Are professional certifications still relevant?

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For several decades now, industry certifications have played a large role in the hiring decisions made by HR managers and the career decisions of job applicants. There is good reason why the popularity of professional certifications has increased significantly over the years. Not only are certifications a good way for professionals to stay informed and remain at the top of their fields, but they also help to standardize practices in industries that boast millions of professionals in their ranks, but lack common benchmarks to judge their skills.

Some certifications in IT and other fields may be losing value.Take the technology industry, for example — which, for better or worse, is generally lacking any overarching standardization by governments or associations. IT professional certifications serve to set the baseline for what should be expected out of those who make up the technology field. Unfortunately, the certification industry, in its failure to understand the magnitude of this responsibility, has lowered the benchmarks for success, and the plunging quality of some professional certifications threatens to wipe out their relevance altogether.

Not All Certifications Are Created Equal

Without a regulatory body in place, there are too many vendors offering certifications for the same skills — which also means that these assessments are generally created only to test one’s proficiency with a specific vendor’s product, and not the generic skillset required for a job. An Oracle Java certification may certify one as a qualified Java professional, but it may not necessarily be an indisputable indicator of the individual’s ability to use Java.

The true problem lies in the way these certifications are being administered. Grueling exams that last more than three or four hours in a single sitting, multiple-choice questions, theoretical concepts — we’re all too focused on testing an individual’s mastery of facts. In that, we overlook the value of actually testing the application of those facts in a real-world environment.

In comparison, designations in the financial sector are more tightly regulated and thus more credible. The Chartered Financial Analyst designation (CFA), for example, consists of three tests that delve deep into an individual’s ability to use critical thinking skills, in addition to several years’ worth of mandatory on-the-job experience. The process is so difficult that only a fraction of the number of candidates who make the attempt each year actually achieve the designation. This is in sharp contrast to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) credential, which still follows the multiple-choice answer format. The differences in certification difficulty also show themselves in the final results of testing success. While FINRA boasted oversight of nearly 635,000 stockbrokers in the United States in 2014, the CFA institute had fewer than 124,000 members throughout the world.

Cheating: More Common Than You Think

Although cheating by itself is no new problem, instances of cheating on professional certification exams is at an all-time high. Cheating isn’t limited to the lower echelons of exam takers, either. Senior industry professionals are paying to have someone else write their certification exams for them, particularly if a “high” score on a test is what will get them a high-paying job. This hurts recruiters, because they end up hiring incompetent talent, and hurts other certification holders, because their own hard-earned titles become devalued.

In the IT industry, it is thought that between 15 percent and 25 percent of completed certification exams show irregularities that suggest cheating. In fact, cheating has become such a menace that, in 2008, Microsoft began instituting a lifetime ban on anyone caught cheating in its certification program.  And no field or industry is immune to this issue. In 2009, a teacher certification exam cheating scandal exposed applicants hiring stand-ins to take exams. Some stand-ins would even take several exams in one day, causing countless unqualified individuals to be certified as teachers, while opportunistic stand-ins raked in as much as $2,500 per exam.

Where then, is the value in hiring such a certified professional, one wonders? As with all things related to technology, the same processes that create a problem, are also very often the ones that provide its solution. With advances in online testing, certification and anti-cheating software, it’s only a matter of time until the industry has available to it much better means of testing certification candidates. Whether certification entities adopt those better processes and practices — whether certification continues to be a valuable tool for employers to find qualified candidates who have job-ready skills — remains to be seen.

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Subhash Tantry

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Subhash Tantry is President of Mettl, Inc., and a member of the board. He formerly served as CEO of Fox Technologies, Inc., prior to its acquisition by Parallax Capital Partners in 2013. Subhash has more than 30 years of experience in the software industry and holds degrees from Stanford University and the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. He is a charter member of The Indus Entrepreneur (TiE) network and also holds several U.S. patents.

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Comment:

  • Hord

    (ISC)2 has found that advances in technology and miniaturization of devices used by some candidates and professionalization of the cheating business by nefarious organizations have
    raised or contributed greatly to this problem. We have invested in methodologies that greatly reduce the risk of certifying candidates both before and after testing. I agree with your estimates of cheating volume, but note that our internal validation practices greatly reduce the risk of unjustified certifications. As a matter of exam security, I hesitate to elaborate on these
    methods.

  • Bill Clancy

    As a fairly long holder of a CISSP, I’m concerned when tests go digital, and get into the wild. I’m concerned that the CISSP will loose its luster in a few years due a compromised testing program.

    • Hord

      Bill, converting to electronic testing has been a major improvement in overall security in our testing program. There is no comparison in the vulnerabilities between multiple choice paper exams and the Tier one testing centers. Paper is much more dangerous. It is the digitization that allows us to use Advanced format items and embedded simulation questions that make the exam more difficult to copy and brain-dump, and also enable the cheating detection methodologies I discussed. Thanks for being a member of (ISC)²

      • Bill Clancy

        That’s good to hear. I felt pretty good about the security controls in place when I tested on paper, but I also realize I saw but a small portion of the process, and how the paper needed to be printed, transported, used and destroyed from birth to death. I’d never heard of tiered testing centers…some are better than others? I guess that’s why people I work with have to travel to San Jose to test for the CISSP…and not use the Salinas testing center.

        • Bill Clancy

          I guess the reason I’m concerned about testing centers is…in about 1995 I was testing for the Novell CNE track, living in the central coast of Ca. The nearest testing center was in Paso Robles, about an hour away. After a couple of successes, I went to schedule a test and found they had been shut down, for allowing professional pilots to cheat on exams. WOW!
          As a result I had to travel to either San Jose, or Golita, quite a change. Maybe I never really got over that… LOL!

          • Hord

            Indeed, the world has changed in both directions. Not all testing centers are the same by a long shot. Neither is the rigor in protecting exam content between various certifications. No one had even thought about Google glass or video camera watches when i tested in 2004 in a noisy hotel room in San Francisco.

          • http://www.Mettl.com Andy Dourgarian

            Changes in the way people are assessed and how the content
            is kept safe and secure changes on a daily basis virtually. Where we were in 2004 can’t compare to where we are in 2014. Testing centers are as relevant to virtual test centers in the same way a bank teller is relevant to an ATM; one is more likely to make mistakes than the other.

            The reality is that every day someone is going to try to cheat, and if we
            continue to use tools that are 10, 15 or 20 years old they just can’t work as well as the tools that are on the lunatic fringe. In the 20’s a pitcher
            would put a little piece of sand paper in the brim of his hat to scuff a ball
            but nobody tested for HGH back then, because it didn’t exist, now that it does, baseball still checks for the sandpaper, but to keep up with times also drug tests too. The testing industry has to do the same, with technology not developed for cheating (google glass) can be used TO cheat.

            The net effect is technology will help keep content more safe, and add
            reliability as to whomever is taking the test for a certification is actually
            the person that should be receiving the certification. My 2 cents!