Recently I came across a certificate in Higher Education Administration from Northwestern. For $19,975, I can “deepen (my) understanding of the field and expand (my) networks.” Details on career outcomes or paths are notably absent. Instead the page offers the basics of college career services: “access to ongoing professional development support, one-on-one career coaching, academic advising and networking opportunities.”
The certificate reminded me of a Northwestern ad I saw last year promoting a $10,000 global mobility online certificate. The ad was marketed towards future international education professionals. As someone who has worked in international education for over a decade, I got a bit riled up. Aside from the fact that you don’t need a $10K certificate to get a job in international education, the program’s career preparation promises were lackluster at best. The lack of testimonials from employers raving about the certificate, or explaining how the certificate signaled a candidate’s competitiveness, was telling.
Despite my frustrations with certificates with lackluster career promises, I recognize the role certificates play as career paths and institutions adapt to changes in the market. Certificates are revenue generating programs which help institutions shore up revenue from diverse sources. Certificates also provide an attractive option to employees who want to upskill or change careers. They usually take under a year to complete. Certificates are frequently associated with a university brand name. While affordability varies by institution and certificate program, they’re cheaper than a full degree and they qualify for financial aid.
However, data on career outcomes from non-degree credentialing – i.e. certificate holders – is hard to come by. Employers’ attitudes towards certificate holders are difficult to pin down, which makes it hard to know if certificates hold their value in the market or even determine the ROI on a $20K certificate.
Thankfully we’re a bit closer to understanding employer attitudes to non-degree credentials thanks to a new report by Burning Glass Technologies. A recently released report, The Narrow Ladder: The Value of Industry Certifications in the Job Market, examines how employers use certifications (not certificates) in the hiring process. Using their vast database of over 700 million job postings, Burning Glass Technologies examines the types of certifications that employers value, along with the skills and salary bump employees receive post-certification. It’s well worth a read for anyone who advises students or mid-career professionals about their upskill options.
“It’s not that the “non-degree” credentials are rare; more than a quarter of the employed U.S. population holds a license or certification, on top of any degrees they may hold. Certifications can be precisely tuned to industry needs, and they hold the promise of reducing the need for employers to rely on imperfect proxies, like college degrees. In certain occupations, certifications outline career ladders that define industries and give employers and job seekers alike guidance about what skills are necessary to advance.
Those occupations, however, are the exception, and if the nation is to close the skills gap, perhaps they should become the norm.”
Though the report focuses on certifications, its analysis provides material for examining certificate programs as well. Most importantly, it provides a clear difference between between certifications and certificates. The report examines employer attitudes towards certifications, which are “awarded by a certifying body, often an industry association or trade group, based on an examination process assessing whether an individual has acquired the designated knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform a specific job.” This differs from certificates, which the report defines as “short-term, professionally oriented credentials awarded by an educational institution (as opposed to an industry body) based on completion of specific coursework.”
This distinction is important since few people outside of mobility circles realize the difference. There is a critical difference between these types of upskilling. With such similar terms an employee looking to upskill could be forgiven for thinking a university certificate in higher education administration will provide the same signal to future employers and salary bump as a CISCO Cisco Certified Network Professional certification (it doesn’t). The former is a revenue generation program from a university with little focus on skill building and an unclear career trajectory. The latter is an industry-approved career training model with clearly defined career paths.
What struck me most from this report was the role that certifications played in outlining both the skills and career paths that job seekers and employers agree on. Certifications are built from industry needs. Here’s an example of the skills needed for a AMA Digital Marketing Certification:
Are university certificate programs mapping their content offerings to industry needs? Maybe but we don’t know. The report also finds that employers value certifications that improve technical skills. Do employers feel the same about certificates? Hard to know.
On top of that, the report finds that employers vastly prefer certifications over certificates.
In 2015, the demand for certifications is approximately 1.5 million job postings, whereas only about 130,000 postings ask for certificates.
Is it possible that employer demand for certificates aren’t as in-demand as universities promise? Again, we don’t know, but this stat and the lack of employee perspectives in program marketing for certificates is telling.
Among the most important takeaways from the report, however, is this nugget:
Relatively few certifications actually have market value, and there is a shortage of easy-to-find information to sort out which credentials are pathways and which are blind alleys. More transparency in the certification market can significantly improve the returns people receive on their certification investments.
Finding out which credential pathways are legitimate is difficult. I’d argue the same for certificate programs. Will a certificate in higher education administration make a candidate more desirable than a candidate with 5+ years working in higher education? Will a certificate provide a salary bump or launch a job seeker into a more senior role? Will a certificate ensure the skills learned are still relevant in the next five years? The lack of this data makes it tough to answer these questions.
Since we don’t have those answers yet, it’s up to the job seeker/future certificate student to ask the hard questions before taking on a certificate. So for job seekers thinking about getting any certificate – online or in person – ask yourself these six questions before committing:
- Does this certificate add to or improve your technical skills?
- Does this certificate put you on a path to a hybrid job?
- Does this certificate map to industry needs?
- Does this certificate frequently appear as a requirement in your future job posting?
- Will this certificate give you a salary or title bump?
- Will this certificate be relevant in five years?
If you can’t answer these questions on your own or through a Google search, ask admissions. You’re investing in a certificate; it’s perfectly fine to ask about career outcomes. Ask to speak to participants in the program (don’t rely on testimonials). Look at LinkedIn profiles of certificate holders to understand their career paths. If you don’t get a clear answer, consider other options that are either cheaper (i.e. MOOCs), bootcamps, or certificate programs that detail the results.
Employees will need to upskill throughout their career. Certifications and certificates are one of many paths to do so. To make sure they’re actually beneficial to job seekers, we need a lot more data like the recent report from Burning Glass Technologies.
Higher education should do their part by ensuring their certificate programs bring career outcomes data – or employer perspectives towards their certificate – to the forefront of their marketing and information websites. Because right now career outcomes from all these certificate programs basically look like this: