How to evaluate certifications
Reliable certifications from from those who don’t profit from awarding them. Or even better, from those who profit by not awarding them.
Capitalism, Winston Churchill might have said but didn’t, is the worst system of economics … except for all the others.
Its virtues are celebrated whenever politicians speak and it has many, not least its ability to balance supply and demand, including demand nobody knew existed until someone invented a gadget to satisfy it.
On the other side of the ledger is its susceptibility to feedback loops, both positive, leading to bubbles, and negative, leading to economic depressions.
I just thought I’d share that cheery thought. Bubbles and depressions have nothing to do with this week’s topic.
What does have a lot to do with this week’s topic … certifications and what to do about them … is the corrupting influence capitalism has on so much of what it touches, the desire for wealth being the root and all that.
Take any truly meaningful certification and you can bet those responsible for maintaining its integrity are either insulated from the economic impact of the certification or benefit from keeping the certification restrictive.
Start with something simple — grades. Once upon a time I taught an IT-related topic in a local university’s graduate program. I awarded A’s to those students who excelled, B’s to those who did well, C’s to those who achieved a basic level of understanding, and D’s to everyone worse.
The Dean asked me to change my grading. Why? Most of the program’s students were eligible for tuition reimbursement from their employers, but only if they maintained a B average. The school’s revenue depended on lax standards.
Now, a related development threatens to make earning a college diploma a deeply meaningless achievement. Increasingly, graduation rates are considered an important measure of a school’s worthiness.
KJR hasn’t delved into the seriously dull subject of metrics for some time, so as a reminder, there are four metrics fallacies: Measuring the right things wrong; measuring the wrong things, right or wrong; failing to measure something important; and extending measures to those with a personal stake in them.
This one’s easy. Once colleges and universities are assessed based on graduation rates, they’ll have three obvious courses of action: Make admissions more selective; educate students better; or A’s for everyone!
Which looks easiest and most certain to you? Yup, and easy-and-certain is a good predictor of future behavior.
The target graduation rate for colleges and universities seems to be around 90%. For contrast, the U.S. Air Force Academy only passes 75% or so, which makes sense once you figure whoever passes might be the one you rely on to shoot down the enemy plane shooting at you.
Then there’s the Bar examination. Rates vary widely by state, from 41% in Louisiana and California to New Mexico’s 85%. The lawyers who make up state Bar Associations benefit from restriction, as everyone who passes increases competition in an already overpopulated field, and everyone who passes without being fully qualified further discredits a field with a poor reputation.
Compare that to the MCSE. Oh, wait, you can’t, because that little statistic doesn’t seem to be available. My guess: Those who teach Microsoft technology benefit from high pass rates. Microsoft benefits by having a large population of IT professionals certified in its technology.
But both rely on a perception that receiving the certification is a difficult achievement (for all I know it is — I’ve never tried to earn one.) Publishing pass rates would let everyone know where test administrators draw the line.
Not to pick on Microsoft or the MCSE — it’s mentioned here because it’s well-known, not because it’s better or worse than any other vendor-managed certification.
Quite a few respondents challenged last week’s contention that certifying bodies should ban the use of certifications as a qualification for job applicants. And I have to admit, that’s probably too extreme: There are plenty of fields where the certifications are downright reassuring, from medicine to the law to construction to beautician (okay, I admit, I don’t actually get that one).
So I’ll back off a bit. Instead, before you use a certification to screen applicants for a position, look carefully at the incentives associated with its administration. A shortcut: Whatever else, certifications administered by independent non-profit associations are more likely to be focused on protecting the integrity of a profession than those administered by for-profit vendors.
And if your plan is to receive a certification, including a college diploma, some related advice: Given a choice between studying for the exam and for gaining actual knowledge and ability, go for the knowledge and ability.
Both will help you get certified. But only one will help you in the job once you get in the door.