By Amy Jauman, PhD, GPHR, SMS, Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, and Joseph Seegers, Fanatics
When embarking on creating a new certification, or even revisiting a current program, one thing that shouldn’t be overlooked is an understanding of the market and applicants' needs. There are a number of ways to conduct this research — including several online techniques — but one option is going straight to the source, through interviews.
In researching this technique, we spoke with industry professionals and hiring managers to gain their insights on the value of certification. We also looked at understanding the value of a certification and the perception that having a certification gives others (the public, the certification holder, the organization). By exploring what professionals are discussing and what hiring managers are including in job requirements, organizations can better understand how to meet their needs with certifications in mind.
We will begin by sharing what we learned from speaking to people who work in industries that recognize certification. Some individuals have certifications and others do not, but all share their perceptions of what value certifications can provide.
Recent Graduates: A New View of the Job Market
We asked several interviewees with and without certifications about their perception of certifications. All were volunteers who work for different companies and have different backgrounds in their respective industries; only first names are shared for anonymity. We reached out to a diverse pool of candidates, though the majority of available respondents were male. We have considered this as a limitation, and in future instances would recommend casting an even wider net to ensure as much diversity as possible. However, through multiple interviews, we were still able to learn how gaining a certification is viewed. With an ever-changing job market, hiring organizations can use this information as part of their recruiting strategy.
Jake, a recent graduate pursuing a CPA certification, shared that his incentive to pursue certification was tied to professional advancement. "I want to further my career in the accounting world, and the best way for me to do that and show employers that I am doing that is by gaining my CPA. For accountants, having your CPA is one of the highest goals one can achieve."
Even though he is only a few years out of college, Jake believes being a licensed CPA will show employers his commitment to continuing education. "Since I do not have much experience, I feel that having my CPA will help boost my credibility of skills and knowledge. [It will] show companies that are looking to hire that I can learn whatever they teach me, and I will do well with it," he explains.
Many factors go into the decision to hire someone, but Jake is right. His perception is that a certification will help illustrate his job readiness and further his employment opportunities and career path.
Similarly, Nate is in the fourth year of his career, has his CPA and works as a senior audit associate for Baker Tilly in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His perception of certifications is very positive, whether for promotions, pay increase or an edge over the competition. "It has not only helped me progress in my career but also financially with receiving bonuses. Many companies only hire accountants with their CPA,” he says, explaining that the CPA provides additional opportunities for his career in the future, too. Nate did not need a certification for initial employment, but having the CPA shows progression and that he wants to learn more and move up the ranks.
Shelby is a tax consultant at True Partners Consulting in Chicago, and is in the third year of her career. She obtained her CPA right out of college because she believed it was easier to keep studying before losing good habits. In her current position, Shelby does not need her CPA but was told by her manager obtaining it would open more opportunities for her. When she was interviewing for jobs, one of the main questions hiring managers asked her was what her plans were regarding certifications and what the timeline would be. “I would recommend [working] to get a certification because of all of the opportunities having it can give you. Especially when it comes to moving up the ladder in a company that you already work for in management positions,” she explains.
Shelby’s perspective on certifications is different from Sean’s; he works at Ashley Furniture as a senior analyst in supply chain optimization and is self-taught. “Going out on your own and researching an ability, [then listing] that on your resume shows an employer that you [have] that skill but also took the step to figure it out on your own," he explains.
Sean thinks having a certification is valuable if it applies to what you are doing. We believe he brings up a good point. Someone right out of college should not gain a certification only because it will look good on their resume; they should do it to gain a skill or ability.
Brandon is an excellent example of why someone wanting to gain a skill for a certification. He did not want to get certified if he did not think he was achieving something. Brandon is the director of multimedia services at Auburn University and has his HubSpot social media management certification. This certification helped him fine-tune his skills. "It was something I could do on my own and, if nothing else, prove to myself that I know what I am talking about and have the skills to do it," he explains.
Brandon also talked about being a younger employee in his industry without a great deal of experience; having a certification gave him more credibility. "I feel there are times you are looked down on because you do not have much time or experience in the field, and the certification helps me feel like I know my stuff, and people I am working with know that [too],” he says. Just because someone is young or just starting in their field does not mean they are not skilled. Brandon believes that having a certification helps show skills and abilities to others and oneself.
