What makes a certification valuable?

Whether you're a hiring manager or a hopeful job candidate, it's tough to decipher the real value of certifications. One heavily certified tech guru weighs in on the factors affecting the value of certifications.

I should be the world's biggest advocate of certifications. I hold more than a half-dozen of them, and I've written articles and books on how to get certified and how certifications can help your career. However, having certifications brings mixed results, particularly when they are not coupled with experience. Whether a certification will mean something to your situation is based on a few simple factors.

Quality of the certification
Certifications mean only that a standard was met. When you pass the certification exam, the certification agency (Microsoft, Cisco, etc.) verifies that you meet the requirements for the certification. When boiled down to its most basic level, certifications are ways for you to confirm that you meet certain minimum standards.

Of course, meeting the standards for a certification is appropriate when the standards are established correctly. By correctly, I mean that they are relevant to the tasks being done by the certified individual and that they are set at the appropriate level for the job type performed.

Two ways standards are set
Standards are set in two primary ways to ensure that they are appropriate. First, they are established by performing a job task analysis. Using this approach, certification providers study the activities of a typical candidate for certification and identify the skills that the candidate should possess. For example, for the A+ certification, which measures PC hardware skill, CompTIA might study the needs and challenges of a PC tech at a local computer store. Those skills are then converted into an exam that measures a candidate's ability to demonstrate those skills.

The second component in ensuring that the standards are set correctly is determining which skills are appropriate for the kind of certification that is being designed. For example, knowing how to set up RAID controllers in a PC may not be appropriate for a network configuration exam. However, for a server-based certification such as CompTIA's Server+, it would be appropriate to ask about the setup and configuration of a RAID controller. A PC hardware technician exam that asks about RAID controllers would probably not be well received by the industry because it is not at an appropriate level.

Once the standards are set appropriately, the translation process must be performed to convert the list of skills into a set of questions that can test those skills. This is the one area in which most certifications fail. They have adequately captured the skills that must be present for someone to be successful in a position, but they are unable to translate them into a meaningful set of questions for the exam.

Exam design
One of the challenges in exam design is the typical multiple-choice exam format. It's easy to score with a computer, but the format makes it difficult to test higher levels of understanding of the material.

An educator named Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues developed a taxonomy of educational objectives that enabled teachers to assess the level of understanding of the material being presented by determining what a student could do with the information.

At its most basic level is knowledge that defines the ability to recognize and recall the information. This level is the one most often tested by exams since it is the easiest to test. The higher levels are comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. They define higher levels of understanding, which at the highest level allows a student to evaluate the information with respect to other information. In other words, the student can evaluate how the information fits in with other information the student already possesses.

Tests often dwell in the lower levels of the taxonomy that Bloom and his colleagues developed because it is much easier to develop a question that asks the name of something (recall) than it is to create a question about how a concept fits within the larger framework (evaluation).

When the standards or the exams are not matched correctly with the experience and skills, you often hear that the test is too easy or too hard. When the skills are not effectively translated into a set of questions, you tend to hear about the disparity between answering the questions correctly and real-life applications. Both shortcomings can lead to the "paper cert" effect, where it is perceived that the certification does not match the necessary real-world skills and therefore does not translate to on-the-job performance. This occurred in the early nineties when some Novell Certified NetWare Engineers (CNEs) were unable to effectively administer a network.

As a hiring manager...
If you're a manager seeking a candidate, you should investigate what skills the certification is purporting that the candidate possesses. By looking at the exam preparation guide, you will readily see what the certification agency thinks the person should know. Match this with your expectations and needs. If the certification does not match your expectations of a candidate, the certification may be of little value in your search.

As a job candidate...
If you're a candidate seeking a job, you should be looking for certifications that employers are asking for. One of the easiest ways to do this is to visit online job sites and search for the certification you are considering. Determine how many jobs are asking for that certification, what the associated experience is, and whether it fits your goals. Remember that certifications are not a meal ticket; they are a way to make it easier for potential employers to know that you have met certain requirements. In addition, they enable you to show your current employer that you want to make sure you know all of the things necessary to do your job effectively.

Devaluing certifications
Unfortunately, even if a certification itself is high quality, it can sometimes become devalued and thus less useful. Although certification agencies take great care to prevent the devaluation of the certification, it is a natural effect of the certification's popularity.

One of the most painful ways a certification is devalued is through the appearance of brain dump sites. These sites promise a quick and easy way to pass the certification exam by providing potential candidates with what is supposed to be an exact replica of exam questions, along with the (supposedly) correct answers. (By the way, a substantial number of answers on these brain dump sites are typically wrong.) The problem with this approach is that someone with a good memory can try to memorize the questions and the answers, rather than learning the content that the certification exam is supposed to be testing.

The more individuals who become certified by using brain dump sites, the less value the certification has because of the large number of people who are certified without understanding the concepts. It becomes apparent to managers and peers that the certification does not ensure a certain standard. This reduces the value of the certification for everyone who holds it.

Another unavoidable way in which a certification can become devalued is if too many people within the industry have earned it. Although there is a need to find certifications that employers will recognize, there is a problem when many candidates for a position hold a specific certification. Instead of it being a differentiator, it is simply one in a long list of requirements for the position. On the other hand, holding a less popular certification isn't especially effective if the employer has never heard of it.

My advice
Do your research on where the certification is in the market so that you can get the most value from it. Whether you are an employer or a job candidate, you will need to make sure that the certification you are considering has value.

Which are the most devalued certs?
From the in-the-IT-trenches point of view, what certs have become the most devalued, whether by the use of brain dump sites or an overpopulation of certified techs? Post your comments in the discussion below.


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