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Navigating the world of professional certification and training options, alongside other dispatches from the new global workplace.

A Fundamental Unanswered Question about the SHRM Certification

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Lately I've been chased around from website to website with ads for the Society for Human Resource Management's new-ish certification program, the "SHRM-CP" and "SHRM-SCP" designations.  (Clever how they titled it so that every certification-earner's business card or email signature block will provide free advertising for the membership association, no?)  This aggressive marketing reminded me that (1) I started a blog about the certification industry some years ago, (2) that it's been almost two years since I updated that blog, and (3) that I started the blog mainly to point out that there is a big business of certification, no matter how diligent most certifying bodies are about filing their paperwork for nonprofit tax exemption with the US Internal Revenue Service (or whatever equivalent tax body in their country of incorporation), and that professionals considering whether to earn certification need to be aware that sometimes the interests of the certifying association may not always be perfectly aligned with those of individual certification earners.

Anyway, now that a year and a half have passed there are some reports of what the SHRM testing process was like floating around the Internet and we've gotten some idea of how SHRM's abandoned step-child, the Human Resources Certification Institute, is responding to the competitive threat posed by SHRM's entry into the certification business.  I will try to put together a series of blog posts that speculate on what happened, what this means for those working in HR, and how things may play out for the profession at large.  But for me, the biggest unanswered question - and one with implications that reach far beyond the certification business - is this: why didn't SHRM's most engaged and involved members, including state chapter leaders, not know that the national association was planning to sever ties with HRCI?  The fact that a national membership association as large as SHRM could make such a decision without consulting its most engaged activists, much less its "rank and file" members, is a stunning departure from the model of grassroots, member-led advocacy that characterized national trade associations throughout the 20th century and most certainly a departure from the generally accepted best practices for the management of national membership associations.  I wonder how many other associations have governance structures that would permit such a fundamental change in defining the organization's responsibilities as SHRM did.  I suspect that SHRM is simply the most visible case study in a trend away from internal democracy that is affecting the entire community of national membership associations.

National Retail Federation's National Professional Certification in Customer Service

Thursday, 5 December 2013

So I'm back from my Thanksgiving "vacation" and what better way to celebrate the "Black Friday" weekend than with a post about retail sales certification!  The US National Retail Federation is one of the "heavy hitters" among US trade associations, excelling in both legislative advocacy and credentialing.  It strikes me as something of a top-down organization whose agenda is set by some of its larger members, yet its credentialing programs are a new way of offering value to the smaller members whose dues payments subsidize the researchers and lobbyists needed to create press releases for Black Friday or argue against minimum wage increases.  Is this program a welcome step toward improving the NRF's value proposition for individuals and small businesses, or a case of "professionalization from above" that imposes unnecessary expectations on the little guys?  I'd be curious to see my readers' comments on this one.

Now, for some details on the certification itself.  This one is accessible to just about anyone committed to the retail field, with no solid work experience requirements. The knowledge and skills tested on the exam itself are a little unclear from the program's website, which mentions broad topics like "assessing customer needs."  Umm, how about "the customer is always right"?  It can be prepared for with workbooks purchasable directly from the NRF Foundation's website.  Recertification is required every third year for a modest fee of $25 (interestingly, this is paid directly to the testing company and not the NRF, though no re-test is actually required) for individuals who remain employed or enrolled in educational programs related to retailing.  As far as I can tell, there are no in-person or online courses designed explicitly to help candidates prepare for this one - it looks like something you have to sit down and study for with the help of the materials purchasable online.  Though the NRF is a US-based organization, there are international test sites available via their test administration partner, Castle Worldwide, which itself seems to be a new player in the "certification ecosystem."

I will try to find some more details about this one.  Just how many people out there hold the National Professional Certification in Customer Service (or any other NRF Foundation certification), and do employers value it?  Please feel free to add your perspectives in the comments section below!

Update: I have found a few websites with some more details about what the NRF Professional Certifications entail.  One, from textbook publishing company Glencoe (whose relationship to NRF is unclear), offers some sample questions that imply that the exam is more about reading comprehension than mastery of subject knowledge.  There's also a case study on Castle Worldwide's website that offers some insight on the origins of the NRF's credentialing program.

Video Game Design: Many Certificates, No Certification!

Monday, 25 November 2013

Let's face it.  A lot of us have wasted, er, invested, more hours than we can ever hope to count on video games.  They have become a large and mainstream form of entertainment throughout the world, and the workforce needed to produce the latest and greatest continues to grow.  Given the plethora of certifications available in other IT related fields, we would expect abundant credentialing options for video game designers, right?

Well, sort of...

