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The Role of Professional Credentials in the Job Market

Not all professional credentials are created equal. Credentials are vital to professionals seeking to change careers or advance within their own. But the extent of credential value and use varies from one industry to the next, so it is important to understand exactly how a professional designation/ credential can best serve your career aspirations.

Many professional credentials are awarded after rigorous exams and verified experience—some may require degreed standing as well. They attest to the knowledge and expertise of the credential holder. Many designations are highly regarded and valued within the profession they serve. However, you cannot expect a designation after your name to help if you want to transition to a field outside of the one for which the credential serves. The proper credentials can make it easier to climb the corporate ladder with your current employer or help push open doors a little wider to those professions that may lie on the periphery of your functional expertise.

When I worked as a geologist/geophysicist from 1980-1985 with Phillips Petroleum, part of my unofficial responsibilities was to also serve as the division’s editor for all technical papers being forwarded to journals or conferences. I was also part of the first group of geologists to become certified on Intergraph digital workstations that were used for oil and gas exploration mapping.

The week-long class paid off when I got laid off from my last oil company job in 1986. Nine months later I got a job as a technical writer/editor for a company that developed geological mapping software—for use on Intergraph digital workstations and other large computers. You can see the peripheral relationship between the two jobs/careers that the certification helped bridge. That résumé at the time focused more on my technical and computer skills than my geology/ geophysics skills and experience because those where the skills that had the best chance of being transferred to a tangential field.

And that is the key to using certifications or licenses when changing careers. Imagine that your functional expertise is a large circle, and all the ancillary skills, knowledge, and expertise (called core competencies) are smaller circles overlapping all around the edge of the larger circle (Figure 1). Some circles have a larger overlap than others, depending on the strength of the expertise in those peripheral areas. Career changes are easiest to manage when the transition is from an existing functional expertise to one of the overlapping core competencies. In time, that core competency becomes the new functional expertise. Many credentials can be very beneficial for such related career transitions.

functional expertise

Career changes are far more difficult when trying to move from one functional expertise to another—jumping from one large circle to another that has very little or no overlap. Usually, such career changes involve additional education (college degrees, other certifications and licenses, etc.) not to mention some experience in that field. Be mindful that many recent college graduates (RCGs) are entering the workforce already armed with bleeding-edge knowledge and the latest skills. With mid-career changers and college graduates competing for the same positions, lower compensation requirements for RCGs will in many instances drive the decision as to who gets hired.

When Credentials Attack

There is such a thing as having too many credentials. While the proper mix of professional designations and recognized credentials can enhance your career potential, too many of them signals to hiring managers that perhaps you are a “credential chaser” (seeking even more additional three-letter acronyms after your name) who prefers the image over the substance and purpose of credentials. Too much of a good thing can be detrimental to your job or career strategy, so here are some brief tips to help ensure you avoid this trap:

  1. Purge all outdated, irrelevant certifications and designations from your résumé and signature block. Those non-valid certifications scream, “my skills are outdated and I only rarely update my résumé.”

  2. If you have many valid and relevant professional designations, select just the ones that best support your expertise for the position(s) to which you are applying.

  3. Hiring managers are most interested in only those certifications and licenses you actually possess, and not all the coursework you took along the way or what you hope to complete in the near future. In some instances, candidates use this approach to disguise the fact that they may not have the requisite educational requirements. Hiring managers are wise to this ploy.

  4. If you work in the public sector and have a long list of certifications or designations obtained through government training and testing, keep them in a separate document that can be used as part of your documentation portfolio. Place just those certifications that are relevant to the position on your résumé.

A Final Word

I wrote in Confessions of a Hiring Manager Rev. 2.0 (Second Edition) that the most recent recession has created another “time of parenthesis” as John Naisbitt called the 1980s in Megatrends. The education system must respond by preparing individuals to help shepherd business and technology processes in mature and emerging economies over the coming decade. Online colleges, business and trade schools, community colleges, and certifying organizations must step up to meet the demand for qualified professionals to address the challenges and opportunities the world economy will face. Ensure that the credentials you pursue are highly respected, convey trust, integrity, and expertise for all who possess it, and confidence for all who call upon it when needed.

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