Professional certifications have had a significant global impact on education, workforce development and employment practices. However, with the value of educational degrees now being questioned, the same could occur in the future for certifications.
Employers are increasingly re-examining the academic degree requirement that has long been standard in their hiring practices. Is certification itself ripe for this same form of challenge?
- For example, the traditional listing of credentials, experience and multiple interviews have been replaced by new methodologies. Unilever recruits more than 30,000 people a year along with 1.8 million applications. With the use of AI and customized algorithms, highly efficient methods for screening and selecting applicants have been developed along with the use of robotic techniques in the onboarding processes.
- Glassdoor recently published a study of certifications referenced on job postings to help identify employer demand information. The listing was limited and focused on well-established programs.
- The State of Maryland last year indicated individuals applying for a state positions did not have to have a degree (except in selected areas). Degrees had often been a requirement in the past.
If so, how does the certification industry future-proof itself for handling these challenges and even turn them into opportunities for credentialing organizations to increase their value to the professions and occupations they serve?
The continued success of certifications as an instrument of choice for demonstrating work competence will hinge on whether employers sustain their interest in using them as part of employment decision-making processes and as tools to support workforce development and enterprise human capital strategies. Employer interest will have a direct impact on employee demand to seek certification as a valued credential in their career path.
Thousands of certifications have been introduced in almost every economic and occupational domain. Certification itself has long been a vehicle for protecting the public, but other motivators such as increasing professional association relevance, establishing relevant standards for a profession/practice and continuing occupational professionalization are also becoming important. With these shifts, is there a “parallel universe” to the certification universe now emerging? If yes, what will the challenges of the future be, what new models will emerge and how can we build upon our current strengths?
Critical Challenges for the Certification Industry
The two major stakeholders for certification, the individual and the employing organization, are currently experiencing disruptions and paradigm shifts — not occasionally, but consistently:
- The employer: Both public and private employers are experiencing an unprecedented rate of change impacting all operations, including the selection and development of talent. This rate of change is also challenging educational systems, career path planning and credentialing. Many career paths are no longer a clear, straight line.
Investors, technical leaders, governing executives, government innovators and business leaders are placing organizational resiliency as the top priority, as stated in major publications and as shown by their actions. Resilient organizations have the capacity to withstand and quickly bounce back from crises, such as natural disasters, cyberattacks, economic downturns and pandemics. They have proactive strategies in place to mitigate risks and are agile in responding to disruptions, such as supply chain failings, market shifts, new sources of competition and new technologies, making necessary changes to ensure business continuity and long-term success. Resiliency enables organizations to withstand challenges and take advantage of opportunities that arise in uncertain times.
McKinsey just published a series of papers focused on corporate resiliency — here is a paragraph: “On top of public-health and environmental pressures, organizations are subject to many business challenges, societal uncertainties, and geopolitical tensions. The disruptive currents include accelerating digitization, cyberthreats, and inflation and price volatility. The dynamic pace of change makes disruptions hard to predict, even as they grow in severity and frequency. Organizations in all industries thus need to plan for the unexpected and build up their response capabilities in advance, including the impact on talent requirements and talent development.”
- The individual: Employees are undergoing a dramatic shift in the nature and future of work. The work of the future across all professions and roles will experience dramatic changes — mostly driven by effective performance needs in highly resilient organizations. The nature of work and the corresponding competency requirements will be impacted by many factors, including the introduction of technology in all occupations, cross-discipline performance requirements, continual re-skilling and upskilling and continual formation of new and emerging or redefined professions.
Providing Exceptional Value in an Environment of Continuous Change
Two major unpredictable events occurred within the last 25 years that also drove massive change — 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses re-conceptualized supply chains and a remote workforce became the norm. The workforce selection process, work design and work practices changed. For most, COVID-19, accelerated changes already occurring in the world economy. In a review of the 9/11 national experience, the national security apparatus analyzed the failure to predict and mitigate this risk leading to a reframing of a more interoperable community with reconsidered job roles. Certification practices are being introduced as a part of this strategy.
Opportunities for Certification to Thrive
Certification has unique characteristics that will form the basis of its survival and growth: 1) contextualized competency-based assessments, and 2) the renewal requirement that exists with the voluntary certification model. To future-proof certification, the industry must consider:
- Developing strategies for embedding certifications in post-secondary and higher education programs across the landscape (higher education provides concepts and practices; certifications focus on job-related competencies). This concept is already moving across higher education. The independence of integrated solutions between learning and assessment must be protected, however models that leverage the value of both elements will need to be our future — either in certification preparation and/or in the continued career long learning and continuing assessment and measurement.
- Focusing on providing additional value to the individual. Align with other credentialing and certification programs to support flexible pathways via stackable credentialing models and credentialing-as-you-go strategies.
- Defining organizational and occupational skills standards as the framework for creating certifications. These standards should also serve education and training objectives, creating coherent staff development programs
- Focusing on the future. Continuously monitor trends in the profession and the role of professions in the enterprise. The simplest step being to dedicate resources for tracking change related to a certification program market. Rapid changes also occur outside of your target profession that impact it, so we must remember that change rarely occurs at the established thought center of a profession, but at the fringe.
- Examining lifetime value (LTV) concepts to assure continuous career proficiency. Granting certification isn’t the end — but the beginning for optimizing the value proposition of the certification program. Assure continuous career proficiency for the certificant and continue developing models for leveraging certification programs aimed at maintaining a qualified workforce. LTV concepts move a credentialing/certification organization from being transactional to experiential. This provides opportunities for developing support services that help enterprises leverage the value of engaging certified staff.
- Maximizing the value of certification renewal by offering related services through engaging with the full ecosystem of providers (e.g., micro-credentialing, training) in designing future-focused guides and information for certified individuals.
- Continuing to capture metrics that answer the following questions:
- Is an organization’s performance improved by embracing certification in staffing plans?
- Is the individual more effective in fulfilling their role in the organization and is their career path progressing?
Additional Reading: The Future of Credentialing
The Institute for Credentialing Excellence (I.C.E.) conducted the Future of Credentialing study to be a deliberate, evidence-based research initiative to assist credentialing organizations in environmental scanning and planning for change. The report provides a stream of research and resources to empower credentialing leaders to create a culture of foresight in their organizations, leading to a vibrant culture of foresight across the credentialing community.
Learn more and download the full report here.
Action to Future-Proof Certifications and Increase Value
The future of certification will need to be user-focused to assure ongoing value. This dynamic process will require an increased focus on how certification fits into an overall learning and workforce management ecosystem and how it can provide assurances for high-performance organizations in a state of continuous change. Certification quality measurements will need to be expanded to include not only accreditation standards, but user-focused value outcomes, new modalities and new types of assessment. Credentialing organizations must face the current challenge to remain relevant, but they also have a distinct and unique opportunity to increase their value for the professions, occupations and organizations they serve.
A Challenge to Educational Credentials in Recent History
In 2000, Dr. Clifford Adelman, senior research analyst at the U.S. Department of Energy, wrote a paper entitled, “A Parallel Postsecondary Universe: The Certification System in Information Technology,” in which he addressed the adoption of the certification model by the IT and telecommunications industry in the 1990s. Certification had existed in multiple forms, however during the last 30 years, millions of IT professionals were certified worldwide, posing a dramatic challenge to traditional post-secondary educational credentials.