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Certifications Can Provide the Specialization Employers Seek

A certificate with a blue ribbon on it.

​Harmand St. Hubert was 23 years old working full time as a job cost analyst for a construction company in Palm Beach County, Fla., when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Four months into his new job, the company closed its doors and St. Hubert was laid off. Despite the bachelor's degree in business administration with a concentration in accounting he'd earned from Kentucky Christian University in December 2018, he had trouble finding a new job.

The pandemic, he said, opened his eyes.

"It put in perspective that you need a specialization, not just a degree. That specialization will … make you stand out," he told SHRM Online.  Harmand St. Hubert

Employers, St. Hubert learned, want job candidates with industry-recognized credentials "so they know what exactly you specialize in and what you can offer them as their employee." He's already had several employers reach out to him.

St. Hubert became one of the many men and women who have earned some type of certification during the pandemic to make themselves more marketable to employers. The number of professionals investing in certified management accountant certification, for example, increased 12 percent for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020, according to a Reuters report, compared to the 2019 fiscal year.

"We are attributing that to the fact that during these difficult and uncertain times, new candidates realize that they need to refine their skills either because they've lost their job or their job is uncertain in the future, which unfortunately [is] the reality for a lot of people," Dennis Whitney, senior vice president of certifications at the Institute of Management Accountants, told Reuters.

"COVID made me realize that what you do has to be essential," St. Hubert noted, "and I believe that IT is essential."

Now he is spending nearly 20 hours each week in Zoom classes to earn an IT certification. He said he expects the time and $11,000 in tuition paid to New Horizons South Florida, a computer training school, will be worth it because he believes certification will make him more marketable. When he completes the intensive nine-week online course in November, earning CompTIA certification in Security+, Network+ and A+, he will be qualified to work as a cybersecurity IT developer.

The IT industry is changing rapidly, pointed out Charlene Pou, executive director at Miami-based New Horizons South Florida.

"By the time students finish a four-year college degree, the technology has moved on," she said. "As a result, many students face the need to re-educate themselves."

About 60 percent of students at New Horizons have an associate degree.

"They are looking to get into an area where they can get a high-paying job without going through years and years of training," Pou said. "That's the beauty of [certification]. You get skilled up quickly; it's very rigorous."

Many Types of Certifications 

Certification programs are not limited to IT.

Stefani Bolger, SHRM-SCP, is an HR generalist at The Loomis Co. in Honey Brook, Pa. She originally planned to be a second-grade teacher, but 18 months into her schooling she realized teaching was not for her. She decided to follow in her mother's footsteps and pursue an HR career by earning her Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) certification.

"All credentials are not created equal—nor should they be," said Mary Wright, manager of the human resource registered apprenticeship program for the SHRM Foundation. Some are designed to fill a small gap in someone's knowledge, she explained, while others, such as the CPA or the SHRM-CP, are designed to create mastery.

On Oct. 26, Wright will present research findings on alternative credentials at the SHRM INCLUSION 2021 conference during the concurrent session "Using Alternative Credentials Effectively."

"Some have rigorous assessments that validate someone's learning, while others are done on the honor system," Wright observed. "There is also a great deal of bias in the system. Are new providers of credentials as good as organizations that have added credentials to their repertoire?"

One thing driving interest in specialty credentials, she noted, is the high cost of traditional postsecondary schooling. Learners "are looking for alternatives, and online or virtual classrooms are sufficient for many," a shift made more dramatic during the pandemic. Meanwhile, "employers are often sticking to traditional requirements because they don't know how to measure or assess the credentials," Wright said.

Alternative credentials that executives, supervisors and HR professionals find most compelling are industry or professional certifications, according to the new SHRM research. In July and August, SHRM surveyed 500 U.S. executives, 1,200 U.S. supervisors, 1,129 U.S. HR professionals and 1,525 U.S. workers who did not have direct reports.

Executives and supervisors listed training certificates and course completion certificates within their top three choices of credentials they find most compelling. HR professionals favored virtual badges that require passing an exam and registered apprenticeships, according to SHRM.

Credentials that impress recruiters, according to Glassdoor, include the following role-specific certifications:

  1. HR certifications, such as SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP.
  2. Project management.
  3. Salesforce.
  4. Help desk/desktop analyst (A+, Network+).
  5. Network (CCNA, CCNP, CCIE).
Software-related credentials, such as Hubspot Inbound and Google (Publisher, Analytics, AdWords), also catch recruiters' eyes, according to Glassdoor.

There also are certificate programs that offer specialized training within a profession, such as the SHRM Foundation's new Workplace Mental Health Ally Certificate, the free Getting Talent Back to Work Certificate program and the free Veterans at Work Certificate program.

Earning additional certificates is valuable, Wright observed, as long as the learner has some confidence it will have market value.

Executives, supervisors and HR professionals found alternative credentials valuable, but rated a job candidate's experience and traditional degrees higher in value when making hiring decisions.

However, more than three-fourths of all three groups reported that their organization encourages employees to pursue credentials as part of their career development or career interests.

As for promotions or succession planning, 80 percent of executives and 69 percent of supervisors agreed candidates with alternative credentials are viewed more favorably; 62 percent of HR professionals agreed.

St. Hubert, who already is hearing from interested employers that partner with New Horizons, is confident in the value of his impending certification.

"It's actually more [valuable] than a degree in the IT world," he says.


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