When it comes to determining the ideal candidate to hire for a job, what factor do you think matters the most?  Hands-on experience?  Formal education?  Attitude, enthusiasm, and soft skills?  The completion of recent study or certifications in one’s professional field?

Obviously, there isn’t going to be a universal “right answer” to this question, but over the years I’ve gotten a ton of questions from job seekers and career-changers about the last item listed above — asking whether I thought obtaining a professional certification or certificate would be a good investment in their career future.

Generally, I say the answer is yes.  Not only do I think such programs tend to teach the very hands-on, tactical skills that a lot of employers seem to prefer these days, but they also allow mid-career candidates (the typical audience for such programs) to build their confidence, increase their network, enhance their resume, and update their skill sets in a way that might help guard against (gulp!) the possible specter of age discrimination.

In fact, on more than one occasion I’ve even heard certificate programs jokingly referred to as “the new Master’s degrees” due to the specialized, focused nature of the training they offer.

At the end of the day, however, my vote isn’t the one that really counts.  The real question is whether today’s recruiters and hiring managers see much value in professional certifications and certificate program offerings.  To explore this issue further, I queried a group of my HR and Recruiter pals in town to see what they thought about the matter.  Here are some excerpts in terms of what they shared with me regarding the issue, first in terms of their perception of certifications, then (if you scroll down) on the value of shorter-term certificate programs.

FEEDBACK ON THE VALUE OF PROFESSIONAL CERTIFICATIONS:

“Hi Matt—happy to chime in from a recruiting perspective!  Like so many things,  it depends on the job being sought or the field one wants to pursue.  Certifications showcase an individual’s commitment to their profession,  for sure,  but I’ll take good relevant experience to the job description over someone with no experience but who has a certification.  All things being equal,  though,  a certification is a plus,  especially if they can talk about how the training in question is going to add value to the employer.  I just interviewed a candidate that sought out a specific compliance certification because no one else on her team had it—and it was relevant to her team’s ability to seek additional funding in the non-profit world.  She was smart,  proactive and could see the big picture.”

“Personally,  I have found the value of certifications varies heavily by industry. For example,  a paralegal certificate doesn’t hold much weight on its own.  A candidate with a paralegal certificate and no legal experience would have a very hard time getting hired by my clients. Most firms want paralegals with experience plus a bachelor’s degree. In lieu of a college degree, however, a certificate would be a plus versus someone with just a high school diploma. But again, experience would trump the certificate.”

“For me personally, I place value in hands-on work experience more than any certification and/or education requirement, as I believe it is your past behaviors and actions that will best indicate your future behaviors and actions.  I personally haven’t placed a high value on certifications or education in my hiring, as of lately.  Sometimes they serve as requirements of a particular job and it’s a plus or a minus if they have or don’t have something along those lines, but I don’t often find myself comparing or contrasting the source of the certifications from one applicant to the other.  Long story short,  experience still holds the most value for me, although I will often use certifications and/or education as a tie-breaker when all else is equal.”

“I’d say that 1) it depends on the certification and 2) it depends on the hiring manager.  At my firm, we do see and place a premium on higher-level certifications.  We place people primarily in Finance, Accounting, and Analytics so certifications that tend to create positives are things like the CPA, CFA, CIA, CISA, MBA, and PMP.  We also see folks with other designations that are mainly gained online or from add-on classes, such as MSFT Excel certs, various levels of Six Sigma belts, etc.  We tend to view these as valuable only if they are very relevant and specific to a given role.  We also note that hiring managers often tend to value what they have as well; i.e.  CPA’s tend to like to hire other CPA’s, MBA’s value MBA’s, and the like.”

“I think a certification demonstrates a commitment to the profession and a solid level of knowledge, so given two resumes that are otherwise similar, I’d lean more heavily towards the one with the certification.  I also view them as a proactive career development step, particularly for those emerging in a particular profession.  So gaining a certification is something I reward.”

“For me, certifications just show that you can study and pass a test, not that the certification has increased your skill level.  At my organization, we tend to say that certifications are desired and not required.  I know I have also done some checking to see if the person actually has the certification and have found some instances where they don’t.  At the end of the day, it comes down to the candidate and their ability to sell themselves in the interview process; certification isn’t used as the deciding factor.”

“Given that studies have shown that over half of employees lie on their resumes, certifications are one way to demonstrate that the employee has the specific skills required to perform the job.  They can be very useful in demonstrating a person’s experience in a specific area and generally tend to be more current/valid compared to a degree from several years ago, especially certifications in a technical area.  And the source of the certification really doesn’t matter, to me.  What’s more, if we’re talking about job descriptions in the fast-growing high-tech world, many companies today have removed the requirement that candidates have a college degree, which provides opportunities for candidates who have formal certifications to be considered for a greater variety of roles.”  

FEEDBACK ON THE VALUE OF CERTIFICATE PROGRAMS:

“We feel that the need for certificates depends on the age and experience of an individual.  If the person is under 35 and/or has limited experience in their certificate’s field, then the certificate is more important.  We also give more weight to degrees than we do to certificates.  As for the source of the certificate, we value certificates from UW and SU over others here in the state, and if two candidates are fairly equal in experience and qualifications, certificates will give one of them a leg up.”

“As far as certificate programs go, I place more value on them when they’re accompanied by other degrees, years of experience, and the like, especially when a certificate is furthering their knowledge base in the discipline where they’ve already been working.  That being said, my wife completed a certificate in User-Centered Design from UW and used this to take on new projects at her company and then parlay it into an entirely new job.  She found the rigor of the curriculum, the caliber of the professors, and the quality of other students to be excellent—comprising folks from Amazon, IMDB, Getty and other top companies.  Other than a select few positions, however, we haven’t been very successful placing candidates with certificates only—versus those who have formal degrees, plus a certificate.  Our clients tend to hold us to a very high bar due to the associated recruiting fee.”

“I’ll be curious about the points of view you receive on the certificate program question. In terms of my own opinion, on one hand, certificates demonstrate that the person is willing to dedicate time and effort to gaining knowledge. On the other hand, in theory I could obtain a certificate in rocket science, but probably would not be NASA’s first pick for a space launch. But maybe it could help if I were supporting operations away from the launch pad.  Again, it’s a great question…”

“In terms of HR certifications, in particular, I have found that candidates who have gone through the programs at UW, Bellevue College, and Central’s Federal Way campus to be more engaged and knowledgeable on the whole.  This is especially true with the UW program.  The majority of HR professionals don’t have degrees in HR (and many didn’t finish college).  Plus, many work in jobs where they are the only HR person and the role involves heavy administration/compliance.  The certification program is therefore a great way to learn the business of HR, more about the different specialties, and how it all connects.  For someone who is more seasoned in HR, I think certifications are a good way to take a fresh look at the profession if he/she is wanting to change the type of HR role they are in.  The candidates I’ve met who have gone through these programs are articulate in the interviews I send them on—and I’ve placed several such people in the last year.”