Hiring Managers: What Matters Most in Hiring Decisions
We’ve gotten into the minds of certificants — but let’s take a look at the other side of the equation: hiring managers. What matters most in hiring decisions when individuals at an organization are considering different candidates? Does having a certification play a factor? Will experience weigh more heavily? After speaking to several hiring managers, we learned that engagement and motivation to learn new things are more important than acquiring the certification.
"When I am talking to a candidate, I walk them through the warehouse to see how alert they are and if they are engaged; this is usually a good indicator that they will be willing to support our team effort," says Brad, warehouse manager at WinCraft. When looking at resumes, experience is what Brad considers, so he is not as interested in education or certifications. "Certifications can be helpful, but within WinCraft we offer some certifications, like forklift for example," he explains. Having someone willing to learn and grow as a candidate is ideal for Brad.
Rose is the human resources director at WinCraft, and when it comes to hiring for manufacturing jobs, she made similar points to Brad’s: "Finding a candidate that is willing to learn is awesome. We do much in-house training, so when someone has a positive attitude and willingness to learn different skills, I consider them a great candidate."
When Rose reviews resumes, she looks for growth or progression in someone's career development. She sees certification as positive, but it comes down to how a candidate performs in the interview. "When we talk about certifications, I ask about the process and why they pursued a certification. I like to understand why obtaining a certification was important to them. I like the idea that they are continuing to grow and want professional recognition." However, if there is no career development progression, experience becomes less important. "Hiring does not come down to one thing. We look at the whole person — education, excitement, experience — so we have a good indicator of how that person will act and grow if we hire them.”
Adam, a marketing professional, said, "We look for people who have skills and experience with different marketing tools. We use HubSpot, Salesforce, GoToWebinar, Zoom and advertising on LinkedIn and Facebook,” he explains, noting that knowing and looking for individuals with those specific credentials is important.
Adam also likes to see candidates who have proof of learning different marketing aspects and can demonstrate what the employer needs them to do. He explains that someone who has seven years of experience but has shown no progression in their career might mean they have experience but not a great deal of expertise. In comparison, someone with three years of experience who keeps moving up in a company may have more expertise, despite less time working in the role. It is about what one does with what experience they do have. Showing skills and something to back it up is a great way to separate oneself from others.
Suzanne is a chief marketing officer who also looks for career progression when reviewing resumes. She believes it is a good indicator that someone is looking to grow their career and that they are lifelong learners. She also wants to know if they have any certifications. This would indicate knowledge and growth in a specific area. By doing this, she sees the person as a whole, which has become a common theme from all hiring managers we spoke with.
Another helpful tip Suzanne provided was "applicants should not rely on just their education and school experience. Instead they should use real-world applications like being in clubs in college instead of talking about what they did in class." Students have to be in a class, whereas participating in a club is voluntary, showing more about that person and what they are passionate about.
Hiring managers are looking at the person as a whole to decide whether or not to hire them. Having a certification is looked on positively if a candidate can explain why they found it important to acquire and how they feel it will further their career. Hiring managers like to see the progression in of a candidate's career and a willingness to keep learning and growing. Professionals should keep looking for how to further their career no matter what industry or position.
Neither our certified professionals or hiring managers indicated an awareness of any significant changes related to certifications as a result of the COVID-19 virus, and most reporting sites have enough of a lag that we haven’t seen the industry data yet. In some cases, it was noted that the process of interviewing changed considerably and became more cumbersome, and we suspect that alone has made hiring managers more selective in the early stages, even if the changes are not conscious.
Interviewing a hiring manager or a professional with a certification can be a challenge. We learned that finding the right people was just as crucial as crafting the right questions.
When conducting an interview, it is vital to maintain as much of a regular conversation as possible. This allows the person you are interviewing to give information that they believe is important. The drawback is that they may unintentionally get off track. Don’t be afraid to say, "I am going to ask another question to get us back on track."
