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.
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.