The Many Perils Of Accepting Certifications As Qualifications (Problems with accepting certifications instead of college degrees during hiring)

Only 5% of surveyed recruiters say that certifications can replace college degrees in all jobs. And only 48 % agree that they can replace college degrees in at least some jobs.

The latest disruption recruiting leaders now face is the growing emphasis on certifications over college degrees. A recent survey of recruiters by Gartner/Capterra revealed that over 40% of employers have recently dropped some of their degree requirements. However, dropping a college degree requirement doesn’t automatically mean that accepting professional and training certificates — which I will call “certifications” from this point forward — as a substitute will be a painless process.

You Might Be Exchanging One Qualification Assessment Problem For Another 

As a professor, I have openly advocated a reduced emphasis on requiring a degree in any field as a minimum job qualification. However, it’s a mistake to shift towards alternative methods of demonstrating qualifications—such as accepting certifications, alternative credentials, and even digital badges—before a leader is fully aware of the many complications that come with accepting certifications to fulfill job requirements.

The Top 5 Problems That Occur When You Accept Certifications

71% of surveyed recruiters acknowledge that it’s harder to evaluate the quality of certifications and alternative credentials than a college degree. Please note that in the following list of potential problems, the most impactful problems appear first.

  1. Individual certifications have not been correlated with hiring success – the reason that you accept any job qualification is its positive correlation with new-hire success. However, with so many certifications available, only the most popular of them could ever practically be correlated. And unfortunately, no hiring organization that I know of has actually found the time to thoroughly calculate these correlations. This lack of validation could end up being a serious legal, diversity, and new-hire performance problem. Especially if the accepted certifications actually turn out to contribute to hiring failures. 
  2. Don’t confuse acquiring knowledge with on-the-job experience – certifications are just a shortened form of education. And because most certifications, just like college degrees, provide participants primarily with knowledge. These courses or workshops don’t provide any hands-on work experience nor first the development of in-depth on-the-job skills. And this focus on providing knowledge becomes a serious problem in the many cases where practical hands-on experience and tested/proven job skills are what your new-hires actually need.
  3. The quality of any certification is extremely hard to assess – before a recruiting function decides to accept a certification/credential as a job qualification. The organization needs to determine the quality of the organization and the course that support this certificate. Unfortunately, separating the good and the bad among certifications is extremely difficult for a variety of reasons. They include:
    • The sponsoring organization may not maintain high standards – the organization offering the certificates might not be of quality or maintain ethical practices. In most states, literally any organization or individual can put together a certification program in many disciplines without any outside approvals. Since there is no central accreditation body to regulate certification organizations, it’s likely that many of these offering organizations in a field will adhere to lax standards. The reason being, the sponsoring organization may treat the certification process merely as an additional revenue stream. And although there are online ratings covering organizations that offer certificates, they may be biased. So plan on devoting a lot of time to determining which offering organizations are the best. 
    • The number of hours required may be a weak measure of quality – many hiring teams assess the quality of a certificate by the number of hours required to complete the course. However, be aware that certifications can vary between just an afternoon and an entire year. Some investigation by the recruiter may be required simply to determine the length of a candidate’s certificate course. And, of course, realize that the length of the course might not actually be an accurate measure of the amount of knowledge that was gained.
    • There are many fake certificates available online – those that assess individual certificates must realize that there are a variety of fake certificates available online to a job applicant. So, in addition to assessing the quality of a certificate, recruiters must also determine whether it is even real. 
    • A quality instructor will change outcomes – popular certificates offered by large organizations will have a rotating list of instructors. So the quality of the program and the knowledge gained will vary by the quality of the instructor. And, of course, as an outsider, determining the quality of the candidate’s instructor won’t be easy.
  1. Verification will slow your time to hire by one estimate, there are over a million alternative credentials that are awarded in the U.S. In most cases, you will have nothing more than the name of the certification on their resume. It will take some research by the recruiter just to get the contact information for each offering organization. And unfortunately, you will then likely find that many certification organizations are not equipped to quickly verify an applicant’s claim of certification. Verifying international certifications, which may be in a different language, will be even more difficult. And finally, in many cases, you will also find that many of the organizations that offered these certifications have since gone out of business. Because digital badges contain embedded information, they are an exception to this problem. And when taken together, the time that you will spend on verifying certification organizations and their certificates will likely extend your time to hire by as much as 10 days.
  2. Certifications reflect past knowledge, but you need to assess current knowledge – even the very best certificate programs focus on current knowledge. However, in a rapidly evolving world, the knowledge your candidate acquired is likely to go out of date. Although a few certifying organizations require certification holders to continually update their knowledge (i.e., SHRM), most do not. Therefore, assessing the current knowledge of the candidate will almost always be necessary. This process should commence with the understanding that all degrees, credentials, and certifications represent the knowledge the individual possessed at the time they received the certificate or credential. Depending on how much time has passed, that gained knowledge might today be outdated or even forgotten. Consequently, to guarantee that a candidate still has the required knowledge and capabilities, your candidate assessment process must also include a proven method for assessing the current knowledge, skills, and capabilities of each finalist candidate. Those assessment approaches for determining current knowledge might include giving them a real problem, targeted interview questions, and online assessments.

