Dear Lifehacker, I'm thinking about switching jobs, but it will be difficult for me to get a lot of work experience before I apply. I was thinking about getting a certification in my new field to help even the odds between me and other job applicants. Do certifications matter anymore? Can they really help me land a better job, or are they a waste of time and money? Sincerely, Test Taker
Dear Test Taker, Good question! In some circumstances, a professional certification can make all the difference between landing a job or not being considered at all. In others, it's not really useful, and most hiring managers will look for experience or skills over a set of letters after your name. If you can't tell, it's not cut and dried, and the answer is a little complicated. Let's cut through the fog and help you understand when certs are really valuable and when they're just nice to have.
Not All Certifications are Created Equally
Some professional certifications require that you study hard and pass a test, others require that you have years of experience in a specific field before you can even apply to be considered. Before you decide that maybe getting a certification is your ticket to a career jump or a promotion, you need to determine whether or not the types of certifications that will get you ahead in your field are the ones that require skills, experience or just a few classes.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), this can also tell you how valuable that certification is to a potential employer. Some certs are very much "pay a fee to take a test and get your cert", and those are probably the least valuable. Others require you to pay to join a professional society first, then prove you have the relevant experience to be considered for the cert, then you get to pay again to take the test. Those certifications, where you have to demonstrate not just that you've studied a topic but also that you have the knowledge and at least some experience to back it up are likely the most valuable.
Search for Certifications Useful in Your Field
The first thing you should do is start looking at the people in the positions you'd like to aim for. See what certifications they have and what it takes to earn them. See if there's a kind of certification "ladder" that can get you from where you are now to where you want to be. Whether it's a technology certification or a professional title, there's usually a series of stepping stones to help you get there. Here are some places to start your search:
- Check the job listings you're interested in. Whether you're surfing big job boards or company-specific openings, see if they state professional certifications along with the experience requirements. Many jobs — especially entry to middle-level ones — will list education as a substitute for experience, because the company wants someone with applicable knowledge on day one that they don't necessarily have to train.
- Browse LinkedIn industry groups. LinkedIn's industry groups and pages can offer a lot of detail about the types of positions available in an industry and what it takes to fill them. Search for a group full of professionals in the field you want to move to, or even who share the same job title. See if any of them are talking about a specific cert, or just pipe up and ask if there are any certification programs for their profession. You'll get detailed responses and war stories.
- Browse LinkedIn Company groups. Even if there are few professional certifications in the field you're interested in, there may be some certifications in the tools that field uses. They're often less valuable (since some companies may use different technologies or tools than others for the same jobs), but they can still offer you a leg up over the competition. Look around at those job postings again and see what skills and technologies are often required for the job. Then head over to LinkedIn and search for that software package or that hardware vendor. There may be a group for professionals certified in that application or by a company for people certified in their hardware.
- Look for professional groups and societies for your field. Another great way to find out if there's an industry-standard education program for your field is to check in with any professional societies for people who do what you do. For example, when I was a project manager, the PMI, or Project Management Institute, offered a number of certifications for professionals in project and program management. Of course, you have to be a member to apply and test for those certifications, so looking for professional societies may be a great way to find out about those programs as well as get an inside track on what's required to get them.
The Most Valuable Certifications are the Advanced Ones
I used to work in a company that all but required its staff to earn new certifications every year or so, and even our entry-level desktop support technicians were urged to start with certifications like CompTIA's A+ and Net+, very basic certs that prove you have a working knowledge of technology concepts. We were then encouraged to work their way up to things like the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) program, or the Apple Certified Support Professional (ACSP) or Technical Coordinator (ACTC). You might think those lower level certs aren't tremendously valuable, and they're really not unless you're applying for a job that requires them (or you're making a switch to technology as a career and want some training before you make the jump) — especially not as a replacement for real experience. However, they served as great stepping stones to get you into what's required to earn a certification: the training classes, studying, training materials and taking the test.
It's those higher-level, industry and position-specific certifications that are the most valuable, and while the lower level ones shouldn't be dismissed, they don't make you stand out as much as they may have a few years ago. Will an A+ or a Net+ help you get the edge over someone else? Maybe, but someone else with experience or knowledge they can demonstrate in an interview can easily edge out someone with little more than a cert to their name. On the higher end though, some companies won't even consider a security professional that doesn't have a CISSP or a project manager without a PMP, so if you don't have it (or the experience required to get it), you're out of luck.
That's the big takeaway here. The value of certifications goes up with the difficulty and experience required to get them. Several years ago, when competition for the same types of jobs was a bit thinner, you could potentially beat someone out with a few certifications under your belt in lieu of experience, especially if you were otherwise knowledgeable and had a real desire to learn (and it wouldn't help if you interviewed well). In some cases, that may still be true, but people these days are coming to interviews with both experience and certifications, so it's not one or the other anymore.
Start with the Certs that Matter for Your Career, and Train Up From There
We've talked about the relative value of various certifications up to this point, but just because a cert is low-level or has little competitive value doesn't mean you shouldn't get it if it's applicable to your career. This piece at Computerworld notes that even lower-level certs are still valuable if they're right for the type of job you're doing, and if they indicate that you're willing to learn and grow along your chosen career.
So someone getting their start in IT, for example, should consider those base-level CompTIA certifications and then move on to some of Microsoft's and Apple's entry-level certifications. If you're interested in networking, Cisco's certification program is considered one of the industry standards for networking technologies. If you're interested in Linux systems administration, you may look at Red Hat's certification program. Similarly, if your career doesn't involve technology at all, there's likely a series of certification programs you can explore as well.
The easy certs that anyone can study for and take may not be the key to a better job on their own, but they're definitely the building blocks of a better career, if you're willing to stick to them. Remember, once you start training up, you can always move in different directions, so don't assume that you're stuck in one field or along one training path. Your stepping stones are there to give you flexibility and room to move around, not lock you into a specific career path.
The Bottom Line: Yes, Certifications Can Help You Get a Job... As Long as They're The Right Certs
As with many things, which certifications you start with depends highly on the career you're interested in and the path you want to take. Many of them cost money, so we would encourage you to talk to your manager. Your company may be willing to pay for training classes and certification tests if it's in their interest to make you a more skilled and valuable employee. If you're looking to make a change, keep the costs in mind, and see if you have any training options with your current company there too before you switch jobs or careers. Just don't walk away thinking that you'll be free of a boring career in basketweaving and ready for an exciting technology job if you spend a few bucks and pick up an A+ in your off time — it's not that easy.
Ultimately, getting one or two certifications will prove you're capable of learning and retaining knowledge (or at least passing a test) but several under your belt shows that you're committed to a career path, well versed in it, and knowledgeable. As those certifications grow to require experience and dedication to earn, they're exponentially more valuable and prove that you're familiar with industry best practices, have worked in the field, and have retained your knowledge (especially if it's a cert that has to be renewed or kept up to date). So even if you don't think the low-level ones are useful, don't shy away from them — at best they're a slight differentiator, but at worst they're a stepping stone to greater things.
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