Certification and Advanced Degrees: Are They Worth It?

The value of certification and/or advanced degrees, such as an MBA, often comes into question in the wake of economic downturns. There are two camps on the issue. On the one side you have those who spent time and money earning these achievements and now may be questioning the value in light of job loss or, at least, job insecurity. The other camp consists of those who don’t have the advanced education and wonder if obtaining it would help their job search efforts or career aspirations.

Unfortunately, there is no clear, black and white answer. There are many complex factors. The need for such credentials depends on the job, the company, the interviewer or person screening the resumes, etc. In the end, it probably comes down to this: having certifications and advanced degrees certainly will not hurt your chances of finding a job or advancing in your profession. However, those who believe that certification or an advanced degree is the key to finding employment in a competitive job market will be sorely disappointed.

This is indeed a competitive job market and many job seekers are desperate for anything that will give them an edge. The economy has only recently begun to show signs of recovery. Employers are beginning to ramp up hiring, but the process is slow. At the end of the first quarter, there were still more than 12.3 million unemployed Americans and another 6.6 million who had given up on their job search but still wanted a job. The median duration of unemployment stood at nearly 16 weeks, with more than 4.7 million Americans out of work for 27 weeks or longer.

Make no mistake; the economy and the job market are definitely on the mend. January marked the 35th consecutive month of private-sector job gains. Private-sector payrolls added an average of 187,000 new jobs each month in 2012 and started 2013 with 166,000 new jobs in January. Last September, the unemployment rate fell to 7.8 percent, marking the first time in 44 months that that unemployment was below 8.0 percent.

Meanwhile, job security is also improving. Planned workforce reductions, which our firm tracks on a monthly basis, are at their lowest level since the late 1990s. The 523,362 job cuts we tracked in 2012 represents the lowest annual total since 1997.

Despite the positive trends, the job search has not become any easier. In fact, it has become even more competitive. In this environment, possessing professional certification or an advanced degree can certainly give one an advantage. However, where these credentials will help the most is in the initial weeding-out phase of the hiring process. For example, a company planning to hire 10 information technology workers may receive hundreds of applicants. To narrow down the field, the employer may first select only those with master’s degrees, and then those with up-to-date certification.

The further along in the hiring process one gets, the less these credentials will impact one’s fate. At some point, the emphasis moves toward relevant skills and experience and then, once you are in the face-to-face interview phase of the process, it really comes down to the interpersonal interaction between the interviewer and interviewee.

Based on this, some may conclude that the advanced degree or certification is not important. However, there is plenty of evidence that having certification and/or an advanced degree is beneficial to earnings and job security.

Holding an advanced degree can definitely increase one’s earning potential. In 2012, median weekly earnings for workers with a Master’s degree were $1,300, compared to $1,066 for those with only a Bachelor’s degree, according to the latest available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those with a professional degree earned a median weekly wage of $1,735 in 2012.

Certification can also lead to a salary boost. The most recent annual salary survey conducted by Quality Progress, the monthly publication of the American Society for Quality, managers with certification earned an average of nearly $11,000 per year more on average than their counterparts without certification. Engineers with “manager of quality” certification, for example, saw an average salary boost of $15,617 over their counterparts who lacked certification.

Not only does having an advanced degree help increase earnings, but it can lead to improved job security. In 2009, when the employment situation was near rock bottom for most of the economy, those with bachelor’s degrees and above remained relatively employable. Census Bureau data reveals that unemployment for those with bachelor’s degrees reached 5.5 percent, considerably better than the 9.8 percent unemployment among those with some college but no degree or the 12.2 percent unemployment among those with only a high school degree and no college.

As low as the unemployment rate was for those with bachelor’s degrees, it was even lower for those with master’s degrees and professional degrees. In 2009, just 4.0 percent of those with a master’s degree were unemployed. For those with professional degrees, the unemployment rate was 2.2 percent.

Unfortunately, there are no comparable unemployment figures for certification. However, obtaining the latest certifications in a particular occupation or profession is never going to be detrimental to one’s career. Professional certifications, most of which require ongoing education to maintain, immediately communicate to a prospective employer that your possess certain skills and that you have made the requisite effort to keep those skills up to date.

Does having certification or an advanced degree guarantee you a job or even a job interview? Definitely not. But could the absence of certification or advanced degree eliminate you from the hiring process? Absolutely.

Obviously, in certain industries and certain occupations, an advanced degree and/or certification is a requirement, which is typically stated in job postings. In other areas, they may not be stated requirements, but they are definitely a factor when it comes to weeding down the number of candidates.

The decision about whether or not to pursue some type of advanced degree or certification is a complicated one with many factors to consider. What is the cost in terms of time and money? How does this measure up against potential earnings in your profession? How many others in your profession have certification or advanced degrees? How important are these credentials to prospective employers?

To find the answers to the questions, it becomes necessary to reach out to one’s network of professional contacts. Set up informational meetings with departmental hiring managers. Meet and talk to others in your field through networking groups and professional associations. Try to connect with people who recently completed certification or advanced degree programs, some of whom you can find by contacting local institutions that provide these opportunities. Finally, you have to look within yourself to determine the motivation for wanting to pursue these credentials.

Again, there is no easy answer to the question how important certification and/or advanced degrees are in today’s job market. Each individual has to examine his or her own personal situation and professional situation as well as all of the motivating factors that go into such a decision. If the prime motivating factor, however, is the idea that having these credentials is the key to job-search success, then it’s time to reevaluate, because that simply is not the case.