Some additional problems that you will likely encounter

  • An overreliance on certificates may not help diversity – many are shifting away from college degrees and toward certifications to improve the diversity among applicants. However, consider the possibility that diverse applicants may find it much more difficult to obtain these certifications because many certificate programs are quite expensive. So you may find that lower-income applicants may not be able to afford them. Additionally, employees working at government and not-for-profit jobs may find that their organization won’t pay for them. And finally, realize that global candidates may also face disadvantages because these courses are not offered in every geographic location and in every language. 
  • Rating the different certificates will require a hiring manager’s time – ideally, the hiring manager for each job should determine which certifications should count as valid hiring qualifications. However, because there are such a wide variety of certifications in every field. Recruiters will need to work with their hiring managers. In order to determine which specific certificates/credentials should be rated highly as a job qualification for their team. And unfortunately, this certificate rating process will likely take up a great deal of a hiring manager’s time.
  • Most certificate courses only cover a narrow range of knowledge – most certification courses and workshops are short-duration ones. As a result, they can only provide a limited amount of knowledge. So if you need in-depth technical knowledge, or soft skills and certifications in non-technical areas, you may have to keep relying on college degrees because there are so few certifications that cover these needs.
  • Comparing similar certificates between multiple candidates will be difficult – realize that several of your applicants will likely have certifications from different organizations that cover the same topic. Unless you know the content of the course/workshop. Certifications with similar titles will be extremely difficult to compare side-by-side.
  • Certifications from different credential categories will be hard to compare side-by-side – recruiters must realize that in addition to having to compare similar certifications in the same category. Some comparisons will have to be made between categories. There are several different categories of alternative credentials, also known as “alt-creds”, which include certificates, alternative credentials, digital badges, and micro-credentials. And if you have a large number of applicants for a job, you will likely find that you will also have to compare certifications (on the same topic) that come from different categories. For example, you may have to compare a certificate from one category (a certificate from an all-day workshop put on by a professional association) with a digital badge (covering the same topic) from another category (a badge that is awarded after taking a one-hour online skills test). 


On the positive side… certifications can provide several advantages

Switching to the positive aspects of utilizing certifications as job qualifications, recruiting leaders should realize that completing these certificates may be an indication of the applicant’s commitment to their field. As well as their commitment to self-directed, continuous learning. It may also show their ability to learn outside of the organization’s now extremely lean learning and development function. And finally, substituting certificates for college degrees may at least theoretically help your team to expand both its regular and diverse talent pools.

A Related Upcoming Problem… The Upcoming Shortage Of College Grads

Recruiting leaders that have no intention of changing their college degree requirements. Must also be aware that in the future, they may have less access to these grads. Because over the past few years, universities have been receiving significantly fewer applications. And lower applications will mean that in the future, there will be fewer college students to recruit from.

If you only do one thing – to prove that accepting credentials in lieu of college degrees will actually increase the number of diverse candidates. Recruiters for jobs that now accept credentials should determine if (and by how much) the percentage of diverse applicants and finalists actually increased in those jobs. 

Final Thoughts

Today, talent acquisition is an extremely fluid field where established best practices are being questioned, and many leaders are advocating new trends and approaches. And although I agree that there is still much work to be done in determining which forms of education actually predict a new-hire’s performance on the job. Unfortunately, I have found that a complete shift away from college degrees and towards certifications has, in most cases, a low ROI.

First, the process of verifying and determining the value of certifications is currently extremely time-consuming. But also because the primary reason behind this switch is based on the yet-to-be-proven premise that allowing the use of certifications (in lieu of a college degree) will actually increase the number of qualified regular and diverse applicants.

Author’s Note 

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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