For Quality Professionals

John A. Challenger

Certification and Advanced Degrees: Are They Worth It?
by John A. Challenger, CEO, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

Jul 12, 2011 | Free Downloads | email | Print

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Note: A long-running discussion in the LinkedIn ASQ Group about the significance of certification led us to ask this employment expert about the value readers receive from advanced degrees and certifications, particularly in a highly-competitive job market like life sciences.

The value of certification and/or advanced degrees, such as an MBA, often comes into question in the wake of economic downturns. There are two camps on the issue. On the one side you have those who spent time and money earning these achievements and now may be questioning the value of these achievements in light of job loss or, at least, job insecurity. The other camp consists of those who don't have advanced education and wonder if obtaining it would help their job search efforts or career aspirations.

Unfortunately, there is no clear, black and white answer. There are many complex factors. The need for such credentials depends on the job, the company, the interviewer or person screening the resumes, etc. In the end, it probably comes down to this: having certifications and advanced degrees certainly will not hurt your chances of finding a job or advancing in your profession. However, those who believe that certification or an advanced degree is the key to finding employment in a competitive job market will be sorely disappointed.

This is indeed a competitive job market and many job seekers are desperate for anything that will give them an edge. The economy has only recently begun to show signs of recovery. Employers are beginning to ramp up hiring, but the process is slow.

This is indeed a competitive job market and many job seekers are desperate for anything that will give them an edge. The economy has only recently begun to show signs of recovery. Employers are beginning to ramp up hiring, but the process is slow. At the end of the first quarter, there were still more than 13.5 million unemployed Americans and another 6.5 million who had given up on their job search but still wanted a job. The median duration of unemployment stood at nearly 22 weeks, with more than six million Americans out of work for 27 weeks or longer.

Make no mistake; the economy and the job market are definitely on the mend. March marked the 13th consecutive month of private-sector job gains. Payrolls grew by 230,000 jobs to end the first quarter, bringing the total private-sector employment to 108,572,000, which is about 94 percent of the pre-recession peak. March also saw the unemployment rate drop to 8.8 percent, the lowest level in 24 months.

Meanwhile, job security is also improving. Planned workforce reductions, which our firm tracks on a monthly basis, are at their lowest level since the late 1990s. The 130,749 job cuts we recorded between January and March represents the lowest first quarter total since 1995.

Despite the positive trends, the job search has not become any easier. In fact, it has become even more competitive. In this environment, possessing professional certification or an advanced degree can certainly give one an advantage. However, where these credentials will help the most is in the initial weeding-out phase of the hiring process. For example, a company planning to hire 10 information technology workers may receive hundreds of applicants. To narrow down the field, the employer may first select only those with master's degrees, and then those with up-to-date certification(s).

The further along in the hiring process one gets, the less these credentials will impact one's fate. At some point, the emphasis moves toward relevant skills and experience and then, once you are in the face-to-face interview phase of the process, it really comes down to the interpersonal interaction between the interviewer and interviewee.

Based on this, some may conclude that the advanced degree or certification is not important. However, there is plenty of evidence that having certification and/or an advanced degree is beneficial to earnings and job security.

Holding an advanced degree can definitely increase one's earning potential. In 2010, weekly earnings for workers with a Master's degree averaged $1,579, compared to average weekly earnings of $1,344 among those with only a Bachelor's degree, according to the latest available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those with a professional degree earned an average $2,376 per week in 2010.

Certification can also lead to a salary boost. The most recent annual salary survey conducted by Quality Progress, the monthly publication of the American Society for Quality, managers with ASQ certification earned nearly $8,000 per year more on average than their counterparts without certification. The annual salary for certified auditors was an average of $15,451 more than for auditors who were not certified.

Not only does having an advanced degree help increase earnings but it can lead to improved job security. In 2009, when the employment situation was near rock bottom for most of the economy, those with bachelor's degrees and above remained relatively employable. Census Bureau data reveals that unemployment for those with bachelor's degrees reached 5.5 percent, considerably better than the 9.8 percent unemployment among those with some college but no degree or the 12.2 percent unemployment among those with only a high school degree and no college.

As low as the unemployment rate was for those with bachelor's degrees, it was even lower for those with master's degrees and professional degrees. In 2009, just 4.0 percent of those with a master's degree were unemployed. For those with professional degrees, the unemployment rate was 2.2 percent.

Unfortunately, there are no comparable unemployment figures for certification. However, obtaining the latest certifications in a particular occupation or profession is never going to be detrimental to one's career. Professional certifications, most of which require ongoing education to maintain, immediately communicate to a prospective employer that you possess certain skills and that you have made the requisite determination to keep those skills up to date.

Does having certifications or an advanced degree guarantee you a job or even a job interview? Definitely not. But could the absence of certification or advanced degree eliminate you from the hiring process? Absolutely.

Obviously, in certain industries and certain occupations, an advanced degree and/or certification is a requirement, which is typically stated in job postings. In other areas, they may not be stated requirements, but they are definitely a factor when it comes to weeding down the number of candidates.

The decision about whether or not to pursue some type of advanced degree or certification is a complicated one with many factors to consider. What is the cost in terms of time and money? How does this measure up against potential earnings in your profession? How many others in your profession have certifications or advanced degrees? How important are these credentials to prospective employers?

To find the answers to the questions, it becomes necessary to reach out to one's network of professional contacts. Set up informational meetings with departmental hiring managers. Meet and talk to others in your field through networking groups and professional associations. Try to connect with people who have recently completed certifications or advanced degree programs, some of whom you can find by contacting local institutions that provide these opportunities. Finally, you have to look within yourself to determine the motivation for wanting to pursue these credentials.

Again, there is no easy answer to the question of how important certifications and/or advanced degrees are in today's job market. Each individual has to examine his or her own personal situation and professional situation as well as all of the motivating factors that go into such a decision. If the prime motivating factor, however, is the idea that having these credentials is the key to job-search success, then it's time to reevaluate, because that is simply not the case.

John A. Challenger is chief executive officer of global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., which pioneered employment transition counseling as an employer-paid benefit in the 1960s.

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