One question I get a lot is around the topic of professional certifications. People want to know if they’re worth it. After all, professional certifications cost hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars. And most require a significant investment of time and energy on top of it. So, do professional certifications actually have a measurable career payoff?
The simple answer is this: I am a firm believer in the importance of lifelong learning. In most cases, I feel that certifications are indeed a very good thing. But it’s important to understand what you’re getting into and to avoid setting yourself up for disappointments with unrealistic expectations. The payoffs are not always immediate and they’re often difficult to attribute directly to any one particular certification.
So why bother? Here are my thoughts.
The Benefits of Certification
Many people think of professional certifications as a tool for financial gain. If you have those special letters after your name or some fancy credential on your wall, shouldn’t you automatically be in a better position to demand more pay?
Sometimes, yes, but not necessarily.
For example, a recent OfficeTeam survey of the administrative profession found that employers pay up to 8% more on average (in the U.S.) for employees who hold the MS Office Specialist certification. That’s a pretty clear and significant benefit! But it’s important to remember a few things when you hear that.
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First, MS Office is a very heavily used software suite and people in the administrative field are deeply reliant on it in many organizations. The MS certification is well-known and highly reputable. Possessing it demonstrates expert-level mastery of the skills required to leverage systems like Excel, Word, and PowerPoint. It makes sense that employers are willing to pay a bit more for administrative professionals who have already proven their advanced proficiency in these areas.
However, what they are really paying for is not the certificate itself—it’s the value a person can bring to the organization when they have these skills. The certificate just helps the organization identify those people who can deliver greater value, but you also have to show evidence of that value.
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It’s not realistic to think that you can go get a certificate and immediately demand more money. You have to use those skills to achieve more, and you have to be a vocal advocate for yourself and your accomplishments. That’s how you earn the rewards.
It’s also not realistic to expect that all certifications will have the same powerful impact. Not all are created equal. Some are not as well-known and some do not teach you the kinds of skills that result in measurable value to the organization.
That’s not to say that other certifications don’t matter. Sometimes, it’s not about the organization at all. Some people enjoy the process of certification because it enhances their confidence and allows them to connect with other like-minded professionals. Some people like learning purely for the sake of personal growth. These things might not yield a direct financial benefit, but they are indeed valuable to you and your career. Over time, that will pay off in more tangible ways.
You have to first know what you’re looking to gain to know whether or not it’s worth it, and you have to be discerning in your selection of certification programs.
Do Your Research
With the rise of online learning, professional certifications have increased in popularity and prevalence. They’re much easier to get these days—in some cases, you can do everything from the comfort of your home computer.
That’s both a good thing and a bad thing for learning. Sure, it’s convenient, but it’s also a low barrier to entry. That means more people can do it and thus, holding a certification is less exceptional. Simply “being certified” is not necessarily special anymore.
Furthermore, any company can put a series of classes together and call them a certification program. Just because that’s what it’s called doesn’t mean the training is especially relevant or unique.
So, as you’re considering investing in a certification program, take a good hard look at the organization behind it. Do you trust them? Are they well known? Do you know others who have participated in the program and found value in it? Have you purchased other training from the organization in the past and, if so, was it worthwhile?
Remember that the name of the certification isn’t all that matters, but it does carry some weight. A no-name program that means nothing to employers is less compelling than one that has an established, positive reputation.
Finally, if the marketing materials are heavy on the sales-pitch and low on concrete learning objectives and testimonials from past students, be cautious. Many organizations can talk a good game, but then offer little to back it up.
In my experience, professional associations are typically a good place to start. As a corporate trainer, I’m certified through the Association for Talent Development (ATD), which is the world’s largest and most well-known association for the field.
However, as a career coach, I am also a Certified Professional Career Manager (PCM), which is designation offered through a lesser-known company called TalentGuard. Prior to obtaining this certification, I had followed TalentGuard for years. They have always provided cutting edge research and perspectives on career planning, and the founder is someone I consider a role model for my own professional aspirations. So the choice was clear for me.
There are a lot of different things to consider before jumping into a professional certification program; do your research and don’t get swayed by lofty promises.
Shift Your Mindset
It’s worthwhile noting that some professions have certifications associated with them that are practically viewed as requirements (rather than bonuses). For example, project managers have the PMP certification and Human Resources have SHRM certifications. In such cases, certification is often considered standard.
However, if you’re in a field where certification is not necessary, it can still be a useful aid for your career. Remember that it’s about learning new skills and delivering greater value to your organization—it’s not about paying for a special title behind your name. That title, on its own, doesn’t actually mean much. What really matters is how you use those skills.
If you’re thinking of certification as a quick way to boost your earning potential, you may be disappointed. So instead, think of it as an investment. Learning of any kind, in my opinion, always pays off in the end.