In addition, sometimes we had follow up questions that went off script, depending on how the hiring manager responded. We also voice recorded our interview, so we didn’t have to worry about writing anything down and could focus on what was being said.
Questions for Hiring Managers
We recommend that you start the conversation with, “How often are you hiring at your company?” We found this question was a good icebreaker and helped set the tone for the interview.
We then asked the following series of questions, starting with what they are looking for in a candidate.
- What skills and abilities are you looking for in a candidate?
- Is there anything specific you see on a resume and immediately want to hire a candidate?
- What stands out to you on a resume?
These questions helped us get a sense of how conversations were going with candidates. We asked these only when they were relevant.
- Does education play a significant part in your hiring decision?
- How do you view certifications?
- If you were looking at degrees versus certifications, do you value one over the other?
- Do candidates who have certifications have an advantage?
- Does experience play a significant role?
We closed with these questions:
- Is there something that you wish candidates would or would not do in that initial engagement?
- Tell me about an instance you had a tough time choosing between two candidates. Whom did you hire, and why?
Questions for Certified Professionals
The next two questions were helpful to start the conversation and get the certified professional thinking about how having their certification has advanced their careers.
- What certification do you have?
- What role has your certification played in your job?
When talking through the next question, we learned if their certification helped in jobs, interviews or when hiring managers were looking at their resumes.
- Did having your certification open any doors that you would not have been able to without your certification?
This question is to help if you do not get everything you want out of the last question:
- Did employers take an interest in your certification when you were looking for jobs?
This is important because many hiring managers talked about how a candidate explained why they pursued achieving a certification.
- Would you recommend someone get a certification? What about someone right out of college?
- What is the best part of having your certification?
As you conduct interviews, if you’re interested in refining your interviewing skills, we recommend two approaches. First, make it a point to read articles, listen to podcasts, and watch videos published by reputable organizations that are based on interviews. Pay close attention to the questions asked and how the interviewer responds to the subject. Second, visit trusted research sites like colleges and universities or research centers and look for tips written by experts.
A Tale of Two Markets: The Approach Applied to Two Unique Job Markets
Each author reflected on their own industry after completing the described research steps. As expected, while their journeys were different, an organized approach to market research provides valuable insights.
When we pulled data around the marketing community, we learned that currently the majority of hiring managers in small organizations are interested in work samples and portfolios, whereas large organizations — presumably out of necessity — are more likely to require a specific credential.
Even in the larger organizations where we expected to see a certification requirement, we often did not. If it was listed, it was preferred rather than required. The lack of a certification requirement disappointed us, but we quickly realized it is an advantage for potential employees. While certified professionals may not be the only ones eligible for a position, if they do clear the initial resume review, their certification will allow them to stand out.
When it comes to certifications in the manufacturing industry, the hiring managers talked about how it is nice to see them, but it does not weigh heavily in the decision to hire someone. Mindy said a reason for this is that "many different manufacturing companies have different machines and processes to make something. Even if a candidate does have a certification on a certain machine, it does not mean it is like the machines that we have." The certification may be a good indicator that they will be willing to learn how to run a different machine and succeed. This goes along with what many of the manufacturing hiring managers said that they look at the whole person. If they are willing to learn, that is an enormous plus.
When it comes to experience, it can be a bonus but definitely not a requirement. Just because someone has held a position for a long time does not always mean that they are an expert or do well at their job. The same can be said for education and having a certification, as it does not always show how qualified a candidate will be. Joe Seegers, one of the authors, is also a hiring manager in the manufacturing industry, and he worries less about what is actually on someone's resume than how well they interview. A strong resume, experience, education and certifications are all positive things, but seeing how engaged someone is in an interview is an excellent indication of what kind of employee they will be.
The manufacturing and marketing industries have many similarities when hiring a candidate: looking at the whole person, seeing progression in their career and how they interview. Knowing what hiring managers are looking for in a candidate helps present oneself when looking for a job.
For credentialing professionals looking to gain insight into the value of their certifications, going straight to the source can be a beneficial option. With thoughtful questions prepared, this type of firsthand commentary can provide real-world insight. The process can ultimately help you better get into the minds of the people who will be leveraging the certification — which, at the end of the day, will only make your product stronger.
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