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Talent Assessment | 2 Min Read

Do Certifications Matter More than Work Experience?


As industries expanded over the last century, so has the need for a specialized workforce that can collaborate effectively and speak a common language to complete projects and meet deadlines as a team.

This increased need for collaboration has also spurred the need for standardization. For example, employees working in manufacturing and IT departments often rely on each other to complete different aspects of the project in order for their collective work to be successful. To do this, team members must speak the same “language” and understand the best practices of the framework within which they work. As an answer to this need, many professional certifications have been developed over the last several decades to ensure a standardized education that delves deeper and is more specialized, than is possible at the level of a college education.

Work Experience Vs. Certifications

Why the need for professional certifications, some ask, when one can gain this depth of understanding while working on-the-job? Inarguably, learning on the job is still a highly desirable experience by candidates and employers alike. So much so, that it pushes a disproportionate number of college graduates to work in unpaid jobs in order to add work experience on their resumes. In 2012, a little over a quarter of all the college graduates in the US had completed unpaid internships.

However, both work experience and certifications add a value of their own that cannot be compared, which is why ditching one for the other leaves candidates with a knowledge gap that grows with every passing year. While work experience can show a recruiter whether a candidate can handle tough working environments, meet deadlines, and work well within a team, professional certifications display an individuals’ depth of understanding of an industry’s framework.

The Downside of Focusing on Experience

To put it simply; work experience can train someone to perform certain tasks, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual has gained the right kind of knowledge, especially in the constantly changing field of technology. For example, when programming an application the code can be written in many different ways. An IT professional who is strictly learning on the job, can’t tell whether the processes learned at one organization is the ‘best practice’ for another. At the end of the day, their work may create a functioning application, but their approach to coding may be difficult to transfer to other companies.

A certification, on the other hand, means that an individual doesn’t just know how to deliver a final product that passes the stick-to-the-wall test, but delivers real, long term value to an organization. Both; the employees and the organization benefit in this situation because the company gets consistent results, and the employee can broaden their understanding by learning in a structured manner, rather than constantly figuring out workarounds to patch up mistakes.

Professional Certification Benefits

Setting aside the work experience vs. certifications debate, there are other benefits of certifications for employees and recruiters alike. For example;

Appreciation for the Field:

Anyone can work in the same field for 10 or 20 years. A steady paycheck and job security are often enough for many people to stick with the same industry or company just to pay the bills and save for retirement. But when an individual invests their effort and money into a professional certification, they are showing that they don’t just want a job, but want to build a career in the field. Few people would waste hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to do a job they don’t like.

Deeper Understanding:

A certification process is usually developed by a team of industry professionals who have decades of experience and in many cases have been intimately involved in building technology or a process from the ground up. This ensures that an individual receives a crowd-sourced approach to learning, so to speak, where those involved in the design of a curriculum have provided enough checks and balances to the process to ensure that candidates learn industry best practices – not just one person’s idea of what a good process should be.

Staying Current:

Further, certification training and continuation topics are often refined regularly to ensure that anyone practicing in the field stays abreast of the most recent trends and developments. And in many cases, continuing education is required to maintain the certification. How much career potential would an IT professional have if they still programmed in QBASIC?

The Bottom Line

Over the last few years, the professional certification industry has been struggling to resolve issues of cheating, validation of test scores, and other problems that place questions on the merit of achieving certifications. However, as more programs go online, and with technology that is resolving these problems to take professional certifications to new heights, the value that a certified individual brings to a business will only grow.

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Originally published April 2 2018, Updated December 17 2020

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About This Topic

An online certification software is used to conduct online courses and award certificates to validate their successful completion. Companies use online certification software to manage learning and development programs and upskilling initiatives for employees' continuous learning.

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