A Google search for "video game design certificate" reveals many options.  However, they are all certificates issued by educational institutions, not occupational or trade associations.  What's wrong with this?  Nothing, except that you have to do your homework very carefully.  These certificates' curricula are set by the educational institutions, not trade associations, though some educational institutions undoubtedly do their homework on what is in demand at any particular moment.  And, it's easy to be lured in to a specific program by the attractiveness of their marketing materials.  But, buyer beware - the most attractive marketing is generally produced by for-profit institutions taking advantage of naive newbies  with big dreams and financial aid eligibility.  Some of these institutions spend 30% or more of their budgets on marketing.  Think about it: if you're going to pay for your own degree, wouldn't you want to go someplace 30% cheaper that does not advertise over someplace where you pay for the advertising that lured you in with your tuition?

Should you go to a certificate from a for-profit institution like Full Sail or Devry?  Only you can make that judgment for yourself.  One source of information that may be useful as you evaluate your options is the US Department of Education's Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which offers demographic and enrollment data on all financial-aid receiving institutions in the US (so degree-granting institutions, including credit-hour based certificate programs offered by such institutions, but generally not professional associations at this time).  How does the 5-year loan default rate compare to other institutions?  If 20% of their graduates are not even able to make ends meet enough to make the minimum payments on their loans, that could be a bad sign of the credential's labor market value.  Of course, institutions with less rigorous admission requirements are naturally going to attract students who may not be  as motivated or prepared for post-degree professional success - you can't always blame the institution - but such indicators should prompt close evaluation.

Game design, however, is certainly an alluring career choice.  By all indications, it appears that starting salaries are quite high for those with the right technical (including graphic design) skills, and it's one of few fields within the media industry that seems to offer career stability.  Yet, it's a field that also requires a lot of hard work.  Designing and playing video games are two very different activities, something that I fear may be lost on some individuals who are drawn in by the marketing for for-profit college game design certificates and degrees.  In order to give credit where credit is due and not reinvent the wheel with this blog post, a great website with well-researched information on this career path that I would recommend is Video Game Design Schools.  I would be a little cautious about following the "find a school" sponsored link on this website, but there are also links to nonprofit resources like MIT's open courseware and free general programming training.

So, back to the original question at hand.  So many certificates - so why no certification in game design from a professional or trade association?  A scholarly piece on the history of the International Game Developers Association gives us some clues.  This association considered offering certification at one point, but decided not to go down that route.  It seems that certification and the standardization that it would entail clashed a bit with the culture of the occupation - design is such an individual process, and how does one precisely define what is "good" and "bad" design?  You could certify coding ability, sure, but generalist certifications for software developers already exist for that.

Should you pursue a degree in computer science or a collection of IT certificates?

Sunday, 24 November 2013

I noticed that the posts on IT-related topics are already the most popular pages on this website and saw an awful lot of Google Auto-complete phrases popping up related to a dilemma that many seem to be having: "certification versus degree" or "computer science ma or certification," et cetra.  At one point in time, it seemed that a solid IT certificate - the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer designation, for example - was a fast track in and of itself to a respectable middle-class job, and perhaps even more success in the American labor market.  Now, it seems, certificates and certifications have lost their novelty.  Various career advising sources are suggesting that recruiters may now prefer degrees from educational institutions over certifications.  And, this makes some sense: perhaps point five on this list has proven true for some recruiters - emerging from a BA in computer science proves that you can show up for class for four years and accomplish something more tangible than simply demonstrating knowledge.  It shows initiative and perseverance - traits that are truly valued by employers - even if there are certainly socioeconomic factors that affect college success in most regions of the world.  And, the GPA and academic honors that may accompany a CS degree give a more precise idea of one's human capital than one can get from certification, which tend to be binary credentials - you either are a Network+ certificate holder or you are not.

One interesting point about CS that I found on a forum dedicated to technology certifications (, incidentally, is a great source for those considering their credentialing options for IT careers) is that certifications are better for demonstrating technical skill, but tend to fall short in terms of proving business sense.  Thus, one might want to pair IT certification with a business degree, enabling one to pursue a career with a foot in both camps.  And another factor to consider is that the learning acquired while preparing for certifications need not be mutually exclusive with one's degree work.  Indeed, one can strategically pick courses as part of a computer science major that will prepare one for certification exams - so take that course in hardware repair or information security with a handout listing the topics covered on the A+ or System Security Certified Professional examination close at hand, and use certification guidelines to guide your learning in your coursework.  Indeed, more and more universities are explicitly aligning their curricula with the expectations of certification organizations, so it's never been easier to "kill two birds with one stone" and work toward a degree and certifications simultaneously!

The American Gem Association Certified Sales Professional

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Jewelers, like car dealers, don't have the most, um, sterling reputation for integrity and ethics.  Markups can be quite high, and jewelers are notorious for using technical terms that the public only vaguely understands to try to squeeze a few extra bucks out of customers who might be too madly in love to make rational decisions - or, in my experience, if simply getting a watch one bought at Sam's Club [a major US discounter] repaired.  ("You should know, sir, that your watch is grey market!")  However, one organization is trying to raise the bar in this industry.  Their starter designation for most retail jewelers is the Registered Jeweler, though attaining this credential requires more than simple registration - you have to complete coursework and "classroom study" (so, I guess, you can't just skip ahead to the quiz section, as you often can do in online learning).  My guess is that the average consumer doesn't really know the difference between the different levels of the American Gem Association's certification options, so one simply looking to convince consumers of their credibility could probably stop there. However, for those committed to the profession there are also higher-level and specialist certifications available: the Certified Gemologist, the Certified Gemological Appraiser, and the Independent Certified Gemological Appraiser (for those who do not work in sales).

The Certified Sales Associate seems to be the least stringent credential on the AGS ladder, requiring only the completion of a course offered by AGS.   It does not seem to require the positive affirmation of any ethical codes, so in and of itself it is not a guarantee that you are working with an "honest" dealer.  And, it is arguably more of a "certificate" than a "certification" insofar as it is awarded on the basis of the completion of a course of study, but is not really an endorsement on the part of the AGS of the certified individual's commitment to the trade or professional achievement.  Nonetheless, it is a laudable effort to improve the quality of services provided, and, for $269, seems like a reasonable investment for those committed to the business.

Buying a Used Car? Ask the Salesman if he is a Certified Automotive Sales Professional!

Friday, 22 November 2013

So here's an  interesting new certification I came across reading the Career OneStop listings for sales professionals, most of which are topical in nature.  The Certified Automotive Sales Professional designation seeks to create "knowledgeable, ethical and customer-focused trained individuals", according to the description furnished by the National Automotive Dealers Association.  It requires work experience and renewal on three-year cycles, though there's not a lot of information on their website.  Indeed, the lack of detail available online on what this designation is supposed to signal to consumers, or even a page on their website urging individuals to seek out certified professional services, makes me wonder how rigorous this is really intended to be (though the fact that it is listed by Career OneStop suggests some baseline level of credibility).  I have to say that this program could, if well managed, be exactly what the automotive sales field needs, given amply demonstrated ethical shortcomings in many dealers' and dealerships' practices.  But, the fact that the credential seems to be  crafted more by the interests of the dealership owners, not the rank-and-file sales professionals themselves, makes me a little pessimistic about whether this represents true professionalization.  Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see this one develop over time...

The Certified Solar Energy Professional: A Pathway to a "Green Job"?

Thursday, 21 November 2013

I recently came across an organization called "Roof Integrated Solar Energy" and noticed that they are issuing their own certification: the Certified Solar Energy Professional designation.  Indeed, it looks like certification is the organization's main raison d'etre (pardon my French), though they seem to have ties to the national association of roofing contractors in the United States.  It looks like the credential is being pitched at four distinct audiences: people who install solar roofing, manufacturers (who, it appears, are not so much being approached to certify their own in-factory workforces as being asked to require that the installers of their products be Certified Solar Energy Professionals), designers, and building owners - though, like many certification programs, it will probably be a difficult challenges to get homeowners to check for this particular certificate when hiring a contractor.  So, at the same time that they are reaching out to individuals and small business owners to get certified, they are also reaching out to people in positions to implement requirements to specify that this certification become a prerequisite for getting roof-mounted-solar installing work.  

Does it actually matter whether a professional has this certification?  It's hard to say, especially since (in part because this is a relatively new certification) there doesn't seem to be much written online about how rigorous the examination process is or how deep the body of knowledge covered on the exam is.  It also appears to be more pitched at the firm than the individual, so I wonder how many people earning this certification will do so out of love of solar installation, relative to the legions who probably fall into the "my boss made me do it because the manufacturer/architect/contractor/state grant-making agency told us they wanted this particular certification"

As I dug a little deeper into their website, I noticed that it seems that this one is really quite roof-oriented, despite the suggestion implied by the organization's name that they cover all types of solar energy.  Thus, I suspect that this certification may be part of the roofers' arsenal in the inter-occupational turf war emerging over which occupations will take the lead in offering solar energy related services and, more broadly, who organizations will turn to in order to become more sustainable.  Some of their competitors in this regard include:

  • The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners
  • The Association of Energy Engineers, and
  • ETA International
More to come at a later date on these and other certifications that may or may not be useful for landing one of those much-anticipated "green jobs"...

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