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Certifications, Education, or Experience: What Matters Most?

How often have you personally thought or heard someone ask this question:

"What will make me more marketable and bring the greatest value in the marketplace? Is it a certification in my field, pursuing higher education, or does my experience outweigh everything else?"

Certifications, Education, or Experience: What Matters Most?

The simple answer is: it depends. I know, a total cop out for an answer, but think about how different the following scenarios are and how each might result in a different answer.

  • Scenario 1: A company is seeking a senior administrative assistant to support an executive
  • Scenario 2: A company is seeking a process improvement leader to transform their organization to be more efficient with their processes and organizational alignment
  • Scenario 3: A company is seeking an entry level manager to run a small team

One could argue that any of the three scenarios could be best served by a certification, education, or experience. So, let's take a look at the value each of these (in theory) can bring to an organization.

Certifications

Certifications are in some cases a dime a dozen these days. Just in the growing space around Agile, there are a growing number of certifying bodies as well as new 'levels' or 'certification paths' to take. It wasn't many years ago (this is where I paint with my broad brush) that the CSM (Certified Scrum Master) and CSPO (Certified Scrum Product Owner) offered by the Scrum Alliance or PMP (Project Management Professional) offered by the Project Management Institute, were the most desired and regarded to have for many professionals. Now, the Scrum Alliance has multiple levels of each of these certifications, along with Scrum.org, Scaling frameworks like SAFe, LeSS, DaD, Scrum @ Scale, and a wide number of coaching organizations that offer certifications as well. What the market deems valuable these days will vary greatly, and sadly many have acquired a number of certifications, but lack real world experience. To this I might ask, what value does a certification hold if the person holding it lacks the experience needed to be able to effectively apply/leverage these concepts in the workplace?

Pros

  • Getting the right one(s) can make you very marketable and more easily picked up by keyword searches by recruiters
  • Can demonstrate a level of understanding/knowledge in a knowledge area
  • Can provide immediate benefit once earned

Cons

  • Can be very costly for certain certifications
  • Market is saturated with them and may be hard to distinguish one from a competing certifying body
  • Most require annual PDUs for upkeep

Education

A college degree has long been seen as a way to separate yourself from the crowd and make yourself more desirable to employers. Statistics indicate that over 45% of Americans over age 25 have at least a two-year college degree and 35% have a bachelor's degree. With so many people now having a degree, one might wonder if it really provides the same separation it was once thought to provide? Also, does this mean that a master's degree is the new bachelor's degree? Current data shows that about 13% of those 25 and older have a master's degree. Does having a degree ensure you've learned something valuable to apply to your profession or are 'smarter' than someone without a degree? After all, some people I've met have the mentality that "Cs get degrees". So to them, with enough time and money, they can make it through class after class making a passing grade to ultimately earn a degree. Others take this educational journey very seriously. In fact, I often say...

"The value of an education is not about getting a degree; but learning HOW to learn."

Pros

  • Can provide job opportunities that others without a degree would not be 'qualified' for by HR standards in some organizations
  • Can demonstrate a level of dedication and knowledge in an area/field
  • Can provide opportunities to earn a higher salary

Cons

  • Degrees can be earned with enough time and money, which do not always result in learning or knowledge gain
  • Can be very costly
  • Can take years to earn, even going full-time to school

Experience

Historically, this was the most valuable thing a person could possess; and depending on the organization or industry, still may be. However, there are plenty of examples that we can all think of where people have worked at an organization for 10, 20, 30, or even more years and were no more valuable than people who just started a few weeks ago. So, there are many examples that tenure does not directly result in value-add to a company. Certain jobs or industries can however, greatly benefit from experienced professionals who can bring efficiencies and help avoid risks and issues as a direct result of having them as part of the team. With time, you can learn new tools, tactics, efficiencies, and ways to solve problems that often cannot be learned any other way; certainly not in a certification class or in a college textbook.

Pros

  • Deep knowledge and understanding often comes with experience
  • Often able to adapt and get up to speed quickly when they join the team
  • Can often share knowledge with others helping the team overall to grow and benefit

Cons

  • There's no shortcut here; this takes time to earn
  • Years of experience does not always mean greater knowledge or even a better employee
  • In some cases, experiences limit people to repeatable solutions and don't allow them to think outside of the box or as creatively as a less experienced professional might

So what does it all mean?

Each of these can bring value, but very seldom do any of them stand on their own. Simply walking into an employer with a certification or degree in hand doesn't guarantee you a job; neither does having no degree and 30 years of experience, where the company might require a certain level of education. Ideally, the perfect candidate likely has the right combination of these three, along with what I might argue to be the most important skill anyone has in the integrated world we live and work in, soft skills. Reading a room, being able to work with a variety of different personalities, and being an excellent communicator just might be the foundation for all of these others to be built upon.

What has your personal experience taught you?

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