the-trainer organization in the world," cites such career-boosting advantages from her organization's certifications as greater credibility with peers and supervisors, confidence and pride, recognition for skills and knowledge, and increased chances of advancing to your next career level. Certification training helped 75 percent of participants from Public Works & Government Services Canada to advance to the next level in a recent job competition, according to Lynn Morris of the Canadian agency
Webster cites additional case studies in which colleagues in one division of a company were envious of the Langevin certifications attained by another division. Other certification holders recommend the certification an an excellent personal investment and a path to an easier future. After earning his credential as a Certified Instructional Designer/Developer, Scott Hultquist of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center said, "I originally thought 'what can certification do for me?' Now I know: EVERYTHING!!"
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